"I'm Not a Racist, But...": The Moral Quandary of Race
reviewed by Walter Feinberg - 2003
Moral terms have a way of migrating from one domain to another. Consider, for example, the way in which the term holocaust has been appropriated by opponents of abortion as well as by extreme animal rights groups. A term coined to refer to the intentional, systematic and collective destruction of Jews by Nazis is now used to condemn an individual woman’s decision to end a pregnancy and a consumer’s decision to eat meat. The appropriation is poignant precisely because the Nazi slaughter of Jews is, with the exceptions of a few lunatics, universally condemned. If the appropriation is accepted then moral arguments about the worth of a fetus or an animal compared to that of a fully formed human being are short-circuited.
There are, however, legitimate advantages that can be gained from appropriating moral terms. Moral concepts may undergo reasonable change as a result of new understandings, and concepts invented as a result of one situation can be productively loosened from their original mooring to apply to others. Take for example, “genocide” a relatively recent term. It was originally thought of as an act of mass murder undertaken with the intent to destroy an entire group of people. As we have come to better understand the importance of culture itself, genocide is often used to indicate the willful, conscious and systematic destruction of a culture. And while such acts often entail planned and systematic mass murder, this is not the defining characteristic of genocide.
Moral concepts are first of all social inventions. However, to call them social inventions is not to diminish their importance. It is to allow for the growth of moral knowledge and hence their invention is, among other things, an educational act. It is a step in teaching us to see in new ways. “The Holocaust” singles out a certain kind of killing from all others, and provides it with a special condemnation. The history of this term, and the hesitancy with which it was developed suggests that the specialness of this form of killing did not always have a name. Once given a name, however, its extension to different events becomes a matter for political, legal and philosophical debate.
TheHolocaust, invented to describe one single historical event, anti abortion and animal rights advocates not withstanding, the term now is legitimately appropriated to signal other historical horrors such as the slave trade or more recent events in Cambodia and Rwanda. Some fear that appropriation reduces the moral significance of the original event. Yet to see the “holocaust” as referring to more than the Jewish holocaust is not to see that event as merely the Jewish holocaust, as if to acknowledge the collective suffering of others was to diminish the collective suffering of Jews. Rather, it provides a way of understanding new events in places like Cambodia, and Rwanda and to re-evaluate the moral cost of past events such as the slave trade.
Nevertheless if appropriation goes too far, as for example when “holocaust” is used as the conceptual vehicle to condemn abortion and meat eating, the authority of a moral concept and its power to shame is in danger of being reduced. When moral language migrates from one domain to another there are a number of dangers. The first is that an act will be inappropriately condemned. I think abortion is such a case. The second is that it will be rightly condemned, but for the wrong reasons. The idea of animal rights is an example of this. To extend the idea of rights—a concept that applies nicely to self-conscious beings—deflects attention away from the real problem—the decent treatment of animals. A third problem is that an act will be inappropriately allowed. The bombing of Dresden by the allies illustrates this danger. Or, fourth that it will be rightly allowed, but for the wrong reasons. I have argued elsewhere that the rationale of affirmative action as increasing diversity is such an example, and that this justification creates too wide a net. The second and the fourth case result in stunted moral understanding; both allow moral blind spots to develop and grow.
In his informative treatment of the concept of racism, Lawrence Blum is most concerned with the dangers of over-appropriation. He fears that the accusation “racist” is now used so casually and widely that it is in danger of loosing its power to shame. “Racism” as originally conceived is a term with powerful moral implications. To be a racist means to be unfair, to be arbitrary, to favor people of one’s own race regardless of their merits and to reject the merits of others simply because they belong to a different group. Blum makes a powerful case that the moral force of the term is threatened by those who are inclined to extend its application, either to any form of racial insensitivity or to any prejudice or injustice.
In this important book, Blum works valiantly to save the moral force of the term by limiting its use to certain kinds of injustices, while allowing that there are many morally problematic practices that still do not merit the label “racism.” These include racial insensitivity, racial conflict, racial injustice, racial ignorance, and racial discomfort (p. 8). Thus, for example, when Ross Perot, in a remark before an African American group, referred to his audience as “you people,” he was certainly guilty of racial insensitivity or racial ignorance, but it is not clear, as some believed, that he was guilty of racism.
In general, the idea of racism rests on a certain kind of classification that is rooted historically in a form of biological determinism where one’s skin color and anatomical features were classified and wrongly linked to hierarchical notions of virtue and intelligence. The fact that this link along with the notion of distinct races has now been debunked would suggest that the charge of racism is a problem because it seems to reify racial groups and to reinforce this linkage. Thus, in the very act of countering injustice, the charge of racism might be seen as reinforcing the flawed biological determinism on which it rests.
Blum argues that the concept of racism is still appropriate, even if race itself is rejected as referring to some kind of natural grouping of human beings. He distinguishes racism from racialism which is defined as the practice of placing too much importance on people’s racial identity, as historically constituted (p. 59), whether that importance is positive or negative. Racialism may be situation specific, as for example, if it is simply assumed that a non-Asian would not have the background of sympathy to teach in an Asian studies program (p.59). In contrast, there are two essential characteristics of racists that Blum identifies. They either hold a group to be inferior in some important human characteristic, or they hold a strong antipathy towards the group and its members. Blum suggests that either one of these attitudes qualifies a person as a racist. Thus, for example, one could allow that, say Asians are equal to whites on all important scales, but still be a racist, as long as one had a strong dislike for the group as a whole. Similarly, one could be a racist if say, one enjoyed the company of African Americans—say, one liked their music, etc.—but believed that black people were inherently inferior to whites in certain critical moral or intellectual ways.
A person can be a racist, according to Blum, without ever having contact with the target group. Racism can be private and subjective, and in extremely isolated cases, it may do nothing to contribute to the systematic disadvantaging of the target group. For example, my colleague, David Goodman has pointed out that many Japanese have developed unfavorable attitudes toward Jews as a result of Japanese literature. However, most have never met a Jew and few have any influence over the fate of individual Jews. Blum would call this kind of antipathy when directed at a racial group, personal racism. One ironic implication of this is that a person can be racist without doing harm. Yet if Blum is correct about this, then we must wonder whether the definition really fits Blum’s concern, that the concept of racism not be extended so far that it looses its capacity to shame. If we can be racists without doing harm, then why be ashamed? I will return to this point later.
Blum allows that this concept of racism is somewhat out of favor and has been replaced in many people’s minds with the more powerful concept of social and institutional racism. Social racism “comprises racist beliefs, attitudes, and stereotypes widely shared within a given population and expressed in cultural and social modes such as religion, popular entertainment, advertisements and other media. Institutional racism refers to racial inferiorizing or antipathy perpetrated by specific social institutions such as schools, corporations, hospitals, or the criminal justice system as a totality” (p.9).
The distinction between racism and mere prejudice, according to Blum, is often a matter of degrees, with the latter implying stronger antipathy, one that verges into hatred (p.13). This allows Blum to distinguish between a person who acts out of racist motives-- say severe hatred towards a group-- and a person who acts in a racist way on some occasions, but does not hold racist motives. The distinction could be useful in helping to clarify certain disputes.
For example, there is a controversy in my own university over the use of a fictitious Native American “mascot,” to represent the University at sporting events. To many on the faculty and a sizable number of students, the "Chief" is a racist symbol. To other students and many alumni, he symbolizes the fighting spirit of the University and perhaps, for some alumni, represents their golden college days. These people feel unfairly attacked when they hear others call the “Chief” a racist symbol, and many counter that they have no negative feelings towards Native Americans. If we take them on their word, then, according to Blum, it would be incorrect to think of them as racist although, depending on other factors, such as whether the "Chief" creates a hostile atmosphere for native Americans, they may be acting in a racist way. Even if they do not believe Native Americans to be inferior or have a genuine fondness for American Indians, those who support maintaining the “mascot,” while perhaps not racists, are still responsible for maintaining a hostile environment and, by extension, for discouraging Native Americans from applying to the University. If it is possible for racists to exist without harming anyone, then it also seems that non-racists can act in ways that reinforce racial discrimination.
These distinctions can be very helpful. Not every morally objectionable act is racist, and acts with racist effects, need not be propelled by racist motives. Moreover, holding a group to be inferior, or harboring an intense antipathy towards a group must be counted as racism. The question, however, is whether they are the only forms of racism that count. I think that Blum underestimates the structural features of racism, making subjective motives and attitudes, important as they are, count too heavily in the attribution of racism.
For Blum the standard of racism is whether or not one believes that one group is inferior to another in some intellectual or moral way. Yet this alone is not sufficient given his treatment. It requires one additional factor—namely that this judgment be wrong. The problem is that subjective beliefs can be supported by objective conditions, and the weight of evidence may seem to support existing racial or gender hierarchies. Take an instance of sexism to illustrate a parallel point.
Suppose a girl shied away from science courses because she subconsciously believes that women could not make a career in fields like medicine or engineering, a belief that has been reinforced in the past by an absence of female scientists. Suppose that her guidance counselor, after examining her record and consulting with her about her course preferences, and after diligently studying the admission practices of different schools, guides her into a humanities curriculum failing to mention medicine as a possibility. Is the teacher a sexist? Today I think we would clearly answer yes. However, a few years ago the answer might have been different, and Blum provides little in the way of accounting for this difference. According to Blum’s scheme if the teacher believed that women and men are equal and does not harbor any hostility towards women, then there is no sexism here.
Indeed not long ago, the teacher’s advice would have been based on sound evidence. Medical schools did discriminate against women. Some did so on the grounds that women were not suited for the profession—clearly a sexist judgment in Blum’s terms. Yet others did so on the grounds that the resources spent on a woman would have been risky, since they felt women were more likely to leave the profession or to practice part-time after they were married. This judgment might have been accurate given the culture at the time. Yet whatever the reason the guidance counselor—without any of the subjective attitudes that Blum thinks critical—is contributing to the reproduction of a sexist vocational hierarchy. After all, even if medical and engineering schools were willing to admit more women, the advice given by high school guidance counselors would have severely restricted the available supply.
The teacher is giving advice that is based on evidence and, we may presume, on a concern for the girl’s welfare. Yet, her well-meaning, possibly accurately researched advice is contributing to the inequity of the system, and to its sexist nature. Indeed, one can imagine that not only might a teacher provide this advice to female students, parents might have given the same advice.
This example illustrates three things. First, favorable subjective attitudes toward a group may still result in sexist or racist practices. Second, that these practices may well take into account existing evidence. Third, that racism (and sexism) may be the result of a subtle interaction between objective institutional practices and subjective attitudes. Parents wanting the best for their female child but seeing no evidence that the field of medicine is open to women, use their influence to direct her toward nursing. As this guidance occurs over and over again, it results in a dearth of female applicants to medical school, thereby constraining even the most progressive members of the admission committee to judge among an overwhelmingly male pool of applicants. The example suggests that the identification of racist and sexist practices requires moral imagination—or the ability to go beyond what the facts tell us and how they might suggest we act.
Blum allows that institutions may be unintentionally racist (p. 26) as, for example a school whose staff “have low expectations of the students [of color], essentially regarding them as racially inferior" (p. 25, brackets mine). For example, when Malcolm X’s teacher told him that “nigger’s can’t be lawyers,” he fit Blum’s idea of the racist teacher. Yet, his racist indelicacy not withstanding, his advice might still have been given, granted in a less determined and categorical way, by a fair minded and non racist teacher who, wanting the best for Malcolm, recognizing his obvious talent, felt that society would not allow his ambition to be met.
The problem is that Blum’s view of institutional racism, accurate as it is, still pushes the issue back to the attitudes of the individual teachers and administrators. It does not consider the broader context in which those attitudes are formed or allow that the similar results might be produced with a progressive staff operating under the same objective conditions as a reactionary one.
Blum might argue that the core of racism still resides in the attitudes of individuals, not in the institutional consequences of those attitudes, although the institutional context must be factored into evaluating the effects of such racism. While he resists those who argue that racism differs from mere prejudice because racism, unlike prejudice, entails power, he does allow that power contributes to the moral seriousness of racism. The distinction is important for him when it comes to the question of whether blacks in the United States can be racists, given their lack of power. Blum argues that they can be, although he allows that a person whose attitudes develop as a result of racial victimization would be less blame worthy than someone whose racism is developed from a position of power, and he rejects the view that all racism is equal. Thus power enters into the equation not in the judgment of whether an act is racist or not, but in evaluating the moral seriousness of the racism. Whites and blacks can both be racist, but white racists have more power than black racists and hence their racism is more serious. There is, in Blum’s words, a “moral asymmetry” when it comes to racism. Anyone may be a racist, but racism that draws upon a history of injustice and contributes to the continued subordination of a group is more serious than the racist attitudes to be found in members of subordinate groups because they continue to contribute to racial injustice. This distinction is useful for certain purposes, especially when charges or black racism are used as a red herring to deflect criticism of white racism.
However Blum wants to do more than simply shame or assign blame. He also wants to end “social, political, economic and civic inequality” (178). For this purpose the structural features of racism and the ways in which objective and subjective factors serve to reinforce one another need to be brought into play. While Blum does not engage this issue on the level that intervention would require, he provides an important step in enabling us to understand the distinctions that need to be made in order to avoid alienating possible allies, and to maintain the moral focus that the project demands.
In summary, Blum provides us with a much-needed discussion of the concept of race and racism showing how we can have racism while acknowledging the truth in the claim that "race" is a social construct. While the discussion is limited because of the relative absence of a structural analysis, I'm not a Racist, But. . . is a book that can help untangle many of the individual issues that racism raises and is a most important contribution to the growing field of applied educational and social philosophy.
While the term appears in Webster 's Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language, Chicago: Consolidated Book Publishers, 1969. It does not appear in the otherwise more comprehensive 1971 edition of The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971.
One argument for animal welfare, but not animal rights is that, assuming decent treatment while alive, many farm animals would not be born were it not for the practice of meat eating. I am indebted to Robert McKim for pointing this out to me.
See Jonathan Glover ‘s treatment of the bombing of Dresden. Glover shows how defensible arguments regarding the acceptability of civilian casualties in the case of militarily significant targets became the inappropriate rationale for carpet bombing and the mass killing of civilian populations even where there was no militarily significant target (Glover, J.  Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century , Oxford: Oxford University Press, 72-83).