Getting Rid of "Racism"

03 October 2017

Most people agree that racism is morally wrong, and therefore that we should all make an effort to get rid of racism. I completely agree. But this essay isn’t about getting rid of racism; it’s about getting rid of “racism.” The quotation marks make all the difference. When philosophers put quotation marks around a word, it’s usually to show that they’re talking about the word rather than the thing that the word names. So, when I say that this essay is about getting rid of “racism,” I mean that it’s about getting rid of the word “racism” rather than getting rid of the thing racism.

Why on earth would anybody want to get rid of the word “racism”? It seems like a perfectly fine word. In fact, it seems like a morally valuable word. If racism is a morally bad thing, then having the language to address it—to track it, analyze it, condemn it, and call it out—must be a good thing, right?  Well, sure. Of course it is. Racism is bad, and it’s good to have the language to address bad things, but I can accept this and still believe that there’s a moral problem with using terms like “racism.”

To explain why I think this, I want to start with a general principle that works well enough in most cases. It’s the principle that if something is morally wrong, then it’s morally problematic to talk about that thing in ways that obscure its moral wrongness. This might happen in all sorts of ways, such as outright lying, speaking evasively, playing it down, indulging in euphemisms, and so on. These ways of speaking are not necessarily inaccurate. For example, it’s true that the nuclear obliteration of Hiroshima was an explosion, but in most contexts it would be morally questionable to describe the destruction of Hiroshima as just due to an explosion. If a child were to ask you about what it was that caused the destruction of Hiroshima, and you were to reply, “an explosion” you would be misleading the child. Your language would be factually accurate but (as I like to call it) morally opaque, because it blunts the fine edge of moral awareness and critique.

When the Nazis imprisoned people in Dachau, where they were abused and sometimes murdered, they described this is “protective custody.” This was obviously a label that was intended to mislead. But morally opaque language doesn’t have do be deliberately misleading. Morally opaque speech is wrong, whether performed intentionally or unintentionally.

To see this, let’s consider another example: the term “Jim Crow.” In my experience, very many Americans (in fact, I would guess most Americans) don’t really have a clear understanding what this expression refers to. They have a vague idea that it had something to do with racial segregation, Black people being forced to ride at the back of the bus, voter suppression, and so on, but they have not comprehension of the brutality that Black Americans were routinely subjected to during the Jim Crow era. So when a lot of people talk about Jim Crow, there is a sense in which they simply don’t know what they’re talking about. It’s not that they’ve intentionally distanced themselves from the hideous truth, and that their ignorance is motivated by bad intentions. Rather, the semantic impoverishment of “Jim Crow” should be understood ideologically. It’s a symptom of White America’s collective failure to confront the horrors of its history rather than something that’s best explained by the motives of individuals.  

This point has important implications for the practice of philosophy; especially, but not exclusively, the practice of public philosophy. If we use terms like “Jim Crow” when communicating with those who are not well informed about the racial history of the United States, we risk speaking about a morally significant subject in a way that obscures its true moral gravity, and we are thereby unwittingly engaged in a morally questionable act. And there are much better alternatives! Instead of using names like “Jim Crow,” how about using explicit descriptions, for instance by referring to that period during which White people routinely terrorized, abused, tortured, oppressed, and murdered Black people with impunity? That’s a lot more informative than “Jim Crow.” It cuts to the heart of the matter, and forces a person who might say that Jim Crow wasn’t so bad to confront the fact that they are implying that terrorism, abuse, torture, and murder aren’t so bad.

The problem with “racism” is a bit like the problem with “Jim Crow,” because in both cases the interlocutors may be operating with quite different assumptions about what it is that’s being talked about. However, the term “racism” is unclear for a different reason than “Jim Crow” is. “Jim Crow” is unclear because most people don’t understand what it means, but “racism” is unclear because it means too many different things to too many different people.

Those of us who do work in the philosophy of race know that there are many competing conceptions of what racism is. According to one of them, racism is animosity, repulsion, or contempt directed towards others based on their racial classification. This notion of racism is prevalent amongst the general public. But how about someone who is not hostile to others on the basis of their race, but who believes that the members of a given race are intellectually, morally, or physically inferior? That’s another conception of racism. To flesh it out, consider American slave owners’ attitude towards their slaves. They didn’t hate their slaves any more than they hated their livestock, but they certainly regarded them as inferior specimens of humanity (or even as subhumans). It would be strange to say that those people were not racists. Yet another way to cash out the notion of racism is to see it as a kind of systematic indifference to the wellbeing of racialized others. It’s not that one hates the members of a certain race, or necessarily that one thinks of them as racially inferior—it’s just that one doesn’t give a damn about them.

Other approaches to racism detach it from the realm of attitudes—of emotions and beliefs—and think of it as pertaining to actions. From this perspective, if you behave in ways that selectively disadvantages the members of a certain race, or acquiesce in such behavior, then you are a racist, no matter your motivations are.

And then there’s the important notion of structural racism—the idea that, in the words of Edouardo Bona-Silva, there can be “racism without racists.” On this view, entire social systems can be racist insofar as they are structured in ways that empower certain racial groups at the expense of others, and this can happen even if nobody in the privileged group has derogatory attitudes towards members of the disadvantaged group. For example, white people are disproportionately represented in elite business schools. When businesses hire, they tend to draw on the old boys’ networks—the pool of people who they know. So the predominantly white graduates of elite business schools tend to hire predominantly white people—but this need not have anything to do with individuals’ derogatory attitudes towards people of color.

The fact that “racism” can mean any of these things, as well as others, is important. When we philosophers say of some politician or other that he is a racist or has endorsed racist policies, and defenders of that politician object that he’s not a racist, it’s easy to think that that the defender is consciously or unconsciously motivated by racism. Now, this might be true, but I think that the reality is often more complex. It is often the case that the accuser and the person defending the accused are operating with starkly different conceptions of what racism is.

So, instead of accusing someone of racism, why not dispense with the label and try to spell out as accurately as possible what you have in mind? If you mean to say that the person has contempt for people of color, then for God’s sake be explicit and say what you mean! And if you think that the person in question endorses policies that systematically disadvantage people of color, then just say so instead of gesturing at some ill-defined notion of “racism.” Doing this may not resolve the dispute, but it will at least make clear what the dispute is really about.

Returning now to where I began, it should be clear that I endorse the view that racism is morally bad because all of the various things that “racism” is used to name are morally bad. And it should also be clear that I think it’s a good thing to have words for addressing racism. The reason that I’m uncomfortable with using “racism” is that it’s unclear what’s meant by it, and using it often obscures the moral significance of what is being talked about.

That’s why I want to get rid of “racism.” Having read this, I hope you do too.


Comments (1)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Wednesday, October 4, 2017 -- 11:55 AM

I think racism is an

I think racism is an acquired disease. There is, as yet, no obvious immunization. I expected better fifty years ago, but my expectations have not been fulfilled. The disease is not generally virulent in the very young and inexperienced. Therein lies a clue, hmmmm?