I’m not sure what racism is, but I am sure no one else does either. I know it’s a term of opprobrium, like ’sexism’ or ‘fascism’ or ‘colonialism’. But what exactly is the accuser accusing the accused of?

A racist can’t be just a realist about race, in the sense of thinking there’s a mind-independent fact of the matter about racial categories, because then no one, except maybe a five year old, could be a racist. But even if one did think this, that wouldn’t make her a racist. One might believe that “Male and Female created them He.” But that wouldn’t make her a sexist. One might believe – in fact I do believe – that there are cats and dogs, but that doesn’t mean I think one is superior to the other. (Actually I do think this, but I’m not saying which because my cat reads my posts.) So if one thought, however implausibly, that God created some of us this colour and others of us that, that wouldn’t make her a racist. (I say implausibly, because it’s clear from all the paintings that Adam and Eve were both lily white.)

Nor can a racist simply be someone who recognizes the categories into which we’ve done this categorizing, because then the anti-racist couldn’t recognize this recognizing. That is, how could you tell I only hire white people unless you too recognized the people I hire as white?

Nor can a racist be someone who prefers the company of these people over those, where the ‘these’ and ‘those’ are sorted by race. This is because racism is a term of moral disapproval, and one’s preferences vis a vis companionship aren’t open to moral assessment. Nor are beliefs, however ill-founded they might be, because even if one were morally culpable for thinking this or that, we have no way of accessing her thoughts. And no, speech does not reveal belief, especially not in the current climate of compelled political correctness and virtue signalling.

Speech acts are, of course, actions. And actions are open to moral assessment. But what’s being assessed is not some mental state the act reveals. It’s what it does. I say I hate all women. Why don’t you believe me? Because nothing I do seems consistent with that hatred. It’s what calling a black man a nigger does, or what calling a Jew a kike does, that invites our opprobrium. What does it do? It violates, if not John Stuart Mill’s Harm Principle, then certainly Joel Feinberg’s Offense Principle. And yes, names can hurt me as much as sticks and stones.

Fair enough. But does my calling you a nigger, or you calling me a kike, make either of us a racist? It’s certainly evidential. But is it criterial? Couldn’t either or both of us be speaking in voce? Comedians do it all the time. Or at least they have. It remains to be seen whether they’ll be permitted to do so in our brave new woke world. Or couldn’t we be ‘mentioning’ rather than ‘using’ these terms, as, come to think of it, I’ve just done?

Unfortunately, once we add intention to speech, we’re back to the problem of reading minds, the same problem that arises for any act for which the motivation is under-determined. There’s always a fact of the matter as to what you’re thinking. But that fact is inaccessible to me. In fact it might be inaccessible to you. So though ignoring beliefs might fail to capture what we think we mean by racism, we have no choice. We’re going to have to confine our opprobrium to racist behavior. And at that, not to what we think caused the behavior, but to what resulted from it. And even at that, not to what we think the actor hoped would result from it, but only to what in fact did.

Too quick. Suppose, having just got off the boat, I thought that by calling you a nigger I was complimenting you. Or you thought that by calling me a kike you’d insult me but I took it as a badge of honor. Would either speech act have counted as racist? I suspect not. It would seem, then, that we need both the actus reus (the effect) and the mens rea (the intention). But since we can’t read minds, we interpret the intention of the act as that which ‘the man on the Clapham omnibus’ would intend by that act. So if I mislearned the meaning of ‘nigger’, the speech act does count as racist, but I’m morally innocent if I’ve just stepped off the boat rather than the bus.

Moreover, I think this, or something very much like it, is what the anti-racist would want to say about a joke that misfires. Otherwise she’s just being a prig!

Alright then, a racist is someone who engages in race-based differential behavior. And race-based differential behavior is behavior which produces these and these particular consequences. But not just any consequences. The consequences have to be such that they place members of a racial grouping in a particular place in the social, economic, and political hierarchy of the wider community in which they’re embedded.

Well, we Jews occupy a particular social, economic, and political place in pretty much every wider community in which we’re embedded, namely at or near the top. And that placement is, in large measure, a consequence of race-based deferential behavior towards us. Is that behavior by definition racist?

Yes and no. Yes in the sense that it satisfies the definition I’ve been working at so far. But no in the sense that few Jews, at least post-1948, are hoisting placards reading “Jewish Lives Matter!”

So to capture the way the word is used in common parlance, we’re going to have to add that the grouping in question is being placed and held by the suspect behavior to a rung lower on the social, economic, and political ladder than those not of that group. In America – and to some extent in eastern Canada – that means blacks. In western Canada that means Metis and members of First Nations.

As has often been pointed out, being on a lower rung, whether as an individual or as a member of a group, does not constitute proof of being placed and held there. That is, inequality of outcome does not entail inequality of opportunity. The latter has to be seen, not inferred. But provided we’re not willfully blind to it, we have seen it. Provided we’re not willfully blind to it, we’ve seen it in our own behavior. I know I have.

I think we’re getting close. But one irksome question remains:

Ask us no questions and we’ll tell you no lies. So don’t ask from whence cometh our disapproval of racism? Putting and keeping people down is morally wrong because, well, they’re people, isn’t so much a lie as it is a non-answer. It’s the standard non-answer because there isn’t one that doesn’t beg the question. There isn’t a non-question-begging answer because it’s not wrong to put and keep someone down. And if it’s not wrong to put and keep someone down, it can’t be wrong to put and keep a group of people of down. What’s needed is the moral distinction between animal husbandry and human husbandry. And yet try as we have for over three thousand years, no such distinction can be drawn.

Of course not wrong doesn’t make it prudent. It was prudent for the conquistadores to enslave the Incas. And, at the time, for white plantation owners to import slave labor from Africa. But it’s proving increasingly imprudent for American whites to try to perpetuate that racial divide.

If so – and I think it is so – and if what’s moral just is reducible to what’s prudent, then yes, racism, at least in America, is immoral. But that’s a far cry from saying that racism is always immoral.

I know people the world over hold their breath waiting for me to pronounce on these matters. So no doubt this will come as great news to the Israelis.

Categories: Social and Political Philosophy

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5 replies

  1. It is always a joy to follow the path you lay out so logically. One question though:
    Do you really think a non-trivial percentage of American whites is — imprudently — trying to perpetuate the racial divide?


    • Hi Matthias. Would that it were otherwise, but yes, I DO think there are plenty of Americans who wallow in the racial status quo. Donald Trump knows that, and exploits it brilliantly. It remains to be seen whether enough Americans are being ‘woke’ by all the fuss over George Floyd that they’ll get out and out-vote Trump’s supporters. Most Canadians – and I assume most Europeans too – are crossing their fingers. I dunno. What do YOU think?


      • Hi Paul,
        since I am not living in the US I can only speculate about what their white residents are up to. Presumably we are talking mainly about the ones populating the Flyover States, referred to as ”the wrong kind of white people“ by Christian Lander from

        From anecdotal evidence I can tell you that the conservative leaning Americans I know (in Germany I hardly know anyone non-progressive) don’t strike me as racist. I generally think that the conservative mindset (not the far right) is cool with any color and creed — as long as the law is obeyed and, in case of the USA, the Constitution is admired.

        So it would come to me as a surprise to learn that beyond what is called ”structural racism“ (a somewhat vague term) there is rampant racism in the mind of lots of Americans. I would prefer to believe that, given the opportunity of a good education (which is probably the hard part), any black person in the US can have a satisfying career and a decent life. As for Trump and his voters: I’ve read two reports from democrats who went to a Trump rally and feared for their life but then were astonished that they haven’t been eaten alive by white savages. They report that the people don’t attend to wallow in racism but to have a big party, blacks included.

        Everything else concerning Trump is too complicated for this comment.

        One more thought I have on western racism: Just when everything was heading in the right direction (I mean in the last 50 years) it is now being reported as, once again, THE biggest problem society is facing, with American (or European) lower class whites as the haters. I think this is way too a lazy story, especially if you dare to check the data, and I also think that this is a story the media loves because unrest creates attention.


  2. You’re right that over the past fifty years, blacks have been entering the middle class in very encouraging numbers. But they remain disproportionately represented in the low-paid service sector. Without them the cost of fast-food would go through the roof, just as tomatoes would become prohibitive in Italy were it not for the Magreb pickers.. In short, class corresponds with race, usually for good economic reasons.


  3. Right. In Germany its the Polish harvest workers picking the asparagus. But they are not hired for racist reasons. Just like the Italian Maghreb tomato pickers they are simply cheaper. And in the United States its disproportionately underpaid blacks preparing the burgers, as you say. I‘d argue all this happens not for racist but for economic reasons. While these are unfortunate and unjust situations I don’t see white American or Italian racism on an individual level at work in your example.


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