When political opponents lob charges of racism at each other, we are expected to care. However, as the term is abused and the concept is diluted, legitimate reasons to care grow fewer.
Some people see racism in those who are not physically attracted to every race. Other people see racism in those who support policies that affect certain races disproportionately. Still others see racism built into their culture simply because the long-standing traditions, ways of thinking, and experiences of the historically dominant race(s) dominate their culture.
None of these applications of the term conform to its traditional definition: the belief that some races are superior* to others. That does not mean that the term cannot also encompass these other applications, but the official definition is less important than its usage. If we wish to maintain its negative connotations so that we can use it as a condemnation of others, then we ought to be certain that the behavior that it describes is actually worthy of condemnation.
The traditional definition describes a belief that is clearly false. Even statistical differences across races would not justify the conclusion that those differences have a racial origin, that the differences are bad, that the differences are insurmountable if they are bad, or that any race is superior to others. Therefore, we have a good reason to condemn this belief and any discriminatory behavior that it produces.
What about some of the other applications?
To condemn someone for not being attracted to people of a particular race is to say that (1) he could be attracted to them, (2) there are good reasons to be attracted to them, and (3) those reasons outweigh the reasons that he has to not make an effort to change.
The first claim is important because there is no sense in encouraging a course of action that one cannot take or discouraging a course of action that one cannot avoid. The question, then, is whether or not someone can change what attracts him. The answer is likely yes (perhaps depending on the person), but not through willpower alone. Change would require a great deal of time and effort.
The importance of the second claim is clear. In this case, there are few reasons to change. Expanding one’s physical preferences would expand one’s pool of potential mates, but there is generally little need for that in a world of 7 billion people.
The third claim is important because change sometimes comes at a cost. The value of a given change is therefore the benefit minus that cost. If the cost is too great, then the change is not worthwhile. In this case, since (1) there are few to no reasons to change and (2) change would be difficult, it seems that it is inappropriate to condemn people for not being physically attracted to other races. Those who do condemn this limited physical attraction might believe that it is the product of a belief in racial superiority, but that is not necessarily the case.
Policies with Disproportionate Racial Effects
Let’s apply the same standards as before: Can it be changed? Are there good reasons to change it? Do those reasons outweigh the reasons to not do it?
The answer to the first question is simple: policies can be changed. However, the second and third questions require that we be more specific. Let’s consider whether or not affirmative action is worthy of condemnation.
Critics say that it is unfair to other races and promotes the belief that certain races need help to succeed, which in turn creates subcultures of dependency. If true, these are good reasons to change the policy.
Proponents say that it is necessary to make amends for past racism, adjust for current racism, and counteract the circumstances in which these other races find themselves as a result of past racism. If true, these are good reasons to maintain the policy. Unfortunately, there is no clear answer to the third question because some people may value one set of reasons over the other and the beliefs may not be falsifiable. Fortunately, we can still conclude that neither opposition to nor support for affirmative action is necessarily worthy of condemnation. Two people with different beliefs can have the same good intentions and the same quality of evidence in favor of their beliefs.
The Majority’s Culture
Let’s consider the claim that it is wrong for our society to expect new members to assimilate. More specifically, let’s consider how we approach one instance of “religious freedom”: the freedom to practice female circumcision.
Can we change the law to allow female circumcision? Yes.
Are there good reasons to change the law? If we want to maximize religious freedom, we might change the law.
Does that reason outweigh the reasons to not change it? We don’t want to allow that kind of violence, accept it as part of our own culture, or allow other people to get away with whatever they like by calling their beliefs or desires “religious.” Clearly, we have much better reasons to expect people to conform to our own custom (among others) than we do to maximize religious freedom.
Had I instead considered the case of standardized testing that implicitly favors some groups over others by virtue of their experiences, I would have argued that we have compelling reasons to make a change in the names of cultural sensitivity and objectivity. The point is that there are cases where expectations of assimilation are unreasonable or otherwise inappropriate and cases where expectations of assimilation are completely reasonable. Those who would condemn our culture for favoring certain groups over others in its customs must therefore be able to show that the customs and/or expectations of assimilation do more harm than good–not just that they are biased. After all, bias is an inextricable aspect of customs and some cultures truly are better than others, according to their tendency to satisfy or thwart our desires.
It is bad to be a traditional racist: to believe, consciously or otherwise, that some races are better than others.
However, it is not necessarily bad to behave in a way or support policies that exclude other races or affect them disproportionately. We have many values or reasons for action, some of which are more important than others. It is good when the best policy and the fairest policy are the same, but “best” and “fairest” are not synonymous.
If “racism” is to be a meaningful term and a useful accusation to expose others’ motivations, then it ought to be reserved for cases where a belief in racial superiority is genuinely at work. In other words: attacks on character ought to focus on reasons for action. When it is used in any situation where someone perceives racial unfairness, its power as an accusation is reduced in cases of legitimate racism, the accuser comes across as divisive and foolish, and those who are convinced by it often close their minds to the supposed racist’s arguments. There is nothing wrong with pointing out unfairness and trying to correct it, but it should not necessarily be reduced to racism, the very rumor of which can cause division and thus impede progress.
*Superiority in some contexts is clear. For example: We might call one chess player superior to another if he wins more often. However, when we talk about races and people, superiority becomes a vague concept. What does it mean for a race or being to be superior to another? Is it stronger? More intelligent? Braver? More culturally stable? People who say that a race is superior to another might try to be more specific if questioned, but their belief is almost always based on a personal, unjustified prejudice that seeks out confirmation. Therefore, while “I really hate black people” might not be equivalent to “White people are superior to black people” in meaning, they are similar enough in their basis and level of reasoning for us to condemn both of them as racist. We do not desire that others have such an unreasonable character trait.