Blackadder’s Lair

The home of many a cunning plan

What is Racism?

Sections 1934 and 1935 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church read as follows:

1934 Created in the image of the one God and equally endowed with rational souls, all men have the same nature and the same origin. Redeemed by the sacrifice of Christ, all are called to participate in the same divine beatitude: all therefore enjoy an equal dignity.

1935 The equality of men rests essentially on their dignity as persons and the rights that flow from it: Every form of social or cultural discrimination in fundamental personal rights on the grounds of sex, race, color, social conditions, language, or religion must be curbed and eradicated as incompatible with God’s design.

One might well conclude from this that racism consists in the denial of this equal dignity, and/or the fundamental rights that flow from it. And certainly to deny such rights to members of a certain race based on their race and/or claim that the members of certain races lack this equal dignity would seem to be a paradigm case of racism. But if this is all racism consists of, then a great many things typically regarded as racist would turn out – at least potentially – not to be so.

The fact that all human beings have equal dignity is not inconsistent with there being certain groups of people who have lower levels of certain skills, talents, or positive qualities such as intelligence than others (as in the case of individuals with down syndrome), or who have higher rates of all sorts of negative traits or behaviors (as in the case of alcoholics, or for that matter people who have been to prison). Nor is it inconsistent with believing that these differences have a genetic origin (as in the case of down syndrome). If racism consists solely in a denial of equal dignity, then there need not be anything necessarily racist about making parallel claims about a particular racial group (I want to be clear that I’m not endorsing any such factual claims, only noting that they are not, of themselves, inconsistent with the idea that all human beings have equal dignity).

Likewise, the fact that all human beings have an equal dignity does not preclude treating different people in vastly different ways and to do otherwise is not so much as conceivable. It doesn’t preclude, for example, treating the innocent differently than the guilty or treating one’s children differently than other people’s children. So again, if all it is to be racist is to deny the equal dignity of all human beings on account of race, then there need not be anything necessarily racist about preferring the well being and happiness of members of one’s own racial group to the well being of members of different racial groups.

Nor can such implications be avoided by noting that the equal dignity of human beings entails an equality of fundamental rights, and that therefore it is racist to deny people their fundamental rights on the basis of race, even if this is not done explicitly on the grounds that certain races lack equal dignity. Whatever fundamental rights human beings have, if they flow from the equal dignity of all humanity then they must be such as can apply equally to the tiniest infant and the hardest criminal. Any such rights will have to leave a lot of wiggle room for people to be treated very differently depending on the circumstances, and any claim that membership in a particular racial group is never or almost never a relevant circumstance will be question begging, as there is nothing in the concept of equal dignity itself that entails this. If racism is to be more than an empty formalism, therefore, one must rely on some principle beyond notions of equal dignity to given the concept some real application.

There is an obvious candidate for such a principle: the principle of colorblindness. In my next post, I propose to examine that principle more closely, and to show why that principle is not up to the task.


June 3, 2008 - Posted by | Equality, Morality, Race

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