Blackadder’s Lair

The home of many a cunning plan

Just the Facts

Our attempts to define racism in terms of equal dignity or in terms of colorblindness floundered because it turned out that the racist, by making certain factual assumptions, could comply formally with the principles while keeping his racist beliefs. An obvious solution to this difficulty would be to define a racist not as someone who violates a particular moral principle, but rather as someone who holds certain racist beliefs (e.g. whites are more intelligent than blacks). But this idea is itself problematic, for several reasons.

First, if racism consists simply in believing certain factual claims, then it is hard to see why racism would be intrinsically immoral, let alone why it would be viewed as being as wicked as it typically is. Simply believing something false isn’t ordinarily viewed as a grounds for moral condemnation, even where the beliefs in question are unreasonable. We might view the man or women who believes in the magical powers of crystals as a flake, but we wouldn’t view them as wicked the way we would a racist.

Second, it is not entirely clear on what basis one is supposed to distinguish those factual beliefs that are to count as racist from those that aren’t. Presumably we would want to say that truth is a defense here, so that a factual belief or statement about race cannot be racist if it is in fact true. So then, it cannot be racist simply to believe or state, for example, the average IQ test score for certain racial groups is lower than for others, or that certain racial groups have disproportionately high rates of incarceration, or poverty, or out of wedlock births. However unpleasant or scandalous such facts may be, they remain true, and thus cannot be considered racist. Any racism, therefore, must come not from belief in such disparities themselves, but from the belief that these disparities have a particular sort of cause. So, to take the IQ example, one might say that it is racist to attribute the difference in IQ test scores between blacks and whites to certain causes (e.g. genetics), but not to others (e.g. cultural biases in the test itself).

But this naturally raises the question: what is it that makes certain explanations racist, while other, even closely related explanations, are not? While the claim that a given explanation is racist implies the claim that that explanation is false, presumably more than simple falsity is necessary to make an explanation racist. If I believe that the lower IQ test scores for blacks is due to racist aliens using mental disruptor rays on blacks as they take the test, my explanation will be false, crazy even, but it won’t be racist simply on that account.

If we consider the parallel case of sexism again for a moment, it is clear that there are differences in terms of things like average height, weight, and upper body strength between men and women, and only a fool would suggest that there was anything sexist about believing that these differences are at least partially the result of genetics. Nor does there seem to be anything disreputable about believing that intelligences is at least partially the result of genetic factors generally. Yet if there were significant differences in IQ test scores between men and women, and someone suggested that this was due to genetic factors, you can be quite sure that many people would consider this sexist. Likewise, the view that differences between the IQ test scores of different racial groups is due at least partially to genetics would be and is widely considered racist.

There are two possible answers to this puzzle that I would like to consider. One has to do with history. The other with ulterior motives. Each, though, will have to wait until future installments to be fully elaborated.


June 8, 2008 - Posted by | Race

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