Blackadder’s Lair

The home of many a cunning plan

Racism without Racists?

So far all of our attempts to pick out the specific intent or motivation that make an individual act racist have failed. But perhaps we have been looking in the wrong place. Perhaps, as the example of the restaurant owner might indicate, our thinking about racism should concentrate not so much on the intent of an action and as on its effect, and even there not so much on the individual instance but on wider social outcomes.

This shift in focus from intent to effects has certainly been present in the law over the past few decades, and it has also been present, I think, in a lot of discussion about race and racism generally. Among some segments of the population, for example, it is common to hear more emphasis placed on what is called “institutional” or “systemic” racism than on the actions of individual racists themselves.

If what makes an action or institution or policy racist is not the intent behind it but its effects, then the obvious question is: what kind of effects are necessary for an act or institution to be racist?

One might say that an action or institution or policy is effectively racist if it harms members of a particular racial group. But this will not do, as every human being is the member of a particular racial group, and thus any action that harms any person will count as racist under that definition. And if we construe harm broadly enough – as we must if we want the denial of a benefit (such a a promotion or a loan) to count as harm – then every action and institution will turn out to be unavoidably racist.

The obvious fix here is to say that it is not just any harmful effect, but a racially disparate effect, that is required to make an action, institution, or policy effectively racist. Under this view, a person may act, and an institution or policy may be designed with the purest of intentions, but if the members of a particular racial group are disproportionately harmed by that action, institution, or policy, then it must be judged racist. So, for example, there was a controversy in Florida over a rule stating that firefighters in a particular township had to be able to swim. On its face there was nothing racially distinctive about this rule, nor was there any evidence that it was created for a racist purpose. Nevertheless, a group of black potential firefighters got the rule recended, claiming that blacks were less likely to know how to swim than whites and that therefore the rule had a disparate impact on blacks.

Even as modified, however, this definition of racism is deeply problematic. Underlying the definition seems to be the view that if black people, say, are 12% of the population, then it is normative that they make up 12% of lawyers, bankers, plumbers, accountants, gas station attendants, grade school teachers, doctors, and flight attendants. Why this should be normative, however, is not all that clear. We do not object to disparities as a general matter; if it turns out, for example, that left handers are disproportionately likely to be president, or that baseball players are more likely to strike out at bat if their name begins with ‘K’, or that tall people tend to have higher incomes than short people, or even that attractive people do better on exams than non-attractive people, we do not consider this a matter of serious moral concern. And why not? One obvious answer is that it’s because we don’t think such disparities are the result of any nefarious intent.

Of course, another possible answer is that we care about certain disparities because we think they are the result not of current racism, but of historical injustices. On this view, if a particular disparity comes about as a result of some set of unjust acts (say, the mass kidnapping and enslavement of members of a particular racial group), then the continuance of that disparity represents a kind of continuing injustice even once the unjust actions and motivations that gave rise to the disparity have ceased. Like the principle of colorblindness, this idea has a ring of plausibility to it. Unfortunately, like the principle of colorblindness it is, I believe, subject to difficulties which, upon reflection, make it seem highly implausible. My explanation of why this is so, however, will have to wait until next time.


June 24, 2008 - Posted by | Race

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