Everybody talks about racism these days, but has anybody actually gone back and defined what the heck it is they’re talking about?
I mean, racism is a pretty serious charge these days. In certain contexts it can be a career-wrecking accusation.* And for anyone who writes seriously on subjects such as affirmative action or immigration policy, being accused of racism is almost a rite of passage.
The American Heritage Dictionary of the Human Language (online) defines racism as:
1. The belief that race accounts for differences in human character or ability and that a particular race is superior to others. 2. Discrimination or prejudice based on race.
racist —ADJECTIVE & NOUN
OK, that’s a pretty simple and straightforward definition. Of course from here you have to go back and define race – and that’s where things get iffy.** Both the English and the Irish refer to an Irish “race”, which doesn’t make sense genetically but does make dislike of the Irish by the English, and vice versa, into a kind of racism. Though it doesn’t work for me, Europeans often seem to view peoples of other language groups (Teutons, Slavs, Latins, etc) as different races or some sub-category of race. This would be kind of comical, it it weren’t for the fact that from time to time they murder each other in large numbers over differences most Americans can’t even see. And it’s pretty much the same in Asia and Africa.
What I’ve noticed though, is that when talking about racism, everybody seems to assume that they’re talking about the same thing, something pretty much like the dictionary definition.
But is it the same thing?
OK, we probably agree that a person who says their own “race” is superior in all ways to all others is a racist. (Eric Hoffer observed that the less a person is able to claim excellence for himself, the more likely he is to claim excellence for his nation or race.)
But what would you call someone who believes that a race not his own, is superior? I’ve read serious opinions by white Americans that Asians might be on average smarter than us. Is this “racism”? And is it racism if an Asian says it?
What about someone who believes that different racial groups have different abilities and disabilities – not superior/ inferior, just different? “Asians/whites/blacks… are better than (blank) at (blank).” Racist? Did Paul Robeson have such a magnificent deep voice because of his African ancestry? Do the Irish average better tenors? Is it racist to even ask?
What about someone who thinks that a certain race might have lesser intellectual gifts, on average, than another – but that that does not in any way justify oppressing them? Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln both might fall into that catergory. (At least at some point in their lives. What people tend to forget in assessing the attitudes of historical figures is, that people change their opinions over long, intellectually active lives.)
“You mean that whites are intellectually superior to blacks, and, therefore you have the right to enslave them? Take care again. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with an intellect superior to your own.” (Lincoln: 1854 in Lincoln, Selected Speeches and Writings: Vintage: 1992)
“Suppose it is true, that the negro is inferior to the white, in the gifts of nature; is it not the exact reverse of justice that the white should, for that reason, take from the negro, any part of the little which has been given him?” (op. cit.)
So was Lincoln a racist?
Now consider this, take Lincoln with his attitudes, and any of a number of contemporaries who sincerely and completely believed in the equality of black people and their complete integration into white society – but who were pacifists on the subject of ending slavery by war. Now who do you think Frederick Douglas would have preferred as an ally?
What would you call someone who believes that another race is a superior one – and that for this reason they should be wiped out as a danger to their own? Dr. Joseph Mengele, the “angel of death” of Auschwitz, evidently believed that Jews and Germans were the two most superior races on Earth, and thus must be mortal enemies. And the motivation for his inhuman “medical experiments”*** on Gypsies was that he wanted to know why they were biologically so fit that their women could bear many healthy children while living rough all their lives.
Mengele’s racism is a compliment of sorts – one I’d rather forego though.
Claims of racial superiority generally go with an obsession with “purity”. They probably get this from an analogy with purebred domestic animals. But… our domestic animals are highly bred for highly specific purposes (milk, meat, riding etc) that may render them unfit to live in the natural environment. As the saying goes, “It’s the purebreds that win the dog shows, but it’s the mutts that win the fights.”
Would you call someone a “racist” who believed in hybrid vigor, that “mongrelizing the races” was actually the best way to produce superior individuals?
So, when I hear that term tossed around so loosely, I’ve got to wonder if they really know exactly what the heck it is they’re talking about?
* Which makes me wonder if anybody in academica has ever considered suing someone for libel who publicly calls them a racist? Libel suits rest on two premises, that 1) it’s false, and 2) there was actual damage caused.
**Serious academic arguments about race tend to fall into three categories:
1) There ain’t no such thing.
Subcategory: There used to be a seperate race, the Neanderthals. But they bred back into the main human line.
2) Lumpers: There are three (or four or five) races, based on inherited characteristics that are mostly climatological adaptations.
3) Splitters: There are dozens of specific racial groups.
***Near the end of his miserable life hiding in South America it is reported that what made the son-of-a-bitch most indignant, were not the charges of mass murder against him, but the fact that his old university had revoked his medical degree.