Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Thomas Sowell on Different Meanings of the Word "Racism"

This passage is from Race and Cultures: A World View by Thomas Sowell. Pages 154-155:

One of the most used and least defined words in the contemporary ideological vocabulary is “racism.” The most straightforward meaning of racism is a belief in the innate inferiority of some race or races. This is the sense which conjures up the image of Hitler and the Holocaust. But the word “racism” is often applied in other, very different, senses to wholly different situations. To some, every adverse judgment about any aspect of behavior or performance of any racial or ethnic group is “racism.” To others, it is only adverse judgments on the behavior or performance of a selected list of racial or ethnic groups which is “racism.” Thus, even sweeping denunciations of whites, “Anglos,” or perhaps Jews, may be exempted from the charge of racism.
More generally, those particular groups whose historic treatment is part of a general ideological indictment of Western civilization cannot be criticized in any way without risking the charge of “racism.” Conversely, verbal (or even physical) assaults originating within such groups are often exempted from condemnation as racism – sometimes by an explicit redefinition which requires power as an essential ingredient to racism, so that blacks for example cannot be called racists in American society. If this kind of reasoning were followed consistently, then Hitler could not have been considered a racist when he was an isolated street corner rabble-rouser, but only after he became chancellor of Germany. 
With varying degrees of explicitness, these tendentious ideological redefinitions of racism have become so intermingled with the straightforward meaning – a belief in innate racial inferiority or superiority – that the word may be irretrievably lost as a specific meaningful concept. The social phenomenon it originally referred to may continue to exists, in varying degrees and with varying effects, but empirical assessments of its existence or importance are unlikely to be clarified by the use of such a chameleon-like word. Indeed, the political overuse of the word may destroy its effectiveness as a warning against a very real danger. 
Many assume that racism is a prerequisite for discrimination, or is virtually synonymous with it. However, a generalized hostility or specific discrimination may be directed against a particular racial or ethnic group, without any belief that they are innately inferior. A political movement organized to ban Japanese immigration to the United States was quite clear about this at their first meeting in 1905: 
“We have been accustomed to regard the Japanese as an inferior race, but are now suddenly aroused to our danger. They are not window cleaners and house servants. The Japanese can think, can learn, can invent. We have suddenly awakened to the fact that they are gaining a foothold in every skilled industry in our country. They are our equal in intellect; their ability to labor is equal to ours. They are proud, valiant, and courageous, but they can underlive us…We are here today to prevent that very competition.” 
 Other groups have aroused resentments in other countries, without any suggestion that they were racially inferiors. Often this resentment has been based on acknowledged superior performance. In Honduras, for example, the claim was that the Germans worked too hard for others to be able to compete with them. In India’s state of Andhra Pradesh, a leader of the Telanganans admitted that the rival Andhras were “better qualified for many of the jobs than we are” but asked: “Are we not entitled to jobs just because we are not as qualified?” With varying degrees of explicitness, many people in many lands have recognized the capabilities of the Jews, the Chinese, the Lebanese, and others-as reasons to discriminate against them. If “racism” is the appropriate label for such behavior, then clearly the word is no longer being used in the sense of a belief in innate inferiority. Sometimes a superiority has been conceded of the group targeted for discrimination. In Nigeria, for example, discriminatory policies were advocated on grounds that otherwise “the less well educated people of the North will be swamped by the thrusting people of the South.” In Malaysia, it was likewise argued: “Malaysia has far too many non-Malay citizens who can swamp the Malays the moment protection is removed.” 
The fundamental problem with an ideologically defined vocabulary in discussions of racial or ethnic issues is not that those with such a vocabulary may be right or wrong in this or that issue. The more fundamental problem is that we forfeit our ability to examine such issues empirically, and allow important social questions to be obscured, or the conclusions to be preempted, by mere tendentious words. The painful history of racial and ethnic relations is a sobering reminder of the high stakes which make clarity imperative and obscurantism dangerous. 

Sowell does an excellent job of laying this out. People who fling around the word "racist" ought to be a little more careful about what they are actually saying, because it can mean very different things depending on the context. Someone who, say, criticizes elements of American black culture isn't "racist" in the sense of believing in inherent genetic inferiority. Anyone who calls such a cultural critic a racist should at least acknowledge that they are expanding the definition from its original meaning to include other things. In fact, such a culture critic might be trying to identify a transient, fixable problem and may be arguing explicitly that a social problem is *not* written into the genes. Simply dismissing such a person as racist seems bizarre if their actual intent is to argue *against* a theory of inherent genetic inferiority in lieu of a cultural explanation. Of course these different senses of the word "racism" can refer to equally harmful attitudes; the resulting discrimination can be just as damaging to a minority group whether the oppressors believe they are generically inferior, culturally handicapped, or actually superior. But if the point is to avoid some tangible harm, then it would make more sense to discuss the problem in terms of the actual harm rather than appeal to a hysterical boo-word that only serves to muddy the waters.

One option is to do away with using "racism" as a boo-word altogether and simply state in clear language why the offensive idea in question is wrong. "You're a fucking racist!" is a non-starter if you're trying to have a conversation with someone. It invites blow-back. You might manage to shut someone up, but you'll have failed to change his mind. He'll sulk away still harboring the offensive thought, because the thought was never refuted or even examined in the light of day. Sowell makes it very clear in this book that he is concerned about the very real dangers of racism and racial politics. I read him as calling for clearer language in discussing such dangers.

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