* Gedaliah Braun: What is Racism? or, How Philosophy can be ‘Practical’; Excerpt: Racism, Guilt, Self Hatred and Self-Deceipt.
What is Racism? or, How Philosophy can be ‘Practical’
Excerpt: Racism, Guilt, Self-Hatred and Self-Deceit, by Gedaliah Braun Ph.D.
- Outline of Principal Theses
- What Racism Is Not
- Moral vs. Nonmoral Badness
- What Kinds of Things Can Be Racist?
- A Philosophical Touchstone
- Can an Idea Be Racist?
- Propositions Are ‘Pictures’ of Facts
- Can a Fact Be Racist?
- Conventional Wisdom Embodies Philosophical Error
- What Racism Is
- Two Senses of Belief
- Which Kind of Belief Can Be Racist?
- A Belief Can Be Racist Only Because Of the Manner In Which It Is Held
- If a Belief Is Honest It Cannot Be Bad and If It Is Not Bad It Cannot Be Racist
- Why Neither Truth Nor Falsity Determines Whether a Belief Is Racist
- The Essence of Racism Is Self-Deceit: Believing What You Know Isn’t True
- While Content Never Makes Belief Racist It Can Be Good Indication Of It
Determining the nature of racism is a philosophical issue. Nevertheless, it is of great practical importance and I would argue that many of the West’s racial problems arise from a mistake thereof.
To be accused of racism is to be condemned. But (I claim) no fact or idea can itself be racist. Therefore the idea of racial differences is neither racist nor bad and hence is insulting to no one.
At present all political discussion in the West is based on the assumption that the idea of such differences is racist – a philosophical error with fateful consequences. If there are such differences and they are not racist, then they should be taken into account in policy-making; but if they are wrongly assumed to be racist and hence swept under the carpet, any policies based on such willful ignorance are doomed to failure.
What Racism Is Not
The question What is racism? is philosophical, not sociological, anthropological or linguistic. It is nevertheless a question of enormous practical importance, and I will argue that most of the racial problems facing South Africa and the West arise because of certain false assumptions in this regard.
While agreeing that racism is bad, we must ask just what this means. An earthquake which kills thousands of people that is bad, but it’s not morally bad. We don’t, e.g., condemn it, for the simple reason that it is inanimate and hence doesn’t do things. Earthquakes simply happen; there is no question of moral blame because there is nothing and no one to blame.
Moral vs. Nonmoral Badness
But while being animate may be a requirement for moral blame, it is not sufficient. We don’t condemn a marauding lion or an infant for dropping your cell phone into the bath, for though both are animate, they are not responsible for their actions; and it is only responsible human behaviour that can be condemned or blamed and which is wicked or sinful.
Hence we can distinguish moral from nonmoral badness. The former concerns human beings and their behaviour; this is the sphere of right and wrong. Nonmoral badness concerns things which are unfortunate but which involve no (responsible) human behaviour and for which there is therefore nothing and no one to blame. The chemical accident at Bhopal (in India) in which thousands died was horrible and if someone was responsible for it they should be punished. But if it simply happened, then, though no less lamentable, there would be no moral evil and nothing deserving of condemnation.
What Kinds of Things Can Be Racist?
It is clear that when we say racism is bad we mean morally bad, for to call someone a racist is to condemn him. But what sorts of things, besides a person and his behaviour, can be racist?
Suppose someone says blacks are not good at mathematics – not that no blacks are, but that on average, fewer are. Is saying and believing such a thing racist? It is crucial to realize that, practically speaking, what we are asking here is whether this is morally bad; because to say it is racist is to say that it is bad. And in essence that is what the argument over racism is all about: whether saying, doing, thinking or feeling certain things are bad and hence should be condemned, prohibited or even penalized.
A Philosophical Touchstone
At present it is widely assumed that such ideas – that blacks are poor at math or that they have a higher crime rate, etc. – are racist, and while I do not wish to deny that genuine racism deserves condemnation, I most emphatically question whether certain things assumed to be racist really are. In fact, the badness of racism can serve as a philosophical touchstone. For any ‘theory’ of what racism is – as expressed by saying that this or that belief, attitude or action is racist – we can apply this simple test: Is this thought, attitude or action bad? If, on reflection, we conclude that it’s not, we may conclude that it is not racist and hence that this theory of racism is incorrect.
Can an Idea Be Racist?
We can begin by asking whether an idea can be racist? For our purposes, an idea is like a thought, which is closely related to a proposition. When we make an assertion we are always asserting something to be so – to be the case. That which we are asserting to be the case is a proposition. (For present purposes ‘statement’, ‘assertion’ and ‘proposition’ are more or less the same.)
Propositions and Facts
Thus, if I say (1) ‘Pretoria is the administrative capital of South Africa’, I have asserted a proposition. That proposition happens to be true, but propositions can just as easily be false as true. Thus, (2) ‘Cape Town is the administrative capital’ is false. The assertion that (3) ‘Cape Town is the legislative capital’ is true, but saying that it is the administrative capital is false, just as (1) is true but (4) – that Pretoria is the legislative capital – would be false.
Hence, while a proposition can be either true or false, it remains the same proposition whichever it is. Thus, (3) ‘Cape Town is the legislative capital’, is true; but if it were to become false (if they relocate parliament), it would be the same proposition it is now but would simply be false instead of true.
What makes one proposition true and another false? Why is (3) [that Cape Town is the legislative capital] true but (2) [that it is the administrative capital] false? Obviously, because it is a fact that Cape Town is the legislative capital while it is not a fact that it is the administrative capital. Facts, therefore, are what make propositions true (or false). All propositions assert some fact or other to be the case; when that fact is the case, the proposition is true; when it is not, the proposition is false.
Thus, it is a fact that Cape Town is the legislative capital and hence the proposition which asserts this – (3) – is true; while it is not a fact that it is the administrative capital and hence the proposition which asserts it is – (2) – is false.
Propositions Are ‘Pictures’ of Facts
Propositions are therefore intimately connected with facts: a proposition is like a ‘picture’ of a fact. Just as you can have a picture of something that does not exist (e.g., of the fictional character Superman), and just as the picture is a perfectly bona-fide picture and will remain the same picture whether Superman exists or not, so a proposition ‘pictures’ a fact. It as¬serts a certain fact to be the case but is quite independent of whether or not that fact is the case (and hence of whether or not the proposition is true); and just as the picture of Superman remains the same picture whether Superman exists or not, so a proposition remains the same proposition whether or not there is a fact to make it true.
Can a Fact Be Racist?
And now let us ask whether a fact can be racist. The answer is clearly ‘No’; indeed, the very idea is absurd. When we say that racism is bad we mean it is morally bad and deserving of condemnation. But a fact cannot be deserving of condemnation since it is inanimate and hence is not the sort of thing which can be blamed. A fact is not responsible for being a fact, nor is it deliberately or knowingly a fact; it just is a fact, and it would be ridiculous, e.g., to say, ‘Shame on you – you are a bad fact!’.
But since to call something racist is to criticize it, it makes no sense to call a fact racist, since it makes no sense to criticize a fact. A fact may be nonmorally bad – i.e., something which it would have been better had it not been the case – but it cannot be wicked.
If a fact cannot be wicked, what about a proposition? Again the answer is clear: if a fact cannot be morally bad, neither can a possible fact (which is essentially what a proposition is), if for no other reason than that it is in-animate and hence not subject to (moral) blame or criticism. And if it can’t be sinful or wicked neither can it be racist.
Hence we may conclude that neither the idea, thought or proposition that there are racial differences can be racist, since no thought or proposition can itself be morally bad – and if it can’t be morally bad it can’t be racist. Thus, neither the possible fact nor the actual fact of such differences can be racist, since facts, actual or possible, are not and cannot by themselves be morally bad, sinful or wicked. (See also here.)
Conventional Wisdom Embodies Philosophical Error
But if there are important group differences which are not ‘allowed’ to exist, then any decisions based on such willful ignorance are doomed to failure. Yet this Accepted Wisdom and the de facto policy resulting from it rests on a philosophical mistake, viz., the unchallenged and unexamined assumption that certain ideas are racist and hence morally abhorrent and hence ‘beyond the pale’. This dogma has far-reaching ramifications. As Stephen Carter says, ‘Silencing debate solves no problems; it only limits possible solutions’. Hence my claim that a philosophical question, concerning the nature of racism, has practical import.
What Racism Is
If the very idea of racial differences is not racist, what is? We have said there are racist beliefs, statements, behaviour, attitudes and individuals. But is it, e.g., bad to believe that whites are smarter – or more honest and reliable – than blacks? For if the idea of such differences is not morally bad, how can it be bad simply to believe they exist?
Two Senses of Belief
We can distinguish two senses of belief. If I say ‘Your belief that witchcraft was the cause of Kokomo’s losing the race is false’, I am talking about the proposition which you believe (that witchcraft was the cause of his losing) and I am saying that it’s false. In a sense this has nothing to do with you, but only with the content of your belief, i.e., with the proposition which you believe. Call this the propositional sense of belief.
But suppose I say ‘Your belief that witchcraft was the cause of Kokomo’s losing the race is foolish’. Can a proposition be foolish? A person can be foolish, for believing something, but a proposition itself cannot be. (We may say a proposition is foolish, but that simply means it is a proposition it would be foolish to believe.) So when I call your belief foolish, what I am calling foolish is not the proposition you believe, but you, for believing it; for while we cannot criticize a proposition, we can criticize someone for believing it. Let us call the act (or state) of believing – as opposed to what is believed – the psychological sense of belief.
Which Kind of Belief Can Be Racist?
Which sense are we talking about when we say that a belief is racist? In the propositional sense, a belief is simply the proposition which is believed, and we have already said that a proposition cannot be racist; so belief in this sense cannot be racist. How about in the psychological sense? Can a person be criticized for believing something, i.e., for how or why he believes it? Certainly, for we are responsible for our beliefs.
Would it be racist, then, to say ‘Blacks are more often thieves than whites’? If we say yes, we must be saying that it is the proposition itself which is racist; for that’s all we know about: we don’t know who said it or how or why. Therefore, if we say this statement (or belief) is racist it can only be because of its content. But we al-ready know that a proposition, by itself, cannot be racist, because to say it is racist means it is morally bad and it makes no sense to say this of a proposition.
A Belief Can Be Racist Only Because Of the Manner In Which It Is Held
So can we say that ‘Blacks are more often thieves’ is racist? In fact, we cannot – at least not just like that. It will depend on how it is believed. But if it is racist, what will be racist will not be the proposition itself but rather the manner in which it is believed. For that is something for which we are responsible, for which we can be criticized, which can be bad, and hence which can be racist.
And when will such a belief be racist? First, it must attribute some ‘negative’ trait – such as dishonesty or lesser intelligence – to some racial group. We might think, however, that such a belief will be racist only if it is not true.
Suppose someone grows up in a place where many blacks are thieves and where whites are constantly bad-mouthing blacks. He is likely to end up thinking blacks are just thieves; and yet suppose (for the sake of argument) that in fact the only reason blacks steal is poverty. He would be believing that blacks are, by nature, thieves and his belief would be false. Would it not therefore be racist?
If a Belief Is Honest It Cannot Be Bad and If It Is Not Bad It Cannot Be Racist
The answer is ‘No’; for although this is a ‘bad’ belief about another race that is false, it is – from his point of view – based on evidence (what he sees and what people say). Given this background, it is perfectly reasonable – and honest – for him to believe what he does. But if his belief is honest, it cannot be morally bad and hence cannot be racist. So being false doesn’t make such a negative belief racist; what matters, again, is the manner in which it is held.
But neither does being true preclude racism. Let us assume (again for the sake of argument) that blacks are by nature more likely to be thieves than whites and that Jones believes this to be so. But suppose he believes this because he was once mugged by a black man and ever since then simply thinks blacks are thieves.
In fact this is not such a simple case. What determines whether a belief is racist is not its truth or falsity but how it is held. One relevant factor is evidence – though note that a person may have good evidence for his belief even though it is false, and conversely, have poor evidence though, by accident, it is true.
Thus: you ask for the time, I look at my watch which says 5 o’clock and I say ‘It’s 5 o’clock’. Unknown to me, however, my watch stopped an hour ago and it really is 6 o’clock. I had good evidence for saying what I did and yet my statement was false.
Conversely, you ask for the time, and (again) my watch, unknown to me, has stopped, so though it says 5 o’clock it really is 6 o’clock; but this time, taking a quick glance, I misread it as saying 6 o’clock and say to you ‘It’s 6 o’clock’. In this case, my evidence is poor and yet my statement happens, by accident, to be true.
Being mugged by a black man is obviously not a good reason for thinking that blacks are thieves, and if some-one believes such a thing based on this evidence it would be a negative belief about blacks and based on insufficient evidence. Surely that makes it racist.
Hold your horses. If, through dim-wittedness, one honestly believes that this one incident is sufficient grounds for his belief, then though we might think him stupid, we could not label his belief racist. Racism is morally bad and deserving of condemnation; if his belief is honest, though foolish, he cannot be morally condemned for it. Such mental sloppiness, though lamentable, is not morally wicked.
So this in fact is not the case we were looking for: a negative belief about another race which was racist in spite of being true – for though true, it is not clearly racist. What then would an example?
Suppose someone believes that blacks are thieves – and let us again assume for the sake of argument that this is true – though in his case he has never had a bad experience with blacks; rather, he simply has an ingrained animus against them. When confronted with evidence to the contrary he refuses to consider it (‘I’m not interested in that communist propaganda!’). Such a belief would clearly be racist even if it were true, showing that truth no more precludes racism than being false is a requirement. What matters, again, is not what is believed, nor its truth or falsity, but how it is believed.
The difference between the once-mugged person and the genuine racist can be illustrated by considering their reaction to contrary evidence. Suppose we explain to the former why his evidence is insufficient and he says, ‘Yes, I see what you’re getting at; my reasons were not very good and I was wrong to say that’. This would show that his belief had not in fact been racist but merely foolish. Whereas in the second example, his dismissing your argument as communist propaganda is a good indication that his belief was racist.
Why Neither Truth Nor Falsity Determines Whether a Belief Is Racist
In fact, given our previous discussion, we can show both that and why truth or falsity is irrelevant in deciding whether a belief is racist. Truth and falsity are properties of propositions, not of people; whereas racism, as a moral concept, is ultimately only attributable to people, and not at all to propositions. So when we speak of a belief as being true or false, we can only be referring to the proposition believed; whereas when we say that a belief is racist, we can only be talking about the person who is believing it. Hence, truth and falsity have to do with things – viz., propositions – entirely other than what racism has to do with – viz., people and their actions and beliefs. And so truth and falsity can have nothing directly to do with whether a belief is racist. Of course if the belief is not only false but is known to be false, that’s a different matter, to which we may now turn.
The Essence of Racism Is Self-Deceit
Believing What You Know Isn’t True
The belief of the once-mugged person would be racist if he knew it was not true and yet went right on believing it. But is it possible to believe what you know isn’t true? Well, it is possible if self-deception is possible; self-deception is not only possible; it is actual; ergo, believing what you know isn’t true is possible. What we are talking about is simply dishonest belief, what the existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre called bad faith (“mauvaise foi”), and it is precisely this dishonesty with oneself that makes genuine racism and prejudice so execrable. This makes perfect sense, since self-deceit – believing what you know isn’t true – is something for which we are responsible and something which is morally blameworthy.
And it is this inner dishonesty, typified by avoidance of evidence that might prove one’s beliefs false, that makes racism so contemptible.
While Content Never Makes Belief Racist It Can Be Good Indication Of It
One final point. I have said that the content of a belief by itself never makes it racist. But how about believing not just that blacks are more often thieves but that they’re all thieves? Or that all Jews are liars and that not a single one can be trusted? Or that no blacks are capable of any intellectual achievement? (Thabo got a PhD in mathematics from Harvard? He obviously cheated!) Certainly we can say that such beliefs are racist without knowing anything more.
True enough, but that does not refute my thesis. Such beliefs would correctly be deemed racist because their content is so implausible that the person has to know that they’re not true, and if he nevertheless insists on believing it, he must be doing so in the knowledge that it is a false. To have such a belief is racist and reprehensible; and what makes it so is at least partly this inner dishonesty: saying – and believing – what you know is not true.
Hence, it remains true that beliefs are not racist merely because of their content, but rather because of the manner in which they are held. What is true is that content is often a good indication of this – and thereby of whether they are racist.
(This appendix is an edited version of a talk given in June 1988 to philosophy students at the [then-named] University of the Orange Free State, in Bloemfontein, South Africa.)
Gedhalia Braun holds a PhD in philosophy and is the author of Racism, Guilt, Self-Hatred and Self-Deceit.