Three Ways to Be Not Quite Free of Racism

Suppose that you can say, with a feeling of sincerity, "All races and colors of people deserve equal respect". Suppose also that when you think about American Blacks or South Asians or Middle Eastern Muslims you don't detect any feelings of antipathy, or at least any feelings of antipathy that you believe arise merely from consideration of their race. This is good! You are not an all-out racist in the 19th-century sense of that term.

Still, you might not be entirely free of racial prejudice, if we took a close look at your choices, emotions, passing thoughts, and swift intuitive judgments about people.

Imagine then the following ideal: Being free of all unjustified racial prejudice. We can imagine similar ideals for classism, ableism, sexism, ethnicity, subculture, physical appearance, etc.

It would be a rare person who met all of these ideals. Yet not all falling short is the same. The recent election has made vivid for me three importantly distinct ways in which one can fall short. I use racism as my example, but other failures of egalitarianism can be analyzed similarly.

Racism is an attitude. Attitudes can be thought of as postures of the mind. To have an attitude is to be disposed to act and react in attitude-typical ways. (The nature of attitudes is a central part of my philosophical research. For a fuller account of my view, see here.) Among the dispositions constitutive of all-out racism are: making racist claims, purposely avoiding people of that race, uttering racist epithets in inner speech, feeling negative emotions when interacting with that race, leaping quickly to negative conclusions about individual members of that race, preferring social policies that privilege your preferred race, etc.

An all-out racist would have most or all of these dispositions (barring "excusing conditions"). Someone completely free of racism would have none of these dispositions. Likely, the majority of people in our culture inhabit the middle.

But "the middle" isn't all the same. Here are three very different ways of occupying it.

(1.) Implicit racism. Some of the relevant dispositions are explicitly or overtly racist -- for example, asserting that people of the target race are inherently inferior. Other dispositions are only implicitly or covertly racist, for example, being prone without realizing it to evaluate job applications more negatively if the applicant is of the target race, or being likely to experience negative emotion upon being assigned a cooperative task with a person of the target race. Recent psychological research suggests that many people in our culture, even if they reject explicitly racist statements, are disposed to have some implicitly racist reactions, at least occasionally or in some situations. We can thus construct a portrait of the "implicit racist": Someone who sincerely disavows all racial prejudice, but who nonetheless has a wide-ranging and persistent tendency toward implicitly racist reactions and evaluations. Probably no one is a perfect exemplar of this portrait, with all and only implicitly racist reactions, but it is probably common for people to match it to a certain extent. To that extent, whatever it is, that person is not quite free of implicit racism.

Implicit racism has received so much attention in the recent psychological and philosophical literature that one might think that it is the only way to be not quite free of racism while disavowing racism in the 19th-century sense of the term. Not so!

(2.) Situational racism. Dispositions manifest only under certain conditions. Priscilla (name randomly chosen) is disposed sincerely to say, if asked, that people of all races deserve equal respect. Of course, she doesn't actually spend the entire day saying this. She is disposed to say it only under certain conditions -- conditions, perhaps, that assume the continued social disapproval of racism. It might also be the case that under other conditions she would say the opposite. A person might be disposed sincerely to reject racist statements in some contexts and sincerely to endorse them in other contexts. This is not the implicit/explicit division. I am assuming both sides are explicit. Nor am I imagining a change in opinion over time. I am imagining a person like this: If situation X arose she would be explicitly racist, while if situation Y arose she would be explicitly anti-racist, maybe even passionately, self-sacrificingly so. This is not as incoherent as it might seem. Or if it is incoherent, it is a commonly human type of incoherence. The history of racism suggests that perfectly nice, non-racist-seeming people can change on a dime with a change in situation, and then change back when the situation shifts again. For some people, all it might take is the election of a racist politician. For others, it might take a more toxically immersive racist environment, or a personal economic crisis, or a demanding authority, or a recent personal clash with someone of the target race.

(3.) Racism of indifference. Part of what prompted this post was an interview I heard with someone who denied being racist on the grounds that he didn't care what happened to Black people. This deprioritization of concern is in principle separable from both implicit racism and situational racism. For example: I don't think much about Iceland. My concerns, voting habits, thoughts, and interests instead mostly involve what I think will be good for me, my family, my community, my country, or the world in general. But I'm probably not much biased against Iceland. I have mostly positive associations with it (beautiful landscapes, high literacy, geothermal power). Assuming (contra Mozi) that we have much greater obligations to family and compatriots than to people in far-off lands, my habit of not highly prioritizing the welfare of people in Iceland probably doesn't deserve to labeled pejoratively with an "-ism". But a similar disregard or deprioritization of people in your own community or country, on grounds of their race, does deserve a pejorative label, independent any implicit or explicit hostility.

These three ways of being not quite free of racism are conceptually separable. Empirically, though, things are likely to be messy and cross-cutting. Probably the majority of people don't map neatly onto these categories, but have a complex set of mixed-up dispositions. Furthermore, this mixed-up set probably often includes both racist dispositions and, right alongside, dispositions to admire, love, and even make special sacrifices for people who are racialized in culturally disvalued ways.

It's probably difficult to know the extent to which you yourself fail, in one or more of these three ways, to be entirely free of racism (sexism, ableism, etc.). Implicitly racist dispositions are by their nature elusive. So also is knowledge of how you would react to substantial changes in circumstance. So also are the real grounds of our choices. One of the great lessons of the past several decades of social and cognitive psychology is that we know far less than we think we know about what drives our preferences and about the situational influences on our behavior.

I am particularly struck by the potentially huge reach of the bigotry of indifference. Action is always a package deal. There are always pros and cons, which need to be weighed. You can't act toward one goal without simultaneously deprioritizing many other possible goals. Since it's difficult to know the basis of your prioritization of one thing over another, it is possible that the bigotry of indifference permeates a surprising number of your personal and political choices. Though you don't realize it, it might be the case that you would have felt more call to action had the welfare of a different group of people been at stake.

[image source Prabhu B Doss, creative commons]

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