Racism: A Definitional Issue

It’s a common idea that racism = racial prejudice + power (here’s an example). I find this definition deeply flawed for two reasons.

1. The definition implies an absurd conclusion. If racism = racial prejudice + power, then if a group or individual doesn’t have power, they can’t be racist. However, as Thomas Sowell has pointed out, to say racism requires power implies that the Nazis weren’t racist in the early 1920s when they were a small political party with no power. It’s intuitively obvious that any definition of racism whereby the Nazis weren’t racist is absurd.

2. The definition leads to using different terms for two practically identical actions. Let me use a thought experiment: Imagine a black man and a white man who each go out and beat up an innocent person. The black man beats up a white person, and the white man beats up a black person. Each of them does so because they have severe racial prejudice against the other race.

Now, because both of these individuals committed the same type of action based on the same motivation, it seems like the same word should describe both. However, people who use the prejudice + power definition of racism, are typically committed to the idea that black people can’t be racist. According to them, in the above scenario the white man would be racist, while the black man would be merely acting out of racial prejudice. The black man wouldn’t be racist, because he wouldn’t have the institutional power to sanction his actions. This view seems semantically unhelpful at best because it uses different terms for the same type of action flowing from the same motivation.

Let me address an objection:

“You are a white man, who hasn’t experienced racism. Therefore you should leave the definition of racism up to the people of color who have actually experienced it.”

This is a classic example of the red herring fallacy: “This fallacy consists in diverting attention from the real issue by focusing instead on an issue having only a surface relevance to the first.”

This objection is a red herring because none of my points depend on personal experience. They are based on reasoning ideas to their logical conclusions and evaluating the consequences. If this exact post was written by someone of a different race, it would be neither more nor less true. Logic is colorblind.

For a humorous exploration of these ideas, watch FreedomToons’ video Racism Explained.

Personal Experience and Rationality

In my previous post, I examined how people misuse the question, “Where is that in the Bible?” In this post, I’m going to discuss how people misuse their personal experiences. Let’s start with an example. 

Several years ago, Ann Coulter argued that single motherhood should be stigmatized because of its negative impact on children. I dislike her inflammatory rhetoric, and I don’t condone her recommendations. My interest is how irrationally the audience responded.

Early in the interview, Coulter says this:

A woman who gets pregnant out of wedlock, if she wants to do the best thing for the child – it is overwhelming she should give the child up for adoption because the statistics both from the left and the right are overwhelming on what happens to illegitimate children. About 70% of juvenile delinquents, teenage runaways, pregnancies out of wedlock are committed by the children of single mothers. 

If you were in the womb right now, and you could choose whether to be black, white, rich, poor, the one thing you should hope for… is that your parents are married. 

After some back and forth, the moderator responds: 

When you say things like that and you make these blanket statements based on statistics. I say to myself… I know so many good single mothers, so many heroic single mothers, I just can’t agree with you on that. I really can’t. 

Later in the dialogue, the audience gets involved: 

Woman: Do you have any children?

Coulter: Not relevant to statistics. 

Coulter’s response is excellent. The answer to the question is irrelevant to Coulter’s argument, and getting bogged down in facts about her personal life wouldn’t have furthered the dialogue. 

After explaining her positive experiences with single mothers, the woman concludes: 

You’re speaking about statistics, you have to live it to understand it.

There are at least two ways to understand single motherhood: the aggregate (studies and statistics) and personal experience. This woman seems to be saying that the aggregate aspect doesn’t capture the reality of single motherhood. She is correct in a sense. There is a first-person aspect of single motherhood that can’t be documented (at least not completely) by studies, but that isn’t relevant to the argument Coulter is making. She is talking about objective, statistically verifiable effects. So in the context of the discussion, the woman’s statement is a red herring. The other audience members commit this fallacy repeatedly in the rest of the interview.

I understand why people rely on personal experience. It’s easy and intuitive. Personal experience is crucial for evaluating a friend’s character or a client’s reliability, but it’s a poor choice for analyzing broad societal trends. It’s nonsensical to assert personal experience and think you’ve disproved a general pattern. That’s like a 6’3” woman using her height to dispute the claim, “Men are generally taller than women.” Her data point is incapable of disproving an average like the height of men and women. 

If you would like another example of irrational use of personal experience, watch Jordan Peterson’s interview with Kathy Newman.