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.