Following the election, many people have called for liberals to stop calling their opponents racist. According to them, many of Trump’s supporters aren’t racist, they’re just ordinary people.
Let’s talk about this. I mean, let’s not talk about Trump, because ugh. But this has long been a point of contention: I do, in fact, think that ordinary people are racist. Yet lots of people reject the idea out of hand.
There is nothing inherently ridiculous about saying everyone is a thing. I can say that ordinary people are human. I can say that ordinary people are kind or fascinating or patriotic. What separates “racist” from the other adjectives is that it expresses strong moral disapproval. Humans have massive hangups about moral disapproval. Here I try to identify and address those hangups.
1. “Everyone” includes me
Everyone knows that we are all predisposed to think well of ourselves. Perhaps because recognizing the evil within oneself causes existential dread.
But we should all know in our rational minds that we’re probably not as great as our brains make us out to be. I can’t say I’m a fan of causing people feel existential dread (it’s not their fault that they’re irrational!), but it can’t be helped if we want a society where people can criticize each other, especially on issues of grave social importance.
2. Racism and conscious choice
One reason people believe they can’t be racist is that they don’t remember being racist. That is, they were never confronted with a decision where they thought to themselves “I’m gonna go with the racist option”. Likewise, it is hard to believe that anyone else has had such a thought, not unless they’re members of the KKK.
Of course, if you look it up, you will find that even members of the KKK usually don’t think of themselves as racist. So unless you agree with the KKK on that matter, the whole theory that racism requires conscious intent comes crashing down. A more sensible moral theory looks not at intentions, but at consequences.
3. Racism and potential for change
Of course, we don’t morally criticize people for just any consequences. We restrict our criticism to consequences that people actually have the power to change. For instance, we don’t mock people with disabilities for having disabilities. We don’t veterans for having been prisoners of war. Well, not usually anyway. But if everyone is racist, doesn’t that imply that nobody has the power to stop being racist? This seems to defeat the point of criticizing people for racism.
Well, no one ever said racism was an easy problem. And certainly there are varieties of racism which we can’t individually do anything about. For instance, I don’t know what is to be done about implicit association bias. But it’s okay if you don’t immediately know what to do about racism! As long as the general populace recognizes problems of race, I think we can find solutions on a societal level, or at least stop dismantling the solutions we already have.
4. Casting people out
One of the fears people have about moral criticism is that they will be cast out from society. Perhaps they fear exile or jail, or perhaps they fear losing their job or losing access to certain social settings. But if everyone is racist, then that doesn’t even make logical sense. How could you cast out the majority of society from society?
This is difficult to address because while I personally don’t support casting people out from society merely for having racist views, you could probably find/misinterpret someone who says differently, and then spread it widely via social media. I guess social critique is a hopeless endeavor because as soon as I have anything mildly critical to say, the only rational course of action is to literally destroy people who disagree with me.
5. Diluting racism
Some people feel that the word “racism” is very strong and should only be reserved for a small set of people. For instance, you might restrict it to only intentional racists (although as observed above this excludes the KKK), or you might restrict it to the people we actually want to cast out from society (ie criminals). To use the word “racism” for anything else is to dilute the word’s meaning.
I have to ask, why is dilution bad? Surely there is some happy medium between dilution and concentration. If the only person racism ever applied to is Adolf Hitler, the word’s strength would be highly concentrated, but hardly very useful. You’d rather expand the word to the level where it addresses the largest current source of problems. So when racism is largely enacted on an institutional level, you go after the group with power over those institutions. In a democracy, that includes a lot of people.
I observe that there is another word expressing strong moral disapproval, which is nonetheless widely regarded as applying to everyone. That word is “sin”. I am no fan of Christian moral frameworks, but I have to admit that it at least makes logical sense to say that everyone is a sinner.
The main issue I have with sin has to do with substantive disagreements about what specific acts should be considered sinful. For example, I would argue that homosexuality and pre-marital sex are not sinful. I suggest that if you oppose the idea that ordinary people are racist, rather than declaring the very idea outrageous, you should talk about what specific things constitute racism.