A Philosopher's Blog

Is Everyone a Little Bit Racist?

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on January 19, 2015
One in a series of posters attacking Radical R...

One in a series of posters attacking Radical Republicans on the issue of black suffrage, issued during the Pennsylvania gubernatorial election of 1866. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It has been argued that everyone is a little bit racist. Various studies have shown that black America are treated rather differently than white Americans. Examples of this include black students being more likely to be suspended than white students, blacks being arrested at a higher rate than whites, and job applications with “black sounding” names being less likely to get callbacks than those with “white sounding” names. Interestingly, studies have shown that the alleged racism is not confined to white Americans: black Americans also seem to share this racism. One study involves a simulator in which the participant takes on the role of a police officer and must decide to shoot or holster her weapon when confronted by simulated person. The study indicates that participants, regardless of race, shoot more quickly at blacks than whites and are more likely to shoot an unarmed black person than an unarmed white person. There are, of course, many other studies and examples that support the claim that everyone is a little bit racist.

Given the evidence, it would seem reasonable to accept the claim that everyone is a little bit racist. It is, of course, also an accepted view in certain political circles. However, there seems to be something problematic with claiming that everyone is racist, even if it is the claim that the racism is of the small sort.

One point of logical concern is that inferring that all people are at least a little racist on the basis of such studies would be problematic. Rather, what should be claimed is that the studies indicate the presence of racism and that these findings can be generalized to the entire population. But, this could be dismissed as a quibble about induction.

Some people, as might be suspected, would take issue with this claim because to be accused of racism is rather offensive. Some, as also might be suspected, would take issue with this claim because they claim that racism has ended in America, hence people are not racist. Not even a little bit. Other might complain that the accusation is a political weapon that is wielded unjustly. I will not argue about these matters, but will instead focus on another concern, that of the concept of racism in this context.

In informal terms, racism is prejudice, antagonism or discrimination based on race. Since various studies show that people have prejudices linked to race and engage in discrimination along racial lines, it seems reasonable to accept that everyone is at least a bit racist.

To use an analogy, consider the matter of lying. A liar, put informally, is someone who makes a claim that she does not believe with the intention of getting others to accept it as true. Since there is considerable evidence that people engage in this behavior, it can be claimed that everyone is a little bit of a liar. That is, everyone has told a lie.

Another analogy would be to being an abuser. Presumably each person has been at least a bit mean or cruel to another person she has been in a relationship with (be it a family relationship, a friendship or a romantic relationship). This would thus entail that everyone is at least a little bit abusive.

The analogies could continue almost indefinitely, but it will suffice to end them here, with the result that we are all racist, abusive liars.

On the one hand, the claim is true. I have been prejudiced. I have lied. I have been mean to people I love. I have engaged in addictive behavior. The same is likely to be true of even the very best of us. Since we have lied, we are liars. Since we have abused, we are abusers. Since we have prejudice and have discriminated based on race, we are racists.

On the other hand, the claim is problematic. After all, to judge someone to be a racist, an abuser, or a liar is to make a strong moral judgment of the person. For example, imagine the following conversation:

Sam: “I’m interested in your friend Sally. You know her pretty well…what is she like?”

Me: “She is a liar and a racist.”

Sam: “But…she seems so nice.”

Me: “She is. In fact, she’s one of the best people I know.”

Sam: “But you said she is a liar and a racist.”

Me: “Oh, she is. But just a little bit.”

Sam: “What?”

Me: “Well, she told me that when she was in college, she lied to a guy to avoid going on a date. She also said that when she was a kid, she thought white people were all racists and would not be friends with them. So, she is a liar and a racist.”

Sam: “I don’t think you know what those words mean.”

The point is, of course, that terms like “racist”, “abuser” and “liar” have what can be regarded as proper moral usage. To be more specific, because these are such strong terms, they should be applied in cases in which they actually fit. For example, while anyone who lies is technically a liar, the designation of being a liar should only apply to someone who routinely engages in that behavior. That is, a person who has a moral defect in regards to honesty. Likewise, anyone who has a prejudice based on race or discriminates based on race is technically a racist. However, the designation of racist should be reserved for those who have the relevant moral defect—that is, racism is their way of being, as opposed to failing to be perfectly unbiased. As such, using the term “racist” (or “liar”) in claiming that “everyone is a little bit racist” (or “everyone is little bit of a liar”) either waters down the moral term or imposes too harsh a judgment on the person. Either way would be problematic.

So, if the expression “we are all a little bit racist” should not be used, what should replace it? My suggestion is to speak instead of people being subject to race linked biases. While saying “we are all subject to race linked biases” is less attention grabbing than “we are all a little bit racist”, it seems more honest as a description.

 

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19 Responses

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  1. ajmacdonaldjr said, on January 19, 2015 at 4:31 pm

    I thought you might mention the fact that most peoples marry peoples of their own race.

  2. TJB said, on January 20, 2015 at 12:04 pm

    “One study involves a simulator in which the participant takes on the role of a police officer and must decide to shoot or holster her weapon when confronted by simulated person. The study indicates that participants, regardless of race, shoot more quickly at blacks than whites and are more likely to shoot an unarmed black person than an unarmed white person.”

    You can’t just make stuff up, Mike. Study shows just the opposite.

    A new study in the Journal of Experimental Criminology finds in an experiment measuring the reactions of participants to various threatening situations that people tended to pull the trigger faster when confronted by armed white suspects. This sounds counterintuitive to most people (including me). A 2001 Bureau of Justice Statistics report (latest available) analyzed justifiable homicides and noted:

    Felons justifiably killed by police represent a tiny fraction of the total population. Of the 183 million whites in 1998, police killed 225; of the 27 million blacks, police killed 127. While the rate (per million population) at which blacks were killed by police in 1998 was about 4 times that of whites, the difference used to be much wider: the black rate in 1978 was 8 times the white rate.

    The BJS study also found that black suspects were also as likely to shoot at police as be shot at.

    In the deadly force experiments participants (85 percent white) face a life-sized HD video screen on which the stance, clothing, hand motions, objects being held, and race of suspects can all be modified. The subjects are hooked up to brain wave measuring devices and can respond using a laser gun. The press materials from Washington State University detailing the results report:

    Participants in an innovative Washington State University study of deadly force were more likely to feel threatened in scenarios involving black people. But when it came time to shoot, participants were biased in favor of black suspects, taking longer to pull the trigger against them than against armed white or Hispanic suspects…

    [WSU researcher Lois] James’ study is a follow-up to one in which she found active police officers, military personnel and the general public took longer to shoot black suspects than white or Hispanic suspects. Participants were also more likely to shoot unarmed white suspects than black or Hispanic ones and more likely to fail to fire at armed black suspects.

    “In other words,” wrote James and her co-authors, “there was significant bias favoring blacks where decisions to shoot were concerned.”

    http://reason.com/blog/2014/09/03/study-people-more-likely-to-shoot-white

    • WTP said, on January 20, 2015 at 12:33 pm

      “In other words,” wrote James and her co-authors, “there was significant bias favoring blacks where decisions to shoot were concerned.”

      So there was a racial bias. Everyone is a little bit racist. Just proves Mike’s point. For once.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 21, 2015 at 2:52 pm

      For every study, there is an equal and opposite study.🙂

      But, I am not making stuff up-the study I mentioned is not made up. The study you mention mentions the studies that I mention.

      The study you mention is certainly interesting. One rather relevant claim is that “the authors of the study say the reaction delay is because officers fear that there will be greater repercussions from shooting a black suspect than a white one.”

      This could be taken as being the result of recent events and thus would be consistent with the older studies. That is, the older studies were accurate, yet conditions have changed. It would be interesting to do the study again after the media focus on cops shooting unarmed blacks fades. I suspect that the old bias will re-assert itself.

      Most importantly, the reason I mention that study is to support the claim that people are racially biased. While the bias shown in the study you mention is the opposite, the study still shows significant bias based on race.

      • TJB said, on January 21, 2015 at 9:55 pm

        So you are expanding the definition of racism so that *favoring* minority groups is now racist?

        • ronster12012 from Oz said, on January 22, 2015 at 12:26 pm

          TJB

          It goes without saying that to discriminate in favour of one group means discriminating against another group.
          Who gets favoured is then simply politics……….and that is where we are today in our respective countries, race based politics for now and forever more, enjoy!

        • wtp said, on January 22, 2015 at 10:09 pm

          TJ, tell me this. I’m real curious. On a scale of 1 to 10, where one of Mother Teresa’s nuns is a 10, Bill Belichick is a 5, George Costanza is a 3, and Joe Isuzu is a 1, where would you rate Mike’s honesty? And also for reference, so as not to dictate a scale, where would you put Bill Clinton?

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 23, 2015 at 2:54 pm

          Good question. Classic racism is seen as negative-that is, being biased against people. But, there is certainly “positive” racism in the sense that people are favorable biased and prejudiced in favor of a race. I did a piece on this a while back.

          But, if you want to limit racism to being negative, we’ll need a term for positive racism.

  3. TJB said, on January 22, 2015 at 11:40 pm

    I will say one thing. I have yet to see Mike engage in a Socratic dialog in which his position was modified in response to the dialog.

    • WTP said, on January 23, 2015 at 11:16 am

      Queuing the “Oh, not at all…” response in 3…2…1…

      OK, using your mode of discussion…Agree. In over five years of discussion I have yet to see a substantive response to genuine disagreement. Can one present oneself honestly as a philosopher while behaving in the manner in which you describe?

      • T. J. Babson said, on January 23, 2015 at 12:01 pm

        I’m afraid Mike is more of a polemicist than a philosopher as his positions do not evolve. For example, you have made many telling criticisms of his economic ideas to which he has never even attempted to respond.

        However, Mike writes well, and his essays are usually pretty interesting. For the most part I think he is doing better than the average op-ed columnist.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 23, 2015 at 3:25 pm

          I’d be a strange sort of polemicist: I’m not hostile and I present reasonable arguments against my own views.

          I should quote you on the back of my next book: “…better than the average…”🙂

        • wtp said, on January 23, 2015 at 10:24 pm

          That first part, yes. The second not so much.

        • WTP said, on January 27, 2015 at 10:34 am

          TJ, one last point. Regarding your observation “Mike writes well…”, there’s a new app out, which also has a related web page, called Hemingway. It’s in beta, but this thing is real cool. Here’s a link to the web version:

          http://www.hemingwayapp.com/beta/index.html

          You click on the “Write” button, input your text, and then hit the “Edit” button. It highlights weaknesses in your writing, flaws, etc., provides suggestions on improvement, and even gives you a “grade” for your work. The grade is in the form of “8th grade level”, etc. I ran Mike’s above post through it. Came back 8th grade level. For sh*ts-n-grins, I ran one of my posts from several years ago on my now-idle blog, re:

          http://shermanscowlick.typepad.com/blog/2011/01/why-a-duck.html

          Came back with a grade of 11th grade. Not great, but don’t consider myself much of a writer. Haven’t used it much beyond that but thought it way cool and hopefully will be very helpful.

          • TJB said, on January 28, 2015 at 1:05 am

            Hemingway is a pretty cool app.

  4. ronster12012 from Oz said, on January 22, 2015 at 11:57 pm

    Hi Michael

    Thanks for the interesting topic.

    ………………………………………………………….
    “Interestingly, studies have shown that the alleged racism is not confined to white Americans: black Americans also seem to share this racism. ”
    ………………………………………………………….

    Not confined to white americans? It is absurd to suggest that ‘racism’ could possibly be confined to white americans, unless of course the accusation was not about any objective truth but was merely a political weapon to manipulate whites for money and power.

    …………………………………………………
    ‘In informal terms, racism is prejudice, antagonism or discrimination based on race. Since various studies show that people have prejudices linked to race and engage in discrimination along racial lines, it seems reasonable to accept that everyone is at least a bit racist.’
    …………………………………………………

    If everyone is a little bit racist then perhaps it is biological or at least hardwired in some way. If that is the case then it probably serves some survival value……..non racist groups having ceased to exist. The next question then would have to be whether ‘racism’ is a sin or a virtue. It may be that it is a virtue from a racial survival POV, but only a sin from a modern day political POV. If that is the case then shouldn’t we abandon this fools errand?

    Actually another question could be is it possible to actually be non racist? Under normal everyday life I am sure it it is easy as it is then simply a question of manners, but, put anyone in an alien environment for long enough and they will start to be annoyed, then angry then actually hate those around them(unless they start to hate their own race and identify with the other).

    ………………………………………………….
    “So, if the expression “we are all a little bit racist” should not be used, what should replace it?”
    ………………………………………………….

    Nothing? Or is that too much to ask? It was a phoney campaign from the start and aimed soley at whites. If that isn’t racist then I don’t know what is. If it were in any way real then *all* racism would be equally targetet but when do we ever here a running commentary that asians (especially japanese), jews, indians, or black africans in africa are racist as hell.

    Perhaps we have hit ‘peak racism’ and it is all downhill from here, or, perhaps as the term is sooooo overused, if everything is racist then actually nothing is racist….end of racism.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 23, 2015 at 2:58 pm

      You are welcome.

      Oh, I know that racism is an equal opportunity thing. But, it is still interesting to find that black Americans share the prejudices of white Americans against other blacks. Generally speaking, of course.

      Some of the foundations of racism probably have some hard wiring, most likely wariness or fear of those who look different. But, there are those who claim that this has to be learned.

      True-making everything X tends to render the concept of X useless.


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