Tuesday, November 15, 2016

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]


Arnold said...

Thank you for your work...For the longest time humanity has had the whole planet to explore and understand as individuals in groups...
...Is the attitude of an individual still useful for individuality today; does difference matter for one to interact with life...or do we all just go with the flow now...

Callan S. said...

Kind of the problem here is the simplicity of morality and trying to call it as an impetus. I mean, imagine two bars and as long as you keep your behavior between them, you're considered okay in terms of racism. But morality doesn't really allow a bit of racism, does it? A bit of moral pollution? I mean, just the phrase 'a bit of racism', probably sets off hackles, right? Does for me (though I'm not advocating a responce to such hackles).

The moral impetus is absolute sanction. I'd suspect it takes decades or hundreds of years of culture to go from a raw absolute sanction to the practicality of the two bar approach (practical, because none of us are perfect gods (and those who feel they are probably could be tested as to their introspective skills and be found to be lacking)). But Trump just may trigger a return to raw, absolute moral sanction. And those who hovered near the bars may just abandon the bars altogether as the shackles of those who treat themselves morally superior.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Interesting point. This is why it's important to recognize one's "moral mediocrity" in my sense and not be excessively alarmed or defensive upon seeing evidence of one's failure to meet high moral standards!

George Gantz said...

What about the racism of discomfort? A person can cognitively accept the idea of equality, be free of deep biases, and welcome the idea of intermingling, intermarriage and mixed race children, and yet still be “uncomfortable” with someone who is different and unfamiliar. If white, do you feel more nervous in a crowd of black people? I’m not sure this falls in the category of implicit racism and may deserve a category of its own. In either case, behavior will follow. The discomfort of unfamiliarity, differences in culture, level of education or economic status, will lead to self-selected and perhaps mutually chosen segregation.

I’m also curious about the other side of the equation. What are the dynamics of the perception of racism? Clearly there is a long and deep history of white privilege and racism in this country. That has to have an effect on the disposition of the underprivileged individual to perceive racism --- much of the time this is likely to be or has been a correct perception. But will there also be times when an event is coincidental, accidental or dependent on other factors and yet the natural perception will be to blame the outcome on racism? Flip this around --- we can see that the economic hardship of less educated whites in this country has, by some, been perceived to be a consequence of immigration and has resulted in anger directed at immigrants including people of color.

So what do we do about all this? Encourage self-reflection and education and, perhaps, opportunities for divided groups to interact with each other, perhaps by working together on shared (and probably local) concerns?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for that comment, George! Discomfort of the sort you describe would normally be counted under the heading of implicit racism, but possibly it's also worth pulling out as a distinctive phenomenon in its own right. It's an interesting question to what extent targets of racism overperceive vs underperceive racism. I'm not aware of direct empirical research on that question. (Maybe there is some.) Surely people might overattribute racism in some cases. But also there will be cases of underattributing it -- attributing a negative interaction to mood, or assuming that how you're being treated is just how everyone is being treated, or assuming that a professor's disinterest in you is due to your lack of ability....

On what to do: Your list seems like a good start. High-visibility counter-stereotypical exemplars also appears to have substantial effects as measured by standard tests of implicit bias, at least short term.

Arnold said...

Regarding 'postures of the mind' seeming to reduce the attributes of the mind to partiality in behaviors, akin to intellect and feeling lacking/seeking will...
...Are our minds capable of one attitude for all of its parts..

Heath White said...


Let me ask more about your racism of indifference.

You do not “disregard and deprioritize” Iceland in your decision-making, I imagine. You just don’t prioritize it. That is, “It would be good for Iceland” is not an extra reason for doing something, above and beyond reasons like benefiting the human beings who happen to live in Iceland.

Now it seems to me the indifferentist is in much the same position with regard to, say, people of color. They do not deprioritize such people, they just don’t regard “it would be good for POC” to be an extra reason for doing something, above and beyond reasons like benefiting the human beings who happen to be POC. On your view, AFAICT, this is still racism.

So on the view you outline, if I understand correctly, a genuinely non-racist person would have to take “It would be good for POC” as an extra reason for doing something (e.g. voting for President), above and beyond whatever color-blind reasons there are for doing it.

Now the question arises, how much of an extra reason is that? Does doing good (/preventing harm) to POC always get lexical priority in a non-racist’s decisions? Is there a principled way to answer this question?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the question, Heath. My aim in the post was not to argue that to be entirely free of racism requires giving people of color *higher* priority in one's decision-making. The idea is more like this: One way to be not entirely free of racism is to give people of color *less* priority than others in your community or country -- that is, giving them a priority more comparable to what most people in the U.S. give to people in Iceland.

I can see how "indifference" could be read in different ways, and I apologize if I wasn't clear. One might be "indifferent" to race in the sense that a person's race really has no influence one way or another on one's thinking. If that is a form of racism at all, it's a subtle one. (I could imagine someone arguing that it is a form of racism to not give race its due if one is an an epistemic position to do so; but I am not making that argument here.) An alternative way of reading "indifference" is the one I intended here: One is indifferent (relatively) to the well being of the target race ("I don't care what happens to Black people") while one is *not* in the same way indifferent to the well being of some other preferred race. That is the type of indifference I have in mind.

steve02476 said...

Wonderful essay - I've been thinking a lot about these issues myself.

One part I'm not clear about - near the beginning where you discuss "dispositions constitutive of all-out racism" the last item you mention is "preferring social policies that privilege your preferred race."

People prefer or oppose social policies for many reasons and reasonable people disagree about whether any particular policy is beneficial or not -- in general and for any particular race. This leads me to a lot of questions, but here are a couple:

* if a person from a non-dominant race prefers a policy that helps their own race, is that racism?

* if a person from a dominant race prefers a policy (termed racist by some) but prefers the policy for reasons having nothing to do with race, is that racism?

Unknown said...

Great clarificatory question! Really helped me understand indifference

Callan S. said...

That racism of discomfort feels like the two bars being pressed inward, toward meeting and leaving no freedom of movement in between.

I mean, why call it a racism if you're not going to act on it - that'll degrade the word so it's associated with inaction.

And acting on it is literally punishing people for them feeling discomfort! Not everyone likes the same types of music, but we have to be a fan of every race? That's pretty unrealistic and the sort of backlash it'd get from Trump supporters is, I think, partially legitimate.

Lorenzo said...

Not sure my previous comment went through. Anyway, also relevant is this excellent post (essay really).

Lorenzo said...

While I accept the useful parsing you offer, I am dubious about covering all this under the term racism. If the same term is going to encompass everything from the Holocaust, to Apartheid, to Jim Crow to not caring what happens to black people, or complaining that too many Silicon Valley CEOs coming from South and East Asia, then it is far too blunt an instrument to be useful for anything other than name calling.

Part of what has been going on is that the accusation of racist! is being wildly over-used. Both in the sense of being used far too loosely and in the sense of lumping things of very different moral import into the same category.

Given how useful the term is, both as a means of status-aggrandising ("I am so much more moral than you, because you're racist!") and argument blocking (hence the US conservative joke "who's a racist? someone who is winning an argument with a liberal") the incentive is to define it too broadly and use it too indiscriminately.

Especially when one starts looking for hard evidence of its actual extent, which is rather thinner than many folk seem to think. Particularly so, given racism is used to label behaviour that can have very different explanations. Something that is particularly easy to do about folk whose experiences and outlooks are very different from one's own.

You might find this post of interest. http://slatestarcodex.com/2016/11/16/you-are-still-crying-wolf/

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the continuing comments, folks!

Steve: The dispositions are intended to be "ceteris paribus" (all else being equal) and to capture patterns. All else being equal, is there a pattern of preferring social policies that privilege your favored race? Of course, favoring a few specific policies for individual reasons having nothing to do with race, even if they happen to favor a certain race, is not a pattern, nor given those other reasons do they meet the ceteris paribus criterion.

Callan: I don't think what is in your private experience is irrelevant, even if you don't act on it -- though action is more irrelevant. One wedge into this issue is to think about the importance of phenomenal experience in general -- arguably, our stream of experience is the very thing that gives meaning to life. It doesn't follow from the latter consideration that phenomenology should be an important aspect of the dispositional structure constitutive of attitudes, but you can see how the two ideas fit together in a package.

Lorenzo: Thanks for the links. To say that a person is "racist" is kind of a crude tool, if it's meant to encompass everything from explicit white supremacy through the kinds of cases I mean here. Of course, that's not what I'm doing in this post. I am discussing ways in which we might be not quite free of racism, hopefully with a somewhat nuanced sense of the different types of manifestation.

Callan S. said...

Eric, I can't tell if you are arguing for the bars that mark the borders of acceptable behavior on the matter to be closed towards each other until they meet, in the name of 'phenomenal experience'?

It sounds like that every time phenomenal experience/that private experience seems to not be treated meaningfully, to dink the bars towards each other a little more to make it meaningful.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Callan: I'm not sure how perfectionist to be about phenomenal experience. But one angle into our possible disagreement is in your use of "acceptable". "Acceptable" suggests a threshold of permissibility, which in turn invites the idea that there might be things that are permissible but not ideally good. I'm suspicious of thresholds of permissibility in ethics, as a general matter, favoring a more perfectionist notion of the good alongside a vision of tolerance and forgiveness and self-recognition of the fact that we all fall short of perfection to some degree or other. (This is my "moral mediocrity" view.)

Callan S. said...


I'm suspicious of thresholds of permissibility in ethics, as a general matter, favoring a more perfectionist notion of the good alongside a vision of tolerance and forgiveness and self-recognition of the fact that we all fall short of perfection to some degree or other. (This is my "moral mediocrity" view.)

How does recognition of falling short of perfection somehow end up as something other than simply enacting thresholds of permissibility?

I'm given the suspicion that the notion described is to think of ones own self imperfection and to think of it really, really hard - as if thinking it really hard is the thing that matters, rather than physical outcomes. A challenging responce, I grant, but aversion to thresholds of permissibility while favouring self recognition for its own sake seems an agenda of purely mental management of the issue, rather than any physical management - it brings to my mind some nightmarish permutations.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for pushing on that issue, Callan. I think one difference between permissibility and recognition of falling short by a perfectionist standard is this: With permissibility and a low bar, there's a kind of license not to improve. (I'm doing nothing wrong -- no need to change!) Recognition of falling short of perfection doesn't grant such a license, exactly, though it is also compatible with self-forgiveness. If one helps oneself that too that forgiveness too easily, though, then it collapses into a permissibility view. Something like that.

Callan S. said...

With permissibility and a low bar, there's a kind of license not to improve.

And? /:o

I mean, doesn't it seem paternalistic to treat the person as if they could never improve (by a certain standard) their own thinking after their own ruminations? Ie, self initiated rather than because someone else cracked a whip?

I'd get the idea of lower key pressures, like not inviting them to the christmas party if they continue - but we are talking about a charge of racism here, which suggests (one might say threatens) a stronger sanction than being struck off the party list. Being struck off the party list is still permissive, it's just removing a carrot that could have been had otherwise.

But yes, people might not improve. But on the other hand that's by one's own standards that they haven't. What if ones own standards aren't all that great themselves - might be worth live and let living.

The nightmarish opposite of this that comes to my mind I might call a Paladin scenario. Maybe all soft and squishy as to ones own fallibility on the inside, but iron to everything outside of that. Iron and only iron.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Callan, I'm having a little trouble seeing what is driving your comments. Who is cracking a whip? How am I being paternalistic? Did I mention not inviting people to parties?

On my view, we're probably all not quite free of bias, of various sorts, including (for most of us) racial bias. I'd like to encourage us to recognize this about ourselves and and see it as something that we could all work on improving.

If the only people admissible to parties are those who are entirely free of any objectionable biases, the dance floor is going to be a pretty empty place.

Callan S. said...

C'mon, Eric, you've just wholesale rejected my post - I've explained a reasoning behind the points I've raised, but you're asking like they just came up out of the blue with absolutely nothing behind them! Speaking of biases, surely at some level you suspect you could potentially be enacting some kind of bias in your reply? If using the word 'racism' isn't to crack a certain whip, either I am way, way off (and a bias would certainly see it that way) or we are way, way talking past each other.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I guess we're talking past each other? Saying that to have certain tendencies in one's behavior is to be not quite free of racism is not, in my view, "cracking the whip" or being paternalistic. Of course, to be not quite free of racism is, in my view, not ideal. No one is ideal. We should strive to be better. But not all normative claims about ideals are harsh and paternalistic, right? I hope it's also clear enough that I'm not offering myself up as an example of someone entirely free of prejudice?

Callan S. said...

I think you've taken my comment as applying to someone in particular, Eric - when you haven't named any particular person as being not quite free of racism and equally I haven't named any particular person as being paternalistic. I have written that the moral code in question seems paternalistic to me - if that moral code is up for some critique, it seems a valid critique to make to me (valid as in valid to convey in terms of general social contract with regards to argument - whether it is applicable in a technical sense is another question)

If that code is up for critique, I'm not sure the word 'racist' can be used in any other way than a whip. It's like saying someone is not quite free of being a neo nazi, or not quite free of being a rapist...or so my estimate of the common usage of the words goes.

But not all normative claims about ideals are harsh and paternalistic, right?

Not all car journeys end in fatalities, either. My discussion of the range of behaviors permitted is like a discussion of break cable integrity. Just in regard to critique of the moral code, to me have no range of permissiveness is like a cut break cable. It changes a lot about the normative claim/the car journey.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Callan --

So I read this as a general issue about the difference between a threshold conceptualization of ethics, on which there's a threshold of permissibility above which you're good enough and uncriticizable even if non-ideal, vs an perfectionist conceptualization of ethics on which there is an almost unattainable ideal and we are all criticizable to some extent for not achieving it. That structure or debate can apply to racism, as in this case, or being kind, or taking others' welfare into account, or being courageous, or lots of other things.

I do have some general thoughts about reasons to prefer a perfectionist ethics over a threshold ethics, but I'll save them for another time. (I have a post on this brewing, I hope.) Do you think that's the core here, or is it something specific about "racism"? This post could equally be "three ways of not being not quite free of selfishness" or "three ways of being not quite free of cowardice", yes?

Callan S. said...


I don't think it's specific to racism, but I do think it's related to how strong a social rebuke the word is. If you conducted a general population survey, being called a racist would likely be treated as a much bigger social rebuke than being called selfish, for example. While 'racist' remains a strong social rebuke*, it applies to it quite strongly. But yeah, it's not specific.

* Though Trump is no doubt working on reducing it or turning it into an accolade! *Boom!* Political comment, lol!

Callan S. said...

Heh, in regard to the party list bit, ran across this example: http://review31.co.uk/article/view/455/more-of-the-same

"Stuffed to the brim with joyless reductions like this, Homo Deus serves as a good reminder why old-school materialists are not normally the first names on your cocktail party invite lists."

I mean, people do seem to enforce sanctions like that, at times.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Callan: Yes, the term "racist" does seem to have quite a sting to it. That's good in a way, since it manifests the strong anti-racist opinions of our culture. But I also think the intense sting of it is troublesome in another way, since it makes it hard to be willing to countenance a fair examination of possible racist tendencies in one's behavior. Maybe "racial bias" is less stinging. I could have called the post "The Ways to be Not Quite Free of Racial Bias". Maybe that would have seemed less confrontational?