Can Blacks Be Racist?
The idea of “racism” arose from systems of race-based degradation, persecution, and suffering. In all these systems the perpetrating group were white and, with the partial exception of Nazism,1 the subordinated groups were people of color—Indians, American blacks, Africans. So in the original meaning of “racism” the assumption was that it was something that white people felt, believed, and practiced toward people of color.
The liberation of colonies from the European yoke, the end of legal segregation in the United States, and the recent ending of South African apartheid have heightened awareness that racism, at least in its personal mode, is no longer confined solely to whites. (Institutional racism is a different matter.) Contemporary use of the vocabulary of racism no longer confines it to whites; Chinese, blacks, Japanese, Latinos, and other people of color are recognized to include in their ranks racially bigoted persons and, more broadly, to be subject to racial prejudices. These attitudes can be directed toward other groups of color, toward whites, or toward members of one’s own group. People of color are also capable of developing belief systems based on racial superiority, in which some groups of color are superior and whites or other groups of color are inferior.
In my view, these attitudes and beliefs are all racist, and current usage generally so refers to them. A substantial body of literature, however, challenges the idea that people of color can be racist. The dispute about who can be racist could be primarily semantic. If racial hatred and prejudice were regarded with appropriate horror and condemnation, it would not much matter whether they are called “racist” or not. But, as we have seen, who and what gets labeled “racist” or “racism” is no mere semantic issue. Those words are currently the single most powerful weapon in the arsenal of moral condemnation in the racial arena. As generally understood, to be exempt from being “racist” is to escape severe moral censure.
Differences between white and black attitudes about racial matters in the United States have been well documented. Jennifer Hochschild, Donald Kinder and Lynn Sanders, and Howard Schuman et al. have all found striking gaps between whites and blacks2—in beliefs about the degree of social progress made by blacks and the extent of opportunities open to blacks; on the causes of continuing racial inequality; in support for government initiatives to enforce equal opportunity; in attitudes toward affirmative action; and on general optimism and pessimism about race relations.3 The “racial perception gap” was brought startlingly into the public eye in the widely divergent reactions to the verdict in the 1995 O. J. Simpson trial.
By themselves, these divergences are not equivalent to differences in the meaning of the concept of “racism.” They might just be disagreement about the extent of racism. Bob Blauner, however, has claimed that since the 1960s the two races have developed almost distinctive racial world-views, that are intertwined with different understandings of the term “racism” itself.4 As Blauner describes it, blacks define “racism” as patterns of racial inequality (for example, in schooling and criminal justice), whereas whites define it as departing from color blindness (to favor one racial group over another, for whatever reason).
In chapter 1 I argued against what Blauner sees as “the black view”—that it misleadingly omits personal forms of racism (or denies them significance) in favor of a purely systemic or institutional understanding of racism; I suggested that both personal and institutional forms of racism were significant. In chapters 3 and 4 I will argue, against Blauner’s “white view”, that departure from color blindness is not racist, much less a paradigm of racism (and that it can sometimes be a bad thing and sometimes a good thing).
Blauner also takes note of differing views of whether only whites can be racist. Anyone who has had extensive contact with college students will recognize that the divide here produces interracial tension, anger, bafflement, and lack of respectful communication. At the same time it is wrong and counterproductive to overstate the degree to which person’s racial identity correlates with her stand on whether only whites can be racist. Many whites hold that only whites can be racist and, conversely, many people of color reject it and believe that blacks, Asians, and other people of color can be racist.
The overracialization of opinions and viewpoints is an ever-present danger in interpreting statistical differences in racial groups’ views. For instance, 60 percent of whites think that blacks have equal or greater job opportunity than whites, while only 33 percent of blacks believe this.5 This is a huge and important difference, but it is still true from these figures that millions of whites (40 percent) do not think blacks have equal opportunity, and 33 percent of blacks do. Yet such a statistic is often popularly understood as “Whites believe blacks have equal opportunity; blacks do not.” Careful researchers like the ones mentioned above (Hochschild, Schuman) generally avoid licensing such distortion of their findings. But Blauner, for example, occasionally succumbs, as with the following unqualified remark: “Whites locate racism in color consciousness and its absence in color blindness.”6
One danger in overstating the differences is that it suggests that if you are white, then you should hold the view attributed to your group; and if you already do hold “the white view,” you are closed to arguments that might persuade you otherwise. Overstating the differences also discourages racially different persons from thinking it possible to reach a common understanding through respectful and rational conversation.
My goal of an adequate account of racism is entirely antithetical to race-based attachment to definitions of “racism.” I am seeking an account that will facilitate communication between groups about the character, forms, and extent of racism (and other race-related ills). For that we need some agreement on what racism is, and from there we can attempt to settle differences about its extent. But if the meanings of “racism” differ between groups, and if each is interested only in its own meaning, empirical inquiries about the extent of racism would produce little illumination.
Let us turn, then, to the charged issue of whether blacks and other people of color can be racist.
All Colors of Racists
Ruben Navarrette notes some Mexican American prejudice against blacks, shown in much stronger disapproval of Mexican-black than Mexican-white dating.7 Lyrics expressing racial hatred and glorifying violence against whites can be found in many popular songs, some by Grammy award winners who are black or Latino. (One example, by the group Apache: “Kill the white people; we gonna make them hurt; kill the white people; but buy my record first; ha, ha, ha.”8) Outside the United States, many Japanese have historically practiced a form of racism against Koreans (including ethnic Koreans in Japan), and against a subgroup of Japanese known as burakumin.9 Ethnic hatreds that make use of a racialized conception of ethnicity—Tutsi and Hutu in Rwanda and Burundi, Serb and Croat, Serb and Albanian—have intensified since the end of the Cold War. Arab migrants to Australia have viewed white Australians as having low moral standards, leaving their houses dirty, being inclined to drunkenness, and being uncommitted to their families.10 These stereotypes are at least close to being racist.
Some people of color employ the term “racism” to express race-based hatred and attitudes of racial superiority against whites. Lamond Godwin, a black man growing up in the South in the 1950s, says of the Catholic school he attended, “The nuns and priests kept us from being racists. The best people we knew were white—people we spent the whole day with… We had the Klan bombing churches, but we had these people on our side.”11 Forthrightly racist beliefs about whites are attributed to blacks by Orlando Patterson, who says that whites’ denying black peoples’ humanity “left most blacks persuaded that whites were less than human.”12 Students discussing prejudices and hatreds on the part of Asians against blacks, blacks against Puerto Ricans, and any similar combination frequently refer to these sentiments as “racist.”
Most of what has been called “racism” on the part of people of color is racial bigotry, hatred, and prejudice. Inferiorizing forms of racism are rarer among groups lower in the racial status order. Such forms are much more closely tied to social standing than are bigotry and hatred; it is difficult for members of subordinate groups to truly believe in their own superiority,13 as the dominant culture’s view of them is as inferiors who deserve their subordinate place. Nevertheless, as the quote from Patterson suggests, it is possible for blacks to regard whites as morally evil precisely because they regard and treat blacks inhumanly. In addition, whether it is genuinely believed or not, blacks can purvey what Bernard Boxill calls “the racism of black racial superiority.”14
In light of these instances of racial hatred and inferiorizing on the part of people of color, let us look at the arguments for not calling them “racism.”
Is Racism Prejudice Plus Power?
One common argument is that racism requires the possession of social power; in a white-dominated society like the United States, only whites have that power, and hence are the only group that can be racist. Joseph Barndt, a white antiracist pastor, puts this view well:
Racism is clearly more than simple prejudice or bigotry. Everyone is prejudiced, but not everyone is racist…To be racially prejudiced means to have distorted opinions about people of other races. Racism goes beyond prejudice. Racism is the power to enforce one’s prejudices. More simply stated, racism is prejudice plus power.15
Studs Terkel reports a similar view from a black student:
I can be prejudiced but not racist. To be a racist, you have to be able to oppress another race. To do that, you have to have economic and political power. Blacks don’t have that; whites do. Being prejudiced is something else. You have to prejudge. Many blacks may prejudge whites, because of all their past experiences.16
Yet, even if power were the arbiter of racism, people of color could still be racist. In nations in which people of color are in power, they can be racist against other ethno-racial groups. Idi Amin, Uganda’s ruler in the early 1970’s, stirred up ethno-racial hatred among Ugandan blacks against the ethnic Indian population of Uganda (some native-born), and many were driven from the country. Japanese prejudice against and inferiorization of ethnic Koreans in Japan is another example (even if Koreans and Japanese are seen in the West as being of the same “race”).
Such considerations might not be considered relevant, however, since arguments about whether only whites can be racist tend to focus only on the West, where whites are the group in power; so I will confine further discussion to that context. In the United States blacks or other people of color hold power over other ethnoracial groups in some municipalities and in institutions such as schools and hospitals. They can therefore exclude other racial groups on the basis of race. Thus if racism is prejudice plus power, people of color in power can be racist against those not in power. Consider a largely black school and a class within it that is black except for one white student. Several black students socially exclude the white student and intentionally make him feel uncomfortable in the class, calling him a “honky” and “white bread.” Let us assume that these students are genuinely bigoted against whites.17 In this particular context, blacks do have power, and are prejudiced against and discriminatory toward whites. Hence if racism is prejudice plus power, these students are racist toward the white student.
Although whites are the dominant racial group in U.S. society as a whole, the key point on which the “racism = prejudice + power” view draws, restricting the operation of power pertinent to a definition of racism to the overall structure of society seems arbitrary. If power to put one’s prejudices into action is the key factor in racism, what is the basis for ruling out any context in which people of color hold power over other racial groups, including whites?18 In the few, but increasing, cases in which people of color hold power in subinstitutions, this power should allow their racial prejudices to count as racism, on the account in question.19
One form of the argument that blacks can not be racist implies that the only kind of power relevant to racism is institutionalized power. Spike Lee says, “Black people can’t be racist. Racism is an institution.”20 This remark could be taken to mean that, strictly speaking, there is no individual racism, only institutional racism; in chapter 1 I rejected this view. But it could also be taken to mean that only individuals with institutional power can be (individually) racist.
The counter-examples I have provided to the argument that racism equals prejudice plus power have in fact generally involved such institutional power—controlling hiring in municipal institutions, being the ruler of a country, and the like. But in Barndt’s and Terkel’s student’s views, the relevant power is the power to put one’s prejudicial views and feelings into action, to harm or deprive of benefit the member of the racial group against whom one is prejudiced. Such power does not require institutional form. A statement (cited by Andrew Hacker) from Coleman Young, a former mayor of Detroit, is illuminating in this regard. He said that blacks in the United States “cannot be called racist, for the simple reason that they are an oppressed people. Racism, he has said, should be attributed only to those who have the power to cause suffering…Racism takes its full form only when it has an impact on the real world.”21 But people of color can cause suffering to whites out of racial antipathy, as Nathan McCall’s graphic depiction of his regretted youthful victimization of whites illustrates.22 The Southern Poverty Law Center’s periodic compilation of hate-based incidents always includes a small number of cases of blacks and Latinos attacking whites or other racial groups.23 The power to harm others through action motivated by racial prejudice goes far beyond institutional forms of harm. (The focus on institutional power may well arise from the influence of “institutional racism” as a general definition of “racism.”)
Perhaps under segregation many blacks nursed hatred of whites and wished they could harm them; but the costs of doing so were generally prohibitively high. The contemporary scene of racial interaction is very different. In many situations individuals or groups are in a position to harm members of other ethnoracial groups against whom they harbor prejudices or hatred. The harm need not be directly physical, but can also occur through exclusion, insult, or demeaning treatment. The ability of individuals to perpetrate such harm will often depend on the majority/ minority configuration in the immediate context, as in the example of the black students in a majority black school excluding the white student. In this context there is strength in numbers. But any individual can use fists or weapons to cause hate-driven harm outside such contexts. The power to harm others through racially prejudicial action is not limited to any racial group.
My argument may appear to have conceded that power is in fact central to racism. But I have not conceded that. My argument has been more limited. Definitions that build power into “racism” cannot also claim that blacks and other people of color cannot be racist. In my view, a lonely and isolated bigot, with no influence on anyone, is still a racist in a meaningful sense, and certainly possesses racist attitudes.24 It is the content of attitudes and beliefs that makes them racist, not whether their possessors have the power to put them into practice. I will argue below, however, that we should indeed be concerned about whether someone does have the power to implement her prejudices. Power does play a role in the moral seriousness of instances of racism, but not in its existence.
Who Cares about Prejudice?
Those who argue that blacks can not be racist appear to make a concession when they say (as Barndt’s and Terkel’s student do) that blacks can be prejudiced. From a moral point of view, however, this concession does not amount to much if “prejudice” is implied to be of negligible moral concern.
Barndt says that prejudice is “hav[ing] distorted opinions about people of other races.” He thereby omits the affective dimension of prejudice that involves racial antipathy and other negative sentiments, which are integral to the moral wrong of racial prejudice. Nor does Barndt focus on “distorted opinions” of an inferiorizing sort, such as that blacks are intellectually deficient, or subhuman. Terkel’s student, in calling prejudice “prejudging”, also omits the dimension of racial prejudice that involves morally objectionable sentiments. In addition her actual example of “prejudgment” is at best normatively ambiguous; she may partly be thinking that blacks’ experience of whites actually justifies them in prejudice against whites.
Spike Lee, in the interview in which he says that “racism is an institution,” echoes Barndt in dismissing prejudice: “Now black people can be prejudiced. Shit, everybody’s prejudiced about something. I don’t think there will ever be an end to prejudice. But racism, that’s a different thing entirely.”25 Both Lee and Barndt imply that because prejudice is universal, it is either not a matter of great concern or is something one can do little about, so why get too worked up over it.26 (By contrast, one should get worked up over racism.)
One could, of course, take the alleged universality of prejudice in the opposite moral direction: “We’re all in the same boat, so, together, let us try to do what we can to diminish prejudice in all of us.” But this is not the direction the blacks-can’t-be-racist adherents ever seem to go. This is no doubt due in part to the tendency, discussed in chapter 1, of racism to imperialize the moral/racial domain, rendering everything other than racism unworthy of serious moral attention. It is morally dangerous to dismiss racial prejudice as unworthy of such consideration. To do so is to invite students of color to avoid facing up to the moral odiousness of whatever racial prejudices they may have.
Is Racism Confined to Ideology?
As we saw in chapter 1, “racism” was originally used specifically in reference to a certain type of ideology, in which human groups identified by inescapable biological natures (and generally revealing these group natures in phenotypic differences) were ranked on a scale of superior and inferior. This history can be used as an argument for confining “racism” to whites, for it was only Europeans who developed such an ideology. Even the forms of ethnic inferiorizing found in Japan, for example, do not rest on such an elaborated ideology.
This argument deserves to be taken seriously.27 A version of it is put forth by Robert Miles in Racism, an indispensable text in understanding racism. As noted in chapter 1, Miles is concerned with the “conceptual inflation” that has afflicted the term “racism.” His target is primarily the concept of “institutional racism” (discussed in chapter 1), and his solution to the inflation problem is to confine racism to ideologies, although he allows these “ideologies” to be less fully developed and propositional than, say, segregationist or Nazi racist ideologies were. They can include images and less systematic beliefs. Although Miles does not directly say so, his confinement of “racism” to ideology is meant partly to return the term to an agreed-upon meaning deriving from its universally-recognized history.28
Using “racism as ideology” to support the view that only whites (or Europeans) can be racist is open to several objections. First, some ideologies developed by people of color would have to be accounted racist. The Nation of Islam, for example, has put forth the view that Europeans’ emergence from the Ice Age has condemned them to an inherent nature as “ice people” who cannot avoid attempting to dominate other peoples.29 This is indeed a racist ideology, and someone who believes it is an inferiorizing racist; but it would be a counter-example to the view that blacks could not be racist, even in Miles’s view.30
Second, if racism required racist ideology, some white racists would escape the charge of racism, as I argued in chapter 1. Some whites might hate Mexicans or Native Americans without believing in, much less being aware of the existence of, a full-scale ideology involving beliefs about biology, genetics, and hierarchy.
It is true that the racist must view the racial other in a negative light. But such a vague, general attitude is very different from a fully developed racial ideology. In the “racism as ideology” view, then, not only will some blacks or other people of color end up as “racist,” but some white racists will not.
Another reason sometimes offered for confining racism to whites is that when blacks manifest racial antipathy, it is generally either reactive to or compensatory for white racism toward them. To assess this view, we must first distinguish between being racist and being blameworthy for racism. Someone whose racist attitudes developed as a result of racist victimization may well be less blameworthy than someone whose racism stems from other sources.31 Nevertheless, this explanation does not mean that she is not racist, nor that she escapes responsibility for her racist attitudes and actions. Also there is a difference between reacting to one’s own victimization, or that of one’s loved ones, and reacting to the racial victimization of unknown members of one’s racial group. The former much more strongly mitigates responsibility for racism than the latter.
Moreover, hating persons who have victimized you and hating others who simply belong to the same racial group as your victimizers are very different. Only the second is racist. I once saw a documentary in which a white man had been beaten and robbed in his house by two black men. He said that he now hated all blacks and appeared to regard this as an entirely reasonable reaction to his victimization. This appears to be a case of “reactive racism.” But it is certainly morally wrong. It is even misleading to think of it as reasonable. The same applies to blacks or Latinos victimized by whites, even where there has been (as there often is) a pattern of such racial victimization, discrimination, and ill-treatment. It is still wrong to generate from such treatment animosity or antipathy to the entire group of whites. Perhaps during the segregation era it was reasonable for blacks, especially those who had very limited contacts with whites, to assume that every white person was “in on” the oppression of blacks. This would not have been true, but some blacks may not have been in a position to recognize this. In the contemporary United States, however, such a generalized racial antipathy—reactive racism—has no basis and is never justified.
It should not be thought, in any case, that all racism on the part of persons of color is reactive racism, even if, especially in the case of African-Americans, it takes place in the context of stigmatization and inequality. Elaborated racist philosophies, such as the black supremacist views of Elijah Muhammad as described by James Baldwin in The Fire Next Time, can not be regarded as mere reactions to white racism.32 They involve a degree of commitment that is not merely reactive but proactive. In addition, some racist thinking on the part of any group is a product of stereotyping, scapegoating, projection of personal failure onto external sources, and the like, not prompted by reactions to personal racial victimization. Finally, immigrant groups of color may bring indigenous racist ideas with them, in addition to whatever ones they pick up here in the United States.
Reactive racism, then, is still racism. It may in some cases be less blameworthy than nonreactive racism; but it is always a very bad thing and is never justified. In addition, not all racism on the part of persons of color is reactive racism.33
Moral Asymmetries in Racism
Accepting my argument that racism can be manifested in any racial group should reduce the sense of mutual anger and bafflement—or at least “talking past one another”—that so often attends conversations about race, especially across racial lines. Some who accept this argument take it a step further than I wish to, however, and cloud the issue from the other direction. In a discussion among junior high school students about racist name-calling toward Haitian students, one white student said that whites were targets of racial slurs by Haitian students as well. Her point may have been merely what I have been arguing—that racism does not go in only one direction. But the student seemed to imply something further; that the slurring of whites was morally equivalent to the slurring of the Haitians. One might call this the “all racism is equal” view. I have not seen this view argued for explicitly; still, the idea is implicit in much discussion of racism, where the logic seems to be thus: “If blacks can be racist against whites, and whites against blacks, and both are morally reprehensible, then they are equally morally reprehensible.”
All racism is not equal, however. There are what I will call “moral asymmetries” between racism against whites and racism against people of color.
A racist murder is worse than a racist joke. Some stereotypes are more racist than others. An intentionally threatening and demeaning display of a racist symbol is morally worse than an unwitting one. So obviously not every instance of racism is of equal moral concern.
In order to pin down the race-related asymmetries that the “all racism is equal” view denies, let us construe that view to be that “the moral seriousness of a racist act (attitude, belief, and the like) is not affected by the racial identity of the parties to it.”34 That is, racist acts of the same type, which are morally equivalent in all other respects, are also morally equivalent independent of racial identity. A black calling a white person “honky” or “white bread” is morally equivalent to a white calling a black “nigger.” A white person excluding a Mexican American from a business-related social gathering out of racial prejudice is morally equivalent to a Mexican American doing the same to a white person.
Against this view, I contend that the racial identity of the victim (and, to a lesser extent, the perpetrator) is indeed morally pertinent. Hatred of blacks against whites is not a primary form of racism; hatred of whites against blacks is. Some forms of racism are central and paradigmatic, others secondary. The former have defined for us what racism is. They are more directly tied to the rationale, discussed in chapter 1, for the intense moral opprobrium carried by the term “racism.” That rationale involved oppression, hatred, and discrimination against people of color, and most especially blacks and Native Americans, by whites, not the reverse. Everything else being equal, greater moral opprobrium rightly attaches to racism by whites against people of color than the reverse. This is the most important moral asymmetry in racism.35
There are four sources of moral asymmetry among forms of racism differentiated by perpetrator and target groups: historical legacy; positional inferiority; patterns and prevalence; and contribution to racial injustice. By and large these asymmetries correspond to racial groupings, and they reveal why racism of whites against people of color is of greater moral concern than that of people of color against whites.
A racist act against a member of a group that has suffered a strong historical legacy of racism carries the weight of that history and brings it down upon those who are the targets. In 1990 a young black man was killed in the white Bensonhurst section of New York, and blacks mounted demonstrations of protest. They were met by a large group of white residents, some of whom brandished watermelons in a contemptuous gesture toward the blacks. The force of the racial contempt was intensified by the whites’ use of this historical symbol of black slavery and subordination, which invokes an image of the happy, slow-witted, agreeable slave.
Similarly, display of the swastika evokes for Jews the Holocaust and its legacy of terror and genocide. Such display operates in part by eliciting fear and the psychic pain connected with those historical events. But the effect in both cases does not depend on the target’s believing that there is a real danger of slavery or the Holocaust actually recurring; it certainly does not require that the target think that the perpetrator is attempting to reinstitute that historical oppression. (Though the fear and sense of threat evoked are likely to be greater when the perpetrator is attempting this, as some white supremacist groups currently advocate.)
The historical legacy effect operates by way of the identity of the target group, insofar as that identity is bound up with the memory of oppression. Any manifestation of racism that carries such historical resonance renders it more morally offensive than an analogous one against a group without such a history. White people, considered as a racial group, have not suffered a history of such racial oppression, and acts of racism against them, morally offensive as they are, do not carry this historical resonance. A group of blacks waving loaves of white bread at some white people to express contempt, hatred, and exclusion can not carry the psychic force involved in invoking historical oppression. Acts of racism that partake of the historical legacy effect involve a more intense psychic harm and attack on group dignity.
The historical legacy effect makes for a clear asymmetry in otherwise similar acts. But the invoking of this effect can be subject to misuse; members of a group can “make too much of” their historical oppression—permitting it to play too central a role in their group-based identity (a fault akin to what I call racialism in chapter 3). African Americans frequently, understandably, and appropriately refer current manifestations of racism to slavery, but this connection can be overplayed and become counterproductive, as when slavery is invoked in a simplistic way to explain various ills affecting African Americans. Many Jews do something similar with regard to the Holocaust, claiming a victim status belied by their circumstances in the contemporary United States.
It is by no means easy to know where to draw the line. In 1995 the Library of Congress housed an exhibition on slavery, including material based on interviews with former slaves in the 1930’s and pictures from the Library’s archives. The exhibition aimed to show slavery from the slaves’ point of view, highlighting the texture of their lives and culture, and including slave resistance. Black staff, who had been involved in a long-running labor discrimination suit against the Library, objected to a large photo in the exhibit of a white overseer on horseback looking down on black cotton pickers. A staffer said, “It reminded me of the the white overseers here at the Library of Congress looking down over us to make sure we’re in the fields doing our work.” The protest caused the Library to dismantle the display, and the exhibition was taken up by a black-run institution, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, where it was popular and appreciated among African American viewers.36
For some whites especially, this incident would confirm the danger of what is sometimes called “hypersensitivity” to the historical legacy effect. The exhibit was very much meant to honor slaves and to be a strong statement against slavery; and however blacks were treated at the Library, it could not have been very much like the experience of slavery.
But a different lesson can more appropriately be drawn. Slavery remains an understandable metaphor to which current African American experience is referred—the most striking feature of African American historical experience in the United States. No doubt those who objected to the picture were quite aware of the differences between forms of discrimination suffered at the Library and working under a white overseer’s power to physically harm or kill. But the black-run library was a better venue for the exhibit than the Library of Congress, given the discrimination suit. Ideally the venue should not matter; the exhibit seemed to be of real merit, and to carry a lesson rightly welcomed by those inheriting the legacy of slavery. But black subordination is undeniably a part of the legacy of slavery and segregation, and until it no longer exists, these incidents point to a need to take it into account in public portrayals of African Americans.
The complaints of the employees, with their slavery-infused sense of grievance, can not be dismissed simply on the ground that the exhibit was itself critical of slavery—any more than that the use in schools of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn can be conclusively defended against many African American parents’ concern about the frequent use of the term “nigger” and the servile portrayal of the slave Jim solely by asserting that the book is clearly meant to be critical, rather than supportive, of slavery. The historical legacy argument helps us see the complexity here.
Moral asymmetries also arise from some racial groups’ unjust “positional” (as opposed to inherent) superiority to others, economically, socially, and politically. Obviously such an arrangement in its own right constitutes a type of moral asymmetry. Blacks, Mexican Americans, Native Americans, and others are the victims of this injustice, while whites are the beneficiaries. We are concerned here, however, not with this systemic aspect of racism in itself but only as an asymmetric context for personal racism.
The asymmetry here concerns primarily the intentionally inferiorizing form of personal racism. To declare or portray another racial group as humanly deficient always involves racism, and is an extreme failure to respect human dignity. The claim discussed earlier that whites are humanly and morally deficient because of the lack of melanin in their skin, for example, is racist and repulsive. But when an inferiorizing racist message is directed toward a group or member that occupies an unjustly disadvantaged position in the society, the message acquires a greater power to shame than when it is directed toward a positionally superior group or member. It shames by reminding the target that the inferiority declared in the message is reflected in the social order itself. Regarding black, anti-white views, no societal inferiority corresponds to the inferiority declared in the racist message, and thus it is less able psychically to wound the target, whose situation serves as a buffer against the attack. Again, however, though the message is less hurtful, it is still racist.
In some situations, the power relations between two groups are such that it would be virtually impossible for an inferiorizing remark to succeed in scorning or insulting a member of a positionally superior group. It is not hard to imagine whites so imbued with a sense of their own superiority that any racist inferiorizing such as is involved in The Nation of Islam’s outlook would seem ludicrous to them. Such an attack, though it would not carry the moral force of a successful racial insult (only an attempted one), would not, however, render the attacker less than blameworthy, if the source was racial contempt.
Subordinate vs. Vulnerable Groups
Before introducing the third type of moral asymmetry we must distinguish between two different categories of targets of racism. A “subordinate” group is “positionally inferior,” as just discussed. Such a group, which in the United States comprises blacks, Native Americans, Mexican Americans, and Puerto Ricans, and others, includes those most frequently thought of as victims of racism.
Other ethnoracial groups, however, are “vulnerable” to racism yet are not subordinate. Japanese Americans, Jews, Indian Americans, and Arab Americans are examples. By general measures of economic, social, and civic well-being, these groups are doing better than average. Yet these groups are frequent targets of racial hatred, prejudice, and offensive stereotyping. This hatred sometimes breaks out into violence, even murder.37
Vulnerable groups are much less likely than subordinate groups to be targets of inferiorizing racism, except that they are sometimes thought of as morally inferior, or (especially in the case of Jews) positively evil. Arab-Americans are often stereotyped as terrorists, also an example of an evil-based stereotype. In part the difference exists because inferiorizing racism gets much more of a grip when the group being attached is positionally inferior. Vulnerable, nonsubordinate groups are more often targets of antipathy racism.
Patterns and Prevalence of Racist Acts
Both vulnerable and subordinate groups are targets of personal racism more often than are nonvulnerable, nonsubordinate groups. Asians, Jews, African Americans, Latinos, and Hispanics experience much more personal racism than do Irish Americans, Norwegian Americans, and Polish Americans. Groups that experience a greater prevalence and more pervasive patterns of racism are morally asymmetrical, with regard to personal racism, to those which do not. This is obviously so in regard to the degree of racism; groups that experience more racism are worse victims of racism than those that experience less. But that is not the only source of asymmetry, and is not what I mean here.
The “patterns and prevalence” asymmetry applies to individual racist acts. When patterns of racism exist, any individual act will tend to evoke them in the mind of the target individual or group. Hatred directed toward a group that is often attacked is more likely to result in fear, self-doubt, and concern about acceptance and equal treatment. One whose group is an infrequent target, such as Norwegian Americans, is much more likely to be able to slough off the psychic impact of a racial slur as an isolated incident than is the frequently targeted group member, who is more likely to be scarred and ground down by it. For the African American or Native American, the slur invokes the whole pattern of racial insults and humiliation that he, or his people, suffer. It is thus much more difficult for him to slough off the effect of the individual incident as bizarre, a fluke, or as not likely to be repeated.
But might not the psychological effect of repeated put-downs be precisely the opposite of what I have said? Might not the black individual become inured, precisely because she experiences it more frequently; while the Norwegian might be thrown for a loop, just because it is so unexpected? Certainly this can happen. Victims of repeated racism do talk about trying to rise above it, not letting it get to them, continuing to go about their business. But this is not so easy to accomplish, and we should not assume that there is no psychic cost to the black individual, for example, who maintains a calm exterior in the face of such slights.
One way of attempting to protect oneself against repeated racial attacks involves psychic withdrawal from “white society.” This maneuver comes at a high price. One no longer aspires to a full, equal, and shared ownership of the major institutions, public spaces, and social milieus of one’s society. One trades off social and civic engagement in the multiracial society for psychic equilibrium. Moreover, such attempts at psychic protection may well not be successful even on their own terms.
When there is a pattern of racism against a group, individual instances of it are of greater moral weight than when such a pattern is lacking. This asymmetry is related to the “historical legacy” phenomenon, as groups with current patterns of racism against them generally also have a historical legacy of racism (whose effect continues into the present). But the overlap is by no means exact. Blacks and Native Americans suffer from the historical legacy effect much more than any other groups; newer immigrant groups, such as Southeast Asians, might have strong patterns of racism against them without the intense historical legacy. (There have been outbreaks of racism against Asians since the first Chinese immigrants in the post-Civil War period; and Asians have been excluded from naturalized citizenship since the beginning of the Republic. Still, the intensity of victimization is not comparable to that of blacks and Native Americans.) Arab Americans too, are the target of often vicious stereotypes (as terrorists, or fabulously rich foreigners taking over “our” economy), yet they inherit little of an entrenched historical legacy of racism. In any case, the historical legacy effect works differently from the “patterns and prevalence” effect; the former invokes historical oppression, the latter pervasive racism or racial insensitivity in the present.
Both of these sources of moral asymmetry differ from the “positional inferiority” effect, which applies to subordinated groups only—not to vulnerable ones such as Jews, Arab Americans, and Japanese Americans. The latter groups are not positionally subordinated;38 but they can suffer from patterns of racism and, in some cases, a historical legacy as well. The latter, for example, applies to Jews in Europe to a much greater degree than Jews in the United States. The history of anti-Semitism is much stronger in Europe than in the United States, and the memory of the Holocaust and the forces that led to it are much more salient in the European consciousness. French and German laws criminalizing the public denial or minimizing of the Holocaust—laws unthinkable in the United States—reflect this difference, and they testify to the strong presence of the historical legacy effect in current instances of anti-Semitic racism against Jews.39
Contribution to Racial Injustice
A final source of racial asymmetry is the contribution of the racist action to the maintenance of systemic racial injustice. Racist acts, especially those involving exclusions and deprivations of social benefit (that is, acts of racial discrimination), contribute to such maintenance when their targets are members of disadvantaged groups, but not when they are members of advantaged groups. In sustaining injustice, antisubordinate racism is much more morally objectionable than the analogous act against a member of a dominant group. In a sense, an exclusion of, say, blacks—for example, black secondary school students being placed in low-track classes—affects blacks as an entire group, reinforcing their disadvantaged position. But an analogous exclusion of whites—being excluded from a science program for minority students, for example—does not have a similar impact on all whites, or on whites as a group.
The “contribution to injustice” effect is related to the “positional inferiority” effect in that both depend on structural relations of injustice between groups. They differ in that the former concerns the impact of an individual act on those structures, while the latter concerns the impact of those structures on the individual group member’s psyche.
The four forms of moral asymmetry—historical legacy, positional inferiority, patterns and prevalence of racism, and contribution to racial injustice—suggest that all racism is not equal. More specifically, racism of whites against people of color is, everything else being equal, of greater moral concern than the reverse. It is closer to the historical systems of racial oppression and injustice that provide the defining context of “racism.”40
Moral Asymmetry and Individual Responsibility
The asymmetry of moral concern does not translate neatly into race-based asymmetries of moral responsibility. It does not follow, for example, that a white racist is more morally evil than a black racist, nor that a Puerto Rican’s prejudice against white people is morally worse than the reverse, nor that a white individual is any more blameworthy or morally responsible for her racist attitudes or behavior than is a black individual (although the earlier discussion of “reactive racism” is pertinent here).
The asymmetry does mean, however, that (everything else being equal) white prejudice is laden with weightier, morally more significant meanings than are black prejudices. These meanings, as expressed in the four forms of moral asymmetry, should become part of a taken-for-granted discourse about racial issues. Their existence implies that whites should recognize that their prejudices carry these meanings, and, for that reason, can do greater psychic damage. Failure to acknowledge these asymmetrical moral meanings can constitute a kind of moral negligence.
Conversation about racial matters often omits the historical and social contexts behind these four asymmetries. Americans in general, and whites in particular, are often strikingly unattuned to their own history, and to that history’s impact on the present. They fail to appreciate the significance of slavery, segregation, racial restrictions on citizenship and immigration, and the like. Related to this ignorance or indifference, though partly independent of it, many whites also do not appreciate the current structural and systemic dimensions of the situations of different racial groups. Polls consistently show that many whites think that the passing of antidiscrimination laws means that people of color face no significant barriers, relative to whites, in their aspirations to a good life; or they nominally acknowledge these barriers but do not follow the logic through to a recognition that equal opportunity does not exist and can only be created through public action.41
The four forms of moral asymmetry work the same way. Though a white individual is not more racist or more morally evil in harboring racial prejudice than is a black individual, the moral asymmetry makes the consequences of her prejudices, and of the acts expressing them, worse than those of the black individual. In this sense they are worthy of greater concern.
I have argued that people of color can be racist, and their targets of racism can be whites, groups of color other than their own, and even their own group (in the form of internalized racism). The extent of racism then becomes a matter for empirical investigation. It is quite conceivable that, at some particular point in time, blacks on the average might be more racially prejudiced against Latinos than are whites. Racial hostility, hatred, and prejudice has many sources—personal pathologies, socialization, economic competition, cultural attitudes, the dominant society’s attitudes. So the prejudices of people of color may in some cases stem from different sources than whites’ prejudices. Nevertheless, they are all instances of racism, and are all morally objectionable.
Apart from the philosophical arguments I have presented, from a pragmatic point of view I think we in the United States would do well to regard bigotry and (the less frequent) inferiorization on the part of people of color as forms of “racism.” The racial order of our nation is changing in deeply important and structural ways. The central role of blacks in defining what racism is all about is being weakened. Latinos are essentially equal to blacks as the largest ethnoracial minority. The ranks of Native Americans doubled between the 1990 and 2000 Census, in part because more people are claiming that identity. Asian Americans, though still a relatively small minority, are the most rapidly growing one. The “white/black” paradigm for understanding racism must give way. That fact in itself is causing resentment among some African Americans; as Harlon Dalton reports, some blacks resent ceding victim-of-racism status to other nonwhite groups, and even to African immigrants.42 Hostilities among different groups, stemming from various forms of competition, reflections of age-old white American prejudices, prejudices indigenous to the immigrant groups, inevitable scapegoating, and other factors, will continue to generate racial antipathies among some persons of color.
Ascribing “racism” to whites only seriously exacerbates problems of interracial dialogue. It feels to many whites that the onus of racial problems is placed entirely on them, and that people of color are absolved from responsibility. As long as “racism” remains the designator of the most grievous racial wrongdoing, to say that some groups are automatically exempt from that charge is deleterious to the sense that we are all responsible for and prone to racial ills, and that we need to work together to address them. Breathing life into a wider vocabulary of moral malfeasance in the racial domain—racial prejudice, racial injustice, racial insensitivity—and according the phenomena in question appropriate moral concern would help. It would render the dispute over the meaning and reach of “racism”—serious as it is—less fraught with moral overload.
At the same time, although members of all groups are capable of racism, not all racism is equal. It matters, morally, whether the perpetrator is white and the victim nonwhite, or the reverse. Racism against the vulnerable and subordinated is of especial moral concern, and a failure of whites to acknowledge the fundamental asymmetries rooted in our racialized history is equally deleterious to racial understanding.