On the Meaning of Racism
In a recent post, “How is Anti-Semitism to be discussed?”, I argued that a careful definition of anti-Semitism is necessary in order to resist, on one hand, the silencing of important debate that has been effected in the name of the utopian goal of stopping all ethnic intolerance including anti-Semitism, and, on the other hand, the rejection of the very concept of anti-Semitism—and thus the licensing of anti-Semitism—that we increasingly see in some sectors of the right. As a spur to such a discussion, perhaps the chapter on the meaning of racism from my 1990 pamphlet, The Path to National Suicide: An Essay on Immigration and Multiculturalism, might be helpful. (A .pdf and printed edition of PNS is available here.) In this chapter I attempt to delineate a coherent and limited definition of racism that can be tested against reality and thus used to critique the indiscriminate charges of racism that dominate contemporary society. While the chapter does not touch on anti-Semitism, its analysis could be readily applied to that topic as well. I welcome further suggestions toward useful definitions of both terms. This was an essay, not a definitive statement. However, I am convinced that without something like the approach that I take here, we will remain mired in the current polarization and paralysis.
Except for a few punctuation changes, the text is as it appears in the original. Footnote references have been omitted.
Chapter Three from The Path to National Suicide:
Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.
There is, of course, one inevitable and supposedly crushing rebuff to everything I have said so far about the danger posed by unrestricted immigration—that the very idea of such a danger is “racist.” Since it is the fear of this charge that has prevented the American people from even touching the issue in a serious way, this essay will not be complete without examining the question of racism with some care. As we all know by now, racism, like witchcraft, is a difficult charge to defend oneself against. The reason is that the word no longer has a defined meaning. I was first struck by this phenomenon several years ago when New York City’s closing of a hospital in Harlem, as part of an economy move, was ferociously denounced as “racist” by black leaders. This was a new and startling use of a highly charged word that I had associated mainly with race hatred. “Racism” now apparently meant anything that, in the view of black people, hurt their interests or offended them or, indeed, anything they did not approve of. In recent years, this limitless definition has come to include the entire structure of our predominantly white society, as well as all white people. As reported by Robert R. Detlefsen in the April 10, 1989 issue of The New Republic, a speaker at a recent “racism awareness” seminar at Harvard said that 85 percent of white Americans are subtle racists and the remaining 15 percent are overt racists. The speaker mentioned the following examples of “racist attitudes” even among compassionate whites: they prefer the company of other white people, they are more likely to make positive assumptions about members of their own group, etc., etc. The New Republic went on to say that the audience, “like a religious congregation … consisted entirely of the already converted; when told of their manifest racism, they nodded in agreement. During the question period that followed the speech, no one rose to challenge [the speaker’s] contention that we are all guilty of racism.”
What we have here is an Orwellian version of Original Sin—complete with a new class of racism-awareness “priests” who will absolve us of the sin of racism if we show a penitent attitude, utter the required formulae, and—last but not least—give in to all their demands. America, whose whole past is racist, can only become “good” to the extent it overcomes the evil of racism. But since America is inherently racist, it can never succeed in doing that. It follows that America can only become a good country when it ceases to exist, i.e., when its European-rooted civilization is dismantled.
It does not take a genius to realize that in America today, “racism” is much more than a word; it is an instrument of thought control—even of terror. If we are to free ourselves from the resulting intellectual paralysis, we must insist that the word be defined. One of the duties of leadership, Irving Babbitt observed, is the responsible use of words:
Confucius, when asked what would be his first concern if the reins of government were put into his hands, replied that his first concern would be to define his terms and make words correspond with things. If our modern revolutionaries have suffered disillusions of almost unparalleled severity, it is too often because they have given their imagination to words, without making sure that these words corresponded with things; and so they have felt that they were bound for the promised land when they were in reality only swimming in a sea of conceit.Since “racism” has become the most highly charged and carelessly spoken word in our political vocabulary, no word is more in need of careful definition. I am not a sociologist or historian, and what follows is merely an attempt at a common-sense, provisional definition. But at least this will give us a term we can test against reality and thus use responsibly.
According to Webster’s, racism is “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race. It is thus not a belief in the existence of racial differences as such, but the belief that those differences produce an inherent racial superiority, that constitutes racism. On this basis, for example, we could describe as racist certain racial theories, current in the early 20th century, which classified every observable ethnic trait or behavior as an immutable racial characteristic, and on that basis determined that the Nordic race is inherently superior to other races.
So far Webster’s definition is helpful, but it only deals with racism as an intellectual theory. Explicit racist doctrines—except among groups such as the Nation of Islam— have notably declined in the last fifty years, and today we think of racism more as a matter of attitude and behavior than as a formal ideology. As an attitude, we may say that racism is contempt for members of a particular group because of their alleged inferiority or badness in relation to one’s own group, or that racism consists in the inability to see any member of the other group as a fellow human being. As action (and speech), racism consists of systematic oppression, violent acts, the stirring up of hatred, and so on.
I would say further that the racist belief in another group’s inferiority concerns their inherent worth as human beings, not a mere difference in some particular trait or talent. Otherwise, the distinction between an opinion regarding racial differences and a belief in racial superiority is lost. We may observe, for example, that Japanese are more disciplined and hard-working than Samoans, or that Africans on average have longer limbs than Caucasians, without denying anyone’s humanity. Depending on tone and context, such comparisons might or might not be invidious, but they are not inherently racist.
The virtue of this provisional definition is that it attempts to provide a clear and reasonable standard that distinguishes genuinely racist behavior from behavior which cannot be said to be racist by any reasonable standard but which is now routinely labeled as such. A well-known recent instance will show what I mean. When a television sports commentator named Jimmy (“the Greek”) Snyder remarked, in a chat with a reporter, that black athletes run faster than their white counterparts because as slaves blacks “were bred to have longer legs,” his network promptly fired him, declaring it “would not tolerate racism.” I think we would all agree that Snyder’s comment was offensive and insulting, as well as incorrect. But how in the world was it racist? The network did not bother to say. It was simply understood by everyone that the remark concerned race, that it was offensive, and that people (white people, that is) are not supposed to talk openly in today’s society about racial differences; therefore it was “racist.” Since he expressed no racial animosity or idea of inferiority, but had only talked about what he perceived as a physical difference, it is hard to comprehend how the remark could be racist, unless we conclude (1) that any statement that members of a particular racial group find offensive is, for that reason alone, racist, or (2) that the very idea that there are physically distinct races of mankind is itself racist. The first of these ideas was a theme of the Harvard conference mentioned above. Participants were told that professors teaching a class should never “introduce any sort of thing that might hurt a group”—a prescription for the massive repression of speech. As for the second idea, it’s simply absurd; if there were not these plainly discernible physical groupings of the human family, we would not even have a concept of race.
Apart from such ridiculous but common usages of “racism”—which I think any sensible person ought to reject—there is today the widely accepted idea of “institutional racism,” which we need to consider. In Portraits of White Racism, David T. Wellman argued that the traditional definition of racism as prejudice—defined as “a combination of hostility toward and faulty generalizations about racial groups”—was inadequate to account for America’s racial attitudes. Although the sentiments of many white Americans regarding racial issues “may not be prejudiced,” Wellman wrote, “they justify arrangements that in effect, if not in intent, maintain the status quo and thereby keep blacks in subordinate positions.” [Emphasis added.] Wellman wanted racism to be seen not as a psychological attitude, but as institutionally generated inequality, as structural superiority. “The subordination of people of color is functional to the operation of American society as we know it… . Racism is a structural relationship based on the subordination of one racial group by another.” Racism, then, is not a psychological or moral flaw, and thus an exception to the rule; it is the rule.
What Wellman saw as the advantage of this social definition of racism (its transcendence of the idea of mere individual prejudice) is precisely, I would suggest, its fatal drawback. By transferring a word connoting the deepest moral evil to an entire society, while divorcing that word from the idea of intent, the structural definition of racism destroys the idea of individual moral responsibility while at the same time making everyone guilty. It is a perversion of language that lends itself to exactly the kind of vicious generalization that it condemns. Though formulated in the neutral language of the social sciences, the structural definition inevitably leads—in the name of ending race hatred—to a new, more virulent (because ostensibly justified) race hatred. Thus the black filmmaker Spike Lee could make, with impunity, the remark that white people see blacks in only two ways: as celebrities, or as “niggers.” Such statements, we are told, are not racist. As Lee told an interviewer: “Black people are not racist. If I call you a white m—————r, that’s not racist; that’s prejudiced name-calling. But when you’re in a position of power to affect my life and economic reality and you abuse that power, that’s racism.” And, of course, what “abusing that power” means in practice is to fail to conform to any item of the black agenda, to doubt the veracity of Tawana Brawley, and so on. Meanwhile, actual expressions of hatred, as well as vicious generalizations (about whites), are, according to Spike Lee, mere “prejudiced name calling.”
Race hatred, which denies the humanity of an entire class of people because of their race, is a real evil. I think it is essential that we confine the word racism to specific behaviors and beliefs that are discrete and identifiable. If we extend it to include this hopelessly vague notion of structural discrimination, which becomes, in effect, a denial of the humanity of all white people, then “racism” itself becomes a hate word, and the real racism escapes blame. As for the “systemic institutional practices” that allegedly deny blacks qua blacks equal access to social resources, we simply need a more precise—and less volatile—word to describe such phenomena. “Racism” will no longer do.
There is one more meaning of racism we need to consider. We said earlier that the very concept of race arises from the fact that there are physically distinct groups of the human species. The differences among racial and ethnic groups—which is a common-sense observation, not a theory to which we need attach any “ism” or any idea of racial superiority—is connected with another common-sense observation about human nature: the preference that human beings have for people who are similar to themselves. This tendency is observed in people’s choices of their mates, in the growth of families, communities and cultures, and in the myths and literature and art of those cultures. It is a fact of life clearly observable in all human experience (and proven in the American case by the persistence of structural pluralism). Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn has written:
As human beings we have two tendencies: one that is “identitarian” and prompts us to seek the company of persons belonging to our own ethnic group, race, class … [and] another that seeks diversity: we like to travel, to meet people with different backgrounds, to experience unfamiliar music, art, architecture, food. The first impulse seeks comfort and safety; the second, adventure and excitement.In itself, this identitarian impulse that seeks comfort and safety is a positive and unconscious discrimination, a discrimination “in favor of.” It is a component of the “radius of identification and trust” that Lawrence Harrison identifies as the basis of a happy community. No ideology of racial superiority need be attributed to it. Xenophobic hatred is a secondary phenomenon arising from territorial or economic conflict. We do not normally equate a healthy sense of pride, in oneself or one’s community, with hatred of others. Nor do we accuse a black man of bigotry for marrying a black woman or belonging to an all-black church.
Yet today most people would describe this simple preference for one’s own—stated plainly as it is here—as racist or xenophobic (if we are speaking about white people, that is); and all the powers of the state are directed toward its elimination. Because if people prefer to associate with members of their own group, then it follows that they will also seek to exclude and put down other groups. And this is what our modern conscience cannot allow. It is at this point that the concept of racism as it is currently used (in the sense of positive ethnic or racial preference) begins to break down as a result of its own inflation. The very idea of racism implies a human norm that is not racist, and from which racism, by definition, would be a departure. But in what does this norm consist? Where in the world are there families and communities that are not based on this mutual preference for people who are similar? The answer is that, outside of marginal and cosmopolitan exceptions, the preference for one’s own is the universal tendency. Since, then, there is no “non-racist” norm, from which racism would be a deviation, is it not clear that “racism,” in its contemporary inflated sense, has no meaning at all? It has no more meaning than calling people with noses “nosists.”
We begin to see the absurdity that results from allowing an undefined word to run riot. Racism is understood in such a broad, unreal sense that its theoretical opposite—a “non-racist” human nature—must also be unreal. “Man is born free of racism, and everywhere he is racist,” say our modern Rousseauists. The difference between this formulation and Rousseau’s famous dictum is that instead of starting with the imaginary state of nature, in which man is “free,” and on the basis of that imaginary idea deciding that the world we see around us is unfree and corrupt, our racial Rousseauism starts from the perception of the present “racist corruption” and on that basis assumes an idyllic, non-existent, non-racist human nature. All we see around us is “racist,” and since racism is by definition a deviation from human nature, there must therefore be a non-racist norm of human nature and society, which we can only attain by overturning the world we see around us.
In any case, the political attempt to reach that chimerical promised land where there is no “racism” must involve us in the ultimate totalitarian project: to change human nature by force. Since racial differences are the very source of racial preferences, the only way the nations of the earth could truly cease being racist would be to institute a world-wide exchange of populations, creating an identical racial mix in every country, followed by several generations of scientifically planned and state-controlled intermarriages, resulting in a single perfectly blended human race. We may see, in the current efforts of government to enforce statistical racial balance in every area of life (based on the assumption that the absence of such balance must be due to racism), the beginnings of just such a global experiment. Here, truly, is the ultimate opportunity for the egalitarian social engineers.
Of course, no one actually believes in such a project. What we have rather is a rhetorical tendency toward an undefined racial utopia that governs all discourse. And it is not all the nations of the earth that are subject to this utopian standard, but only one: the United States. No one questions the right of Arabs to have an Arab nation; of China to be a Chinese nation; of the Africans to preserve their cultures. But the United States, which has never been limited to a single ethnic nationality but has instead—until 1965—drawn most of its people from the nations of Europe, is to be denied even this conglomerate, but still distinct, identity. We must absorb all the peoples of the world into our society and submerge our historic character as a predominantly Caucasian, Western society.
To criticize this multiracial utopianism is not to favor its opposite, i.e., an ideology of racial inequality. It is to see that racial equality, if taken as an absolute principle that supercedes all other values, destroys human liberty. In the words of Gaetano Mosca:
The absolute preponderance of a single political force, the predominance of any over-simplified concept in the organization of the state, the strictly logical application of any single principle in all public law are the essential elements in any type of despotism… . It has been necessary, nay indispensable, that there should be a multiplicity of political forces [in order to maintain liberty].Mosca is telling us to look for the multiplicity that is indispensable to liberty not just in a pluralism of political forces (what James Madison called “factions” and what we call interest groups), but in the ideas and principles that form the basis of the state. Rule by a single, overweening principle is as despotic as rule by a single, lawless man.
An immigration law which is based solely on utopian ideas of multiethnicism, and which excludes all other values, is just the kind of “strictly logical application of [a] single principle in public law” that Mosca criticizes as the essence of despotism. There are other interests which deserve to be taken into account along with equality, namely the general welfare and the quality of life of the people who already live here, and the preservation of our society’s political and cultural identity. We have already seen that the 1965 legislators implicitly understood this problem. When they spoke of equal treatment before the law, they meant it in terms of individuals, not in terms of mass migrations that would totally change the country. But today we have lost the ability to make that vital distinction. The idea of equality has been transferred, in effect, from individuals to entire peoples, and along with it, a moralism that brooks no opposition. Under this new dispensation we owe, as it were, an obligation to all the peoples of the world to let them migrate here en masse and recreate American society in their image. And no one can question this project for fear of being called a racist. Liberalism has thus overthrown its professed devotion to political pluralism by turning cultural pluralism into an absolute.
Paradoxically, many liberals declare that race is irrelevant, yet at the same time they support the movement among people of color aggressively to assert their own racial or national identity, which has allegedly been denied them by white racism. It is asserted by all opponents of white imperialism that societies have the right to maintain their cultural identities. In the interests of fairness I would say that the United States of America also has this right. Now, in trying to ascertain the cultural identity of any community, we would not ignore its ethnic and racial character any more than we would ignore its political traditions, its way of life, its language, its religion. Merely to make this common-sense observation does not mean we are repeating the race-idolization of the 19th century racial theorists—or the romantic nationalism that elevates particularity into an absolute. But we also seek to avoid the potentially fatal error of classical liberalism, which, in emphasizing the abstract rights of all men, totally ignores their cultural and ethnic particularities.
To take a simple example, it would be hard to imagine the French apart from their ethnic character, as a mixture of the Germanic, Celtic and Iberian peoples of Western Europe. If in some experiment in mass migration 50 million Chinese exchanged places with 50 million French—and even if the Chinese learned the French language and immersed themselves in French culture—the new society they formed would no longer be France in any recognizable sense. France, as we know it, would have ceased to exist. But the equalitarian creed, in reducing all humanity to a universal, rational and interchangeable standard (we are all “persons” with equal rights), ignores these qualitative differences that exist among men, nations and cultures. The Lockean natural rights philosophy does not exhaust the definition of society or of man. A Chinese person is not merely a locus of abstract legal and human rights identical and interchangeable with all other persons in the world. This ethnic and racial dimension of human identity is an obvious fact that everyone intuitively recognizes, yet which is censored by our equalitarian ideology. (Or rather, it is censored when whites are asserting their rights, but it is insisted on when people of color are asserting theirs.)
Now, a critic would say my hypothetical case is absurd. Who could imagine 50 million Chinese moving to France? I will grant that even pro-immigration liberals or free-market globalists might want to slow this migration somewhat on economic or other purely practical grounds. But for the true believer, these would only be contingent, technical concerns, to be viewed at best as a necessary evil; the liberal would have no morally justifiable principle by which to oppose the racial transformation of France or China, since the only moral principle he recognizes is universal equality.
Robert Kennedy said in 1965: “This is the central problem of immigration today; that the law … has not recognized that one people is not intrinsically superior or inferior to another people.” But Kennedy was wrong. The paramount moral issue the United States faces is not racial superiority but self-preservation. At the Senate hearings on the 1965 immigration reform bill, Sam Ervin said:
I do not think that belief in a national origin quota system indicates that one believes that one foreigner is better than another. As I see it, it really indicates that on the basis of our experience, we know that some foreigners are more readily assimilable than others and thus contribute to the requirements of the bedrock of our survival.During the Senate floor debate, Strom Thurmond used a common sense analogy to make the same point:
The wish to preserve one’s own identity and the identity of one’s nation requires no justification and no belief in racial or national superiority any more than the wish to have one’s own children, and to continue one’s own family through them, need be justified or rationalized by a belief that they are superior to the children of others.This, finally, is the question on which all else depends. Does the United States, does any nation have the moral right to preserve its identity? If our answer is yes, then we have the right to open up this issue and re-evaluate our immigration law without fear of the crippling charge of racism. If our answer is no, then we shall simply continue on our present path to national suicide.