“I’m Not a Racist, But.”

Lawrence Blum, “I’m Not a Racist, But.” (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002).

Blum’s primary concern in “I’m Not a Racist, But.” is to combat the “inflation” of the term “racism” to cover almost any racialized actions or discourses, including black students choosing to sit with other black students in a school lunchroom, a white teacher who is uncomfortable talking with black parents, a non-Korean student referring, through lack of understanding and sensitivity, to a peer of Korean descent as “Oriental,” and policy-makers taking race into account for purposes of affirmative action. Blum worries that we have reached a point in public discourse about race in which any action or language that offends the sensibilities of some racial group is “racist,” and that in this context, the term “racism” loses both its meaning and its force of moral condemnation. His central project in the book, therefore, is to explore possible definitions of “racism” and defend a version that, by not over-inflating its meaning, preserves the moral force of the term.

Blum defines racism in terms of antipathy toward members of a racialized group (on the basis of their membership in that group) or what he calls “inferiorization” of members of a racialized group, by which he means belief in the inferiority of that group in relation to other racialized group. According to Blum, a person is racist if antipathy or scorn toward members of a racialized group is consciously embedded in her character and motivations. An act, symbol, statement, joke, image, or proposition is racist if its content exemplifies antipathy or scorn toward members of a racialized group. According to Blum, a person might make a racist joke but not be racist, if the joke was not motivated by racial antipathy or scorn, and if the performance of an act of racism is occasional or unintentional (that is, if the act is not motivated by deeply embedded racial antipathy or scorn). On the other hand, a person might be racist in believing a particular proposition (for example, that race should not be taken into account in college admissions), even though the content of the proposition is not itself racist. Furthermore, Blum defines personal racism as “racist acts, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors on the part of individual persons”; social (or sociocultural) racism as “racist beliefs, attitudes, and stereotypes widely shared within a given population and expressed in cultural and social modes such as religion, popular entertainment, advertisements, and other media”; and institutional racism as racial scorn or antipathy “perpetrated by specific social institutions such as schools, corporations, hospitals, or the criminal justice system as a totality.” He states that each of these three forms of racism operates in complex interaction with the others, and argues against attempts to reduce one to another or to promote one as having greater significance than another (p. 9).

Blum’s approach to his project is apparent in the structure of the book. He starts by defending a definition of racism; for Blum, pinning down the meaning of “racism” provides a foundation for the rest of the book (chapter 1 is entitled “‘Racism’: Its Core Meaning”). He then moves outward, as it were, to address issues that will arise in response to a proposed definition of racism. If his proposed definition of racism is correct, can blacks be racist (chapter 2)? If the meaning of racism is narrowed in the way he suggests, where do other racially discriminatory behaviors and beliefs fit in (chapter 3 is entitled “Varieties of Racial Ills”)? Then he moves outward again, to public policy questions involving racial discrimination and racial neutrality (chapter 4). Again, the question here is, if his definition of racism is correct, then what are the implications for whether or not certain sorts of policies should be considered racist? Then he moves outward again, to the history of the construction of the race concept and the final “big” question: in the light of that history and his “core” definition of racism, “Should We Try to Give Up Race?” (chapter 9).

The problem with this approach is that it does not reflect the fact that the concept of “racism” is not a foundational concept. The history of the construction of the concept of race is foundational; the concept of racism derives from that history. We cannot adequately analyze racism in abstraction from that history. Furthermore, that history is a history of social power and social disempowerment, in which questions of race are intricately tied up in questions of class and social structure. Attempting, as Blum does, to understand racism without adequately acknowledging the issues of power involved, is a flawed approach, leading to incorrect conclusions.

According to Blum, “Acts that make use of racist statements, jokes, symbols, or images, even if the person performing the act is not motivated by antipathy or an inferiorizing attitude, may be called ‘racist.’ For example, an individual may tell a racist joke in order to go along with a group, in order to feel accepted, or merely to get into the spirit of an occasion, without holding the inferiorizing or hostile attitude expressed in the joke. Yet acts whose motives are racist seem to me more definitively [my emphasis] racist than those whose motives are not, even if the latter in some other way do involve racism” (p. 14). I disagree with his conclusions about what is “definitively” racist. Absent in this example is an analysis of the cultural climate in which someone who does not himself hold overt racial antipathy or scorn feels the need to tell a racist joke in order to be socially accepted. This sort of cultural climate is morally wrong in a way that is paradigmatic, not incidental, to understanding racism. Furthermore, a person’s motives are racist if he is willing to demean others in order to gain acceptance in a racist group. A willingness to demean others on the basis of race in order to gain something for oneself is fundamental to racism. This willingness is an expression of scorn, in the sense of discounting the value of the others who are demeaned. It does not make it any less racist if those who are demeaned by the joke are not around to hear it. Telling it encourages and reinforces the racist beliefs of those who are listening and maintains the socioculturally and institutionally racist climate at the expense of those who are the objects of that racism.

Blum tells a story about a California state assemblyman who distributed a racist poem to his colleagues and, when charged with racism, pleaded innocence on the grounds of ignorance: he did not realize it would be offensive. Blum’s response is that adults bear responsibility for their racial ignorance, in the same way that people are responsible for negligence (p.18). He does not, however, proceed to argue that failure to accept that responsibility and act upon it is fundamental to racism as it has developed up to the present moment in history. In failing to press this point, his analysis comes up short. When negligence arises from a racist sociocultural milieu (in which, for example, children of all races are not routinely educated about the history of race and racism) and contributes to the perpetuation of that milieu, then it is mere semantics to say that the negligence in itself is not racist. To say that a person is not racist even though he is responsible for his racist negligence is to engage in “doublethink.” The failure to actively work against racism, absent pressing justification for doing otherwise, is racist.

Here is an analogy to illustrate this point. Suppose I am unknow- ingly and unintentionally spreading a virus that is causing harm, and in some cases death, to many people. I am immune to the virus and am not aware that I am carrying and spreading it. My family members are all genetically immune to the virus, and the practice in my family is to marry people who are immune because immunity coincides with membership in what we recognize as our social group. Furthermore, most of the people with whom I come in contact-my neighbors and colleagues, members of my religious organization, fitness club, etc.-are immune. Nonetheless, everywhere I go (and everywhere that all the other immune people go) we are spreading the virus, leaving it on everything we touch, passing it on to non-immune people with whom we have casual contact or who work with and for us. The non-immune people are being harmed, but we do not know because we do not know them well and are not involved in their intimate lives. I argue that it is still the case that I am responsible for spreading that virus.

Once I learn that I am spreading the virus, I should be dismayed to the core of my being that I have caused this harm, however unwittingly. I should immediately want to do everything I can to try to rectify the harm that I have done. Furthermore, I should be outraged that this harm has been going on in my society without those in power making a concerted effort to inform all citizens and undertake all means necessary to stamp out the disease. I should do everything possible to fight this state of affairs. And my first impulse should be to turn to those who have been suffering the harm, discover what they have done to struggle against it, and join in with those efforts, taking advantage of my insider status in the immune group to work to prevent further spread of the disease by the people who surround me in my daily life. Failure to act in response to my knowledge (keeping in mind that all people have prior commitments and responsibilities to uphold, but being careful not to use these to excuse complete inaction), would indicate that at a fundamental level I simply do not care what happens to those who are harmed by the virus as long as my family and friends and community are immune. This lack of caring about the well-being of others who are being harmed by me and my family and friends is morally wrong.

Consider, for example, the current SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) epidemic. I think most people would be horrified if they learned that they had unwittingly been spreading the disease, and I believe that the public at large would express outrage if someone identified as a carrier did not take responsibility for his actions, however unintentional they may have been, and change his future behavior. Yet when people in our society behave in racist ways and are accused of racism, they become defensive, use their ignorance as an excuse, and, more often than not, get away with it and go on to continue the same behavior. The sociocultural climate that both causes and permits this to happen is the same climate that both causes and permits overt and intentional acts of racism. Neither case is more “paradigmatic” than the other.

Because Blum defines paradigmatic racism as involving intentional antipathy or scorn toward members of a racialized group, he concludes that intentional racism is morally worse than (and I believe he assumes it causes more harm than) unintentional racism. He also concludes that racist violence is morally worse than (and causes more harm than) racist acts that are non-violent. These conclusions are incorrect. In the case of a young black person, for example, small slights by a well-meaning but ignorant teacher may have just as profound an effect on his sense of self and future achievement as being pushed or taunted by the racist schoolyard bully. In a society in which economic success is based largely on academic success (or the appearance of academic success, as in the case of George W. Bush), unintentional slights that convince black students that they cannot succeed academically frequently cause as much harm as physical violence does. Furthermore, emotional harm can translate into physical harm. A student may become depressed and commit suicide. She may shorten her life through alcohol or drug abuse that began as a response to failure (or perceived failure) in school. She may die or be severely physically harmed through violence to which she is exposed as a response to exclusion from other means of achievement. He may die or be severely physically harmed simply through lack of decent health care because only high-paying jobs requiring a lot of schooling come with decent health insurance.

In these examples, racism as an integral part of U.S.-style capitalism and its structures of social power comes solidly into view. In Blum’s account of the history of the concept of race, he acknowledges that “economics” played a role in motivating the justification of slavery. It is striking, however, that he does not even once use the word “capitalism.” He does not discuss how the definition of enslaved Africans and their descendants as “property” reinforced and was reinforced by the foundational purpose of the creation of the United States, which was to “free” those who owned property but were not members of the British ruling class so that they could institute protection of their private property and their “right” to exploit other human beings in turn.

If we take as fundamental the history of the concept of race, and the way in which that history was intertwined with the institutionalization of capitalism in the United States, then we see that the same social climate and structure that causes and permits the racist bully causes and permits the well-meaning but ignorant teacher. And the same structure that both empowers and disempowers the teacher empowers and disempowers the bully, while both disempower the black student being harmed. And, within this structure, if she takes steps to empower herself, she will in turn either thereby disempower others or end up unemployed, in jail, or otherwise discredited by those in power as a “radical.”

Blum acknowledges that personal, institutional, and structural racism are interwoven. But he does not follow this understanding to its conclusion. “Lesser” and/or “unintentional” acts of racism contribute as much to the maintenance of a racist society as intentional and/ or overt acts. When we take the latter as paradigmatic or definitional, we lose the big picture. The whole project of trying to isolate one form of racism as “core” or “paradigmatic” is flawed from the outset. The fact that these comments of mine are nothing new, having been made repeatedly and far more eloquently than I am making them here by generation after generation of black progressive thinkers, indicates even more strongly the failure of Blum’s analysis.

Reviewed by Anna Stubblefield
Rutgers University, Newark

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