Why Black People Can’t Be Racist … At Least Not Against Whites

Update (August 15, 2021): If you read Freedom and Reason, then it will likely already be clear to you that I no longer subscribe to the argument presented below. I will not rehash in any detail my reasons for rejecting the claim that black people cannot be racist against whites. Read my blog entries over the last few years to understand why if you do not already. I hope it will suffice here to note three objections: (1) the problems of reification, or the fallacy of misplaced concreteness, which falsely presumes as real abstract categories either assumed or induced from evidence, (2) the ecological fallacy, which involves drawing conclusions about concrete individuals and their relations based on abstractions generated by empirical generalizations; (3) an ideological redefinition of racism meant to substitute for traditional civil rights discourse a superficially radical discourse based on notions derived from critical theory.

In the process of migrating Freedom and Reason from Blogger to WordPress, a process in which I am still involved, I had left this entry private for many years because I have felt rather embarrassed that I so boldly made an argument that is so utterly wrong, especially since I should have known it was wrong all along given that it stands in contradiction to the principles that have guided me throughout my life. I know what some will think: I was wrong then. Why am I not wrong now? How can the reader trust my judgment if I make a bad argument or believe a false thing? But the alternative is worse. A man who knows he is wrong and as a matter of habit fails to acknowledge it, and fails to address the reasons why he was wrong, denies himself the opportunity to grow. More than that, he denies others an example of how a rational person is supposed to conduct himself. How does a man expect others to be open to persuasion, to change their minds, if he himself refuses to change his own mind?

* * *

In this essay I want to lay out an argument that stays true to a particular conception of power that, on its logic, defines the terms of accusations of racism—that is, in what situation or relations one can legitimately be said to be racist. The conclusion of the argument, which I present here for clarification, is that black people cannot be racist against white people. The conclusion depends on a particular definition of racism, which hails from, among other places, sociology, which in turn informs critical race theory on the matter. 

For an argument that claims that anybody can be racist to be valid, two things have to be true: (1) all racial groups must a priori exist in a state of equality and (2) racism must be reduced to race prejudice and/or purposeful action, the goal of which is the oppression of a racialized group. Concerning (1), it’s an empirical fact that racial groups exist in a state of inequality. This alone is enough to proceed. However, concerning (2), racism is more than prejudice and purposeful action based on race. Racism is discrimination based on race in a way that negatively affects—and this can be relative across class and gender structures—all members of a group defined as such. This means that racism concerns institutional and, more broadly, structural power and outcomes that systematically disadvantages a racial group.

The argument rests on the fact that not all groups have the same access to institutional power. If I am a member of a racial group that does not control the dominant social institutions, if I do not enjoy structural power, then I cannot translate my race prejudice into racism. My acts of discrimination are not systematic. They cannot affect an entire group. When we say racism is institutional, we mean that there are patterns of discrimination in which racialized groups are affected, with one group (in the present case, white people) benefiting from these patterns, and other groups (in the present case, black people) suffering from these patterns. By discrimination, we mean patterns of oppressive behavior—which require no prejudice; thus actions that suppress oppression are not discriminatory, even when taken up on the basis of race and come with coercion, for this would make liberation something like the equivalent of slavery.

I emphasize that institutional patterns do not depend on purposeful action (or positive racist motive, or whatever you want to call it), what some people mistakenly call “intentional”; rather, these patterns are determined/identified by results, by biases inherent in their operation. As feminist scholar Jo Freeman puts it: “institutional discrimination is built into the normal working relationships of institutions, its perpetuation requires only that people continue ‘business as usual.’ Its eradication requires much more than good will; it requires active review of the assumptions and practices by which the institution operates, and revision of those found to have discriminatory results.

The patterns of institutional racism clearly run in the direction of white privilege and black disadvantage. Whites enjoy better and higher paying jobs, better educational outcomes, lower rates of unemployment, longer lives, fewer diseases and illnesses, lower rates of infant mortality, lower rates of poverty, lower rates of incarceration, greater home ownership, better homes, and so forth. All of these are empirically rooted in patterns of institutional discrimination. This is why affirmative action is not an example of racist discrimination; the intention of the policy is to restrict white (male) privilege, privilege given by the patterns of discrimination in US institutions. When we say racism is structural we are talking about the overall context in which these institutions function. Because of accumulated wealth in white communities, institutions systematically enrich whites and impoverish blacks.

Why did I a moment ago say that people mistakenly use the term “intentional” when they really mean purposeful? Intentionality is a legal concept which has four levels of legal and moral responsibility. The first is purpose, which means that I wanted to something to happen and I acted in a positive fashion to achieve it’s outcome. The second is knowledge, which means that I knew something would happen and I did not act to prevent its occurrence. The third is negligence, which means that I had a responsibility to know about and make sure something did not happen, but failed to meet that obligation. The fourth is recklessness, which means that I acted in a manner that caused something ill to happen, something that I did not mean to happen, but something that happened nonetheless because of something I did. Understanding intentionality is the key to understanding who is responsible for institutional racism, since white people intentionally perpetrate patterns of discrimination, even if they do not purposefully set these patterns in motion, even if they do not carry race prejudice in their thoughts. This is why there is no such thing as non-racism. Either you are racist, which includes failing to act to end racism, or you are anti-racist.

If one takes the “perpetrator’s perspective”—the perpetrator being those who benefit from the patterns of discrimination and express reluctance to act in ways that will end the circumstances that benefit them—then one will demand that the victims of discrimination prove that the perpetrator had a racist purpose in acting. On the other hand, if one takes the “victim’s perspective”—which rests on the basic moral position of sympathy—then what matters is what is actually happening. When a people are suffering oppression, they don’t wait to find individual perpetrators (which will likely never happen); they act to change the conditions of their existence.

Black nationalism and Afrocentrism are responses to white supremacy. Blacks in Africa developed nationalism as a form of resistance to European imperialism. Blacks in the United States developed nationalism as a form of resistance to white supremacy. And blacks around the world developed Afrocentrism as a means of understanding that their suffering has a common cause: eurocentrism, that is an ordering of the world on the basis of the ideas, wants, and needs of white people. In both instances, and with Afrocentrism in general, these are forms of anti-racism not racism.

It follows from the logic of the argument that it’s a basic error to treat resistance to racism as racism. It’s not racist for Africans to recognize that white people invaded their continent and ruled over them, and to realize that, for freedom to be possible, the mechanisms of racial oppression must be overthrown. Likewise, it’s not racist for black American to recognize that white people kidnapped their ancestors and brought them to the Americans to toil in forced labor camps and, in response, to develop their own political identity and to organize to overthrow the conditions that result from those circumstances. Some might find it nice that if and when white supremacy is ever overthrown that racial consciousness will also disappear, but we exist in a reality created by hundreds of years of white supremacy. Black people did not choose to be black, but they are taking control of that category to improve their lot in life. If whites say black is ugly, then blacks say that black is beautiful. Why should their children continue to believe what white people want them to believe?

This is the fundamental difference between white power and black power: white power is used to oppress black people; black power is used to liberate black people. It would be racist for me as a member of the oppressor race to tell black people to stop being the sort of black they want to be. I don’t believe Robert really believes that white people ought to be telling black people how to conceptualize themselves. Isn’t one of the reasons why we strive to overthrow white supremacy so that blacks can have self-determination?

Black nationalists do not systematically deprive whites of access to necessary resources. They are not in a position to do so. If ever black nationalism was the ruling force in this country and systematically restricted white access to necessary resources, then I would oppose black nationalism in the same fashion that I oppose white nationalism. One cannot ignore the issue of institutional and structural power. Self-determination is consistent with democracy if and only if it does not oppress other groups. I am in sympathy with black nationalism as an anti-racist strategy. This does not mean I support creating a society in which blacks rule over whites. A just society is one in which people rule themselves.

Affirmative action is a policy that suppresses the discriminatory patterns of institutions that historically and presently privilege white people. Because we are dealing with different groups, applying the same standard is discriminatory. Equal treatment is fair only if there are no group inequalities. Indeed, as Hayek took great pains to point out, classical liberals embrace strict equal treatment because it reproduces inequality.

There’s no such thing as black and Latino racism in the United States, if by this one means racism against whites (blacks can be racist against other blacks when they advance/defend white supremacy). To be sure, blacks can be bigoted against whites, but they cannot be racist against whites because they don’t have the power to do to whites what whites do to them.

Blacks operate with a double consciousness; they are racialized and operate in a white man’s world. Because whites rarely operate in the black world, they are much more ethnocentric; whites are far more white than blacks are black. For blacks not to be racist, they would have to think like white people. But majority group demands that minorities think like them is one of the hallmarks of racism. He has assumed the white man’s point of view in all of this. Whiteness, which is the racial consciousness associated with racism, blinds white people to the structural logic of racism. There is no effectively difference from the whiteness embraced by white nationalists (whom he deplores) and the whiteness embraced by those who condemn people for thinking like nonwhites.

In order to end racism, we must abolish white privilege. With the racist’s definition of racism in play, the racial consciousness and purposeful action based on race necessary to carry out this radical restructuring will itself be judged racist. Thus anti-racism becomes racism. The purpose of the argument, however fallacious, is to perpetuate an unjust state of affairs. In other words, don’t so anything to end racism lest you be racist. But, in reality, failing to end racism is racist. The is only an apparent paradox.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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