Prejudice and Discrimination: There Are Many Sorts and We Mustn’t Confuse or Conflate them

In his 1943 essay, “Looking back on the Spanish War,” George Orwell expressed the following concern about the pervasive use of propaganda to achieve political ends: “This kind of thing is frightening to me, because it often gives me the feeling that the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world. After all, the chances are that those lies, or at any rate similar lies, will pass into history . . . . Yet, after all, some kind of history will be written, and after those who actually remember the war are dead, it will be universally accepted. So for all practical purposes the lie will have become the truth.”

Today, in the postmodern identity wars, lies in the form of confusion and conflation are, in the hands of leftwing propagandists, made into new truths. Concepts—racism, chauvinism, ethnicism—referring to different things in reasonable accounts, are, as propaganda, melded together, one becoming the other, with determined persons wielding the term that enjoys consensus in place of the term that shouldn’t, depriving opponents of a legitimate standpoint of criticism. Control of language allows for the construction of false understandings. False understandings are used to shape politics.

Consider the notion of “cultural racism.” Cultural racism is said to be a form of racism in which individuals criticize the culture associated with a race of people. As I explain below, racism is the belief that individuals identified with racial categories are differentiated by abilities and dispositions that organize them into superior and inferior types. Culture is not an expression of a biological thing. It is symbolic system learned by individuals and then acted upon for good or ill. Indeed, paradoxically, part of racist theory is to suppose culture is attributable to the race of persons associated with it. Yet we have people accusing others of racism because they criticize symbols and rituals. Leftists steer clear of criticizing the culture of violence in American inner cities because it is associated with black and brown peoples. To ask why black people murder other black people at an astronomical rate is to ask a racist question. In any case, white people are to blame. Cultural racism is a propaganda term designed to delegitimize criticism by making it appear as a contemptible form of speech.

George Orwell (1903-1950)

Prejudice refers to a type of opinion, a preconceived notion about some one or some thing without basis in fact or reason. When it is about an individual, it is an opinion about that person based on some ascribed characteristic of that person—race, sex, sexual orientation, nationality, ethnicity, religion. Crucially, to be prejudice, it must be substantially without basis in fact or reason. Discrimination refers to a type of action in which persons are treated differently based on race, sex, nationality, or religion. It must be an action or, with great caution exercised in making such determinations, a circumstance. For example, the opinion that a person sees the world a certain way because of his skin color is an expression of race prejudice. How could skin color reveal such a thing? An action that keeps a person out of a restaurant because of his skin color is race discrimination; there is no rational reason for excluding persons from pubic accommodations on account of skin color.

Sociologists have long recognize that prejudice and discrimination can operate relatively independently. A person can hold a prejudice without discriminating against other persons. For example, a man may believe another man is inferior to himself because his skin is of a different color, while at the same treat the man just as he would treat a man of his own skin color. Such a man is a prejudiced non-discriminator. It is also possible to be a non-prejudice discriminator. To be sure, often discrimination is based directly on prejudice, but this is not always true. Rarely is popular thought this reflective.

Of the two phenomena, discrimination is the more serious offense because it affects another person in some substantial way, by, for example, denying him some good or experience to which he is entitled. Prejudice by itself, while it may provide a motive for action, mostly remains opinion, not action. As such, it is not really an offense at all, although it can certainly be offensive. To punish persons for opinions is to practice thought crime, the sure mark of an unfree society. So, as offensive as race prejudice may be, the appropriate response to it is tolerance (which does not rule out criticism). The modern leftist is more concerned with prejudice than with discrimination. And they misunderstand of the former.

I am using race prejudice and race discrimination as examples. These are manifestations of racism. Racism as prejudice is the belief that individuals identified with racial categories are differentiated by abilities and dispositions and that the human species can be rank ordered into superior and inferior types according to these. Racism is a species of ideology. (See “Race, Ethnicity, Religion, and the Problem of Conceptual Conflation and Inflation.”) Racism as discrimination occurs when individuals are mistreated or excluded on the basis of this ideological species. In its worst form, racism is a system of law and policy the structures human behavior in accordance with it. The United States and European societies have abolished the worst manifestations of racism. However, today, the left uses the logic of racism as the template for all types of prejudice and discrimination, which leads to deeply flawed judgment, reckless accusations, and disproportionate action—as well as to the illusion that western society is deeply morally flawed. The West is not, in point of fact, racist. It is the most open and free civilization in world history, the wellspring of human rights.

Of course, racism does not encompass all forms of prejudice and discrimination. Prejudice and discrimination with respect to sex is common. We call this sexism. Sexism as prejudice is the belief that men and women have abilities and dispositions that can be ranked ordered into superior and inferior types. Sexism is different from racism in character in that men and women are physiologically different, whereas there are no real differences between members of different races. However, the opinion that women can be rank ordered in a general way is not based on fact and is therefore substantially irrational. Treating men and women differently in a way that disadvantages one or the other is sex or gender discrimination. Related to sex and gender discrimination is discrimination based on sexual orientation, what is often called “homophobia.” I prefer the term heterosexism since this type of discrimination disadvantages same-sex relations while privileging opposite-sex relations. This terms avoids the psychiatrization of a form of oppressive social relations.

Another form of prejudice and discrimination is chauvinism. Chauvinism is an exaggerated or belligerent belief in one’s nationality as superior to other nationalities. For example, when France refused to join the United States in George W. Bush’s invasion and occupation of Iraq, American chauvinists expressed chauvinism against the French (manifested in such silliness as renaming French fries “freedom fries”). Chauvinism is different from racism in that belief in the superiority of one’s nation may be based on valid reasons, whereas opinions based on race can never be based on reason or facts. Racism is entirely irrational. Claims of national superiority are by degrees rational to the extent that they are based of facts. For example, the United States is a better country in which to reside if one is homosexuals compared to the country of Iran. From the standpoint of human rights, the United States is superior to Iran (the United States is superior to Iran for a number of reasons). Knowing a person is white tells one nothing about that person’s attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, or dispositions. Knowing a person is a man might indicate something. Knowing a person’s nationality indicates even more. Knowing his religion (which I get to below) is to know him rather well. It is prejudice given degree of irrationalism.

To the extent that nation is conveyed in an ethnic sense, the term chauvinism can be used to cover ethnicity, but it is not ideal. That doesn’t make ethnic prejudice a species of racism. The concept of ethnicity covers more than nationality in a world organized as nation-states. For example, a Palestinian can claim to comprise a nation in an ethnic sense. If there were a country called Palestine, then ethnicity and nation might be coextensive. But ethnicity and nationality are rarely so. A nation-state can be made up of many ethnicities (for example, the United States, which is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world). Moreover, many nation-states are ethnically Arab-majority. While an Egyptian man is Egyptian in terms of his nationality, he is Arab in terms of his ethnicity. He can suffer discrimination for either or both depending on the form that discrimination takes.

Because of these issues, ethnicism is an ideal term to capture prejudice and discrimination based on ethnic category. Crucially, chauvinism and ethnicism are not forms of racism; they are when irrational forms of prejudice and discrimination, but they are not based on race ideology. Chauvinism makes judgments on the basis of nationality, while ethnicism makes judgments on the basis of culture, for which facts may be produced for both prejudices. That is, they may not be completely irrational. Racism makes a judgment on the basis of biology for which there are no facts. Racism is entirely irrational. Concern for the Arabization of a European community is not the same thing as opposition to the presence of black people in Europe. Concern for Arabization is ethnicist, and this may be a bad thing, but it is not a racist thing. Opposing the presence of persons because they are black is racist. Are Africans racist for worrying about European colonization? Perhaps they are ethnicist. They are not racist unless they oppose this because they loathe white people.

One might wonder why such distinctions matter if its prejudice that is being expressed. Distinctions matter because truth matters. Common understanding depends on terminological precision. Not everything is an expression of racism, and it is ideological to condemn something as racist when it is not even if it is bad. It is an attempt to make one thing as bad as another. Ethnicity is a real thing, a cultural system with a common language, traditions, customs, norms, and so on. There is something to judge here. What are a culture’s attitudes towards women? Homosexuals? And so on. Race is not a real thing; it is a category invented by race ideology. There is nothing to judge. It has no agency. Racism is on the level of heterosexism; there is no fact one can produce that justifies concern over homosexuality.

Finally, there is religious prejudice and discrimination. For example, a Christian might view every Muslim with suspicion. This is often called religious bigotry. Religious bigotry is the least irrational of the prejudices. Knowing a person is a Muslim tells one a lot about what the person who identifies as such thinks and does. If the doctrine is objectionable, given that dogma comes in the form of persons, one may have cause to worry about the devotees. Rational antitheist opinion is an expression of the desire to prevent religious bigotry from harming others. Indeed, religion is analogous to racism and other oppressive ideologies, such as fascism. (See “Muslims are Not a Race. So Why are Academics and Journalists Treating Them as if They are?”)

At the same time, excluding individuals from access to institutions on the basis of their religious beliefs is discriminatory, since this a form of thought control. A free society allows people to hold opinions however offensive and objectionable. Yes, that includes even fascists. What a free society does not allow is the imposition of offensive and objectionable opinions as actions affecting people. For example antifa. You crush them. Indeed, western society could do a much better job of defending the right of people to be free from religious practices. As well as cultural practices. By the time we get to religion on our prejudice cotinuum, we have established a qualitative gulf between passive demographic categories as race and sex, on the one end, and religion on the other end. Nationality and ethnicity resemble much more religion since they are ideational and practical products of social relations.

All of these forms of prejudice and discrimination must be kept distinct because they involve different things and because conflating them is propaganda aiming to intellectually and morally disarm rational men. Yet there is a tendency on the left these days, as well as in the establishment media, to conflate chauvinism, ethnicism, and even antitheism with racism. Again, this is done in order to make lesser prejudices appear as more serious ones. This is why the term fascism is so easily thrown at people who are not fascist at all but merely conservative (patriotic working people worried about the fate of the country and way of life they love). The way to check ones rhetoric is to ask whether conflating sexism with racism makes any sense. One would have thought that checking rhetoric with religion was a useful method, but the way in which Islam has been racialized is making that an increasingly difficult proposition, a fact that illustrates the very problem I am tacking in this essay.

Insisting on conceptual clarity and linguistic precision is a prophylactic against various projects gas lighting populations. For example, while immigration restrictions may be motivated by racism, there is nothing about opposition to immigration that makes it intrinsically racist. To level a charge of racism, one must first establish the motive. There is nothing racist about concern over the Islamization of western society. Islam is an oppressive ideology that degrades women and persecutes homosexuals. To shame those who are concerned about Islam by calling them racist is an attempt to make Islam immune from criticism. It is to leave oneself completely incapable of making rational argument in defense of freedom to allow the conflation of irreligious criticism with the charge of racism. This disarming rhetoric has been weaponized by the postmodern left.

We find another example in the reaction to a recent tweet by the President of the United States is telling members of Congress known as “the Squad”—one assumes he was referring to Ilhan Omar, born in Somalia, Rashida Tlaib, born to Palestinian refugees in Detroit, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose mother was born in Puerto Rico, and possibility Ayanna Pressley, the descendent of African slaves—to go back to the countries from whence they came. He found it “interesting” that these person “who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world (if they even have a functioning government at all),” were “now loudly and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run.” Somalia, which has generated a stream of refugees over the decades, and the Palestinian territories, ruled by the Islamist group Hamas, are among the more corrupt and inept governments anywhere in the world. Omar is fond of using her Somali roots and Muslim identity as a calling card. Tlaib proudly identifies as Palestinian. It was probably with this in mind that the president suggested, “Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came. Then come back and show us how it is done.”

Trump’s comment was not unprovoked. The congresswomen have portrayed his government as fascist and racist, Border Patrol agents as cruel and heartless, and immigration detention facilities as concentration camps where women are forced to drink from toilets. Tlaib once gleefully announced their goal of impeaching the “motherfucker.” Their identitarian standpoint is unambiguous. On the day Trump was tweeting his controversial comments, Pressley, speaking at the Netroots Nation conference, sandwiched between Omar and Tlaib, nodding and smiling in agreement, said to Uncle Toms and secularists, “We don’t need black faces that don’t want to be a black voice. We don’t need Muslims that don’t want to be a Muslim voice.”

Trump’s words are chauvinistic, a variant of the “Love it or leave it” rhetoric conservatives hurled at Vietnam War protestors. The next day, Trump made this clear when he told White House reporters that “if somebody has a problem with our country, if somebody doesn’t want to be in our country, they should leave.” Nonetheless, the establishment media relentlessly avoided the word chauvinism while manufacturing the perception that Trump’s comments were racist. In doing do, they continued the project to expand the concept of racism to encompass other types of prejudice for propagandistic purposes. (The president’s comments were problematic enough without mischaracterizing them.)

One might ask if the same thing were said about the president’s wife, Melania, who is an immigrant (born in Slovenia, then part of Yugoslavia), would anybody find it racist? The response I get when I point this is out: “She is white.” But why does that matter? Whites can be victims of racism, too. (Two of four members of the Squad are white.) What all this is about is the cultural managers changing the perceived character of a chauvinistic expression in order to find more evidence that the president is racist. But of course, the president is racist. Hasn’t this been rather obvious since at least the 1990s? Watch the video below which is highly suggestive of a racist worldview.

Trump talks about his “German blood”

Not only did cultural managers work to manufacture a perception of a racist tweet, on July 15, the US House of Representatives passed with 235 votes a lengthy nonbonding resolution that officially determines what language is to be considered racist, attributes claims to the president that go beyond the evidence, and sketches an official (and childlike) version of United States history, replete with certainty about what the founders intended (“a haven of refugees for people fleeing from religious and political persecution”). No dissenting views were included in the story. No reference was made at all to the decades of sharp restrictions on immigration that marked the years of greatest growth, prosperity, and progress in the country’s history.

In his 1843 essay, “What is Fascism?” Orwell writes, “It will be seen that, as used, the word ‘Fascism’ is almost entirely meaningless. In conversation, of course, it is used even more wildly than in print.” He laments that no precise definition of the term will be forthcoming because ideologues of various types will not permit it. Imprecision is too useful for the production of propaganda to hold oneself to a falsifiable proposition. “All one can do for the moment is to use the word with a certain amount of circumspection and not, as is usually done, degrade it to the level of a swearword,” writes Orwell. The same can be said for the word “racism.” And while I recognize that I cannot as one person stop the rampant misuse of language, I can as a social scientist insist on using the language correctly.

Finally, it’s not about determining what race really is. That’s like trying to determine how many angels dance on the head of a pin. There are no such things. The task of social science is to determine the character of ideological and practical oppressive systems and not fudge their conceptual and empirical boundaries to save them for propagandistic purposes. If you do not understand that the former is the task for Freedom and Reason: A Path Through Late Capitalism, then you need to work a lot harder at trying to understand the arguments.

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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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