Racisms: Terminological Inflation for Ideological Ends

I have written numerous entries on this subject from various starting points. In this entry, I lay out the main argument for why criticism of culture and religion absent an appeal to biology (explicitly or implicitly) is not racism, exposing the agendas of “cultural racism” and “new racism” as resting on a false premise. These agendas, projects of leftwing identitarianism, interfere with the necessary liberal and secular practice of cultural and irreligious critique, as well as function to undermine the defense of human rights and western civilization.

Applied to categories of living things, the term “race” first appears in the late sixteenth century referring to breeding stocks of animals and plants. Human selection of desired traits created races of dogs (and other animals). People cultivated races of corn, some sweet, others bitter. By the seventeenth century the term had become a basic concept in the developing science of evolutionary biology. During this time it came to be applied also to people. Why not? They’re animals, after all. In time, talk of races of dogs and of corn died out. Today we hear instead about breed and varieties. But language referring the races of people carries on.

The terms “racism” and “racialism” appear in the first decade of the twentieth century to refer to the ideology that applies the concept of race to people. Thus, to be a “racist” or a “racialist” is to believe that the human species can be meaningful organized into races—sometimes three, sometimes five, sometimes even more—and that race explains variation in the behavioral proclivity, cognitive ability, cultural production, and moral aptitude of different groups of people grouped by selected phenotypic characteristics (skin color, hair texture, and so on). The core idea is that people of a given race think and behave in expected ways because they are evolved (or God made them) to think and behave in those ways.

The World Book Encyclopedia entry on “Race”

The doctrine of the hierarchy of races lost its position in mainstream science following the revelation of Nazi atrocities at the end of WWII. However, my 1969 The World Book Encyclopedia still included a section on “The Three Great Stocks of Man” (see above). The entry maintains that modern science “does not support the claim that some races are biologically superior or inferior to others” and, moreover, “civilizations of any race may be advanced or retarded, and the people within them may have greater or smaller opportunities for contact and personal development [but that] there is no scientific evidence to prove this has anything to do with inborn abilities or aptitudes.” Nonetheless, the biology of race stands out in the entry, the rejection of the doctrine of “separate but equal” notwithstanding.

The practice of presupposing race as a biological entity faded over the next several decades. Physical anthropology mortally wounded racism in the 1960s. Modern genetics research nearly finished it off in the 1990s. It is now a marginal belief. (See “Race, Ethnicity, Religion, and the Problem of Conceptual Conflation and Inflation.”) Racism’s destruction was not a disinterested affair, the concept having long been a repugnant notion for many, transparently an ideological attempt to make something grand or disreputable out of ancestry. Unfortunately, racism has not completely died out. Charles Murray, Sam Harris, and Jordan Peterson are examples of notable contemporary racists. But such people are thankfully rare.

However, interest in racism on the left is anything but rare. Because racism is such a heinous doctrine, affixing that label to an institution, an opinion, or a person can effectively delegitimize that institution, opinion, or person. Noting this usefulness, the left has repurposed the term to smear those with whom they disagree as “racist” even when the target of abuse is not. How is this possible? Because racism, we are told, now extends to culture, not the racist notion that culture is a projection of genetics (that is already part of racism), but to Enlightenment criticism of nonwestern culture and minority subculture. (See “Smearing Amy Wax and the Fallacy of Cultural Racism.”) Students are taught this in elementary school as soon as they’ve reached the age where they can be effectively programmed with rudimentary abstractions. And, since religion is part of culture, why not take the next step and claim that irreligious criticism is racist? And so the charge of racism is now leveled at the critics of Islam, even though Muslims are not a race (see “Muslims are Not a Race. So why are Academics and Journalists Treating Them as if They Were?”). The left calls this practice “antiracism.”

So absurd is the application of racism to cultural and irreligious criticism that does not appeal to biology that it is reasonable to suppose there must be an agenda in back of the practice. Suppressing the work of liberal and secular activists is more than a side effect of misguided thinking (although the thinking here is certainly misguided). The progressive left and the culture industry is consciously taking a term indicating an heinous ideology—that there are biological distinct races and that this fact explains culturally variable attitudes, behaviors, and culture—and enlarging it to encompass cultural and irreligious criticism in order to undermine defense of western culture. The new definition even includes criticism of the new definition; denying that criticizing culture and religion is racist is an element in the “new racism.”

An authoritarian feature of leftwing identitarianism is the desire to subject the Enlightenment demand to pursue a ruthless criticism of ideology to restrictions enforced by severe social sanction, including disciplinary action, mob action, and reputational damage. Attacking the humanist in this way is designed to produce a chilling effect that suppresses rational critique in the greater society. Any attempt by the antiracist to appeal to the same humanist tradition to justify his work is rationalization because he is not pursuing ruthless criticism for sake of freedom and reason but endeavoring to stifle criticism by delegitimizing the critic. The expansion of the term “racism” to cover things not germane to it is plainly ideological work, the point of which is to confuse meaning in order to deceive audiences. Exposing this tactic does not intend to deceive but to enlighten.

A crude but useful example of this is Ben Affleck’s meltdown on the Bill Maher show in the presence of Sam Harris (who is a racist but not for the argument he is making here) illustrates the problem quite well. Although Affleck is not a scholar or even an intellectual, his objection to rational criticism of Islam is no less sophisticated than what passes for scholarly discourse in today’s universities.

We don’t have a name for people who criticize culture because there is nothing wrong with criticizing culture. Knowing that, and not wanting to lose a good smear, the antiracist expands the term racism to include culture. But selectively. You can criticize western culture without being called a racist because the antiracist defines racism in such a way that it does not include western culture. The antiracist throws in religion, as well. Except, of course, Christianity. It is not racist to criticize Christianity because that is the prevailing religion in western culture. But it is racist is to criticize Islam.

Defining racism in this arbitrary way allows the antiracist to smear a person as racist without appearing as if he has betrayed the humanist and liberal value of openness he claims to possess. Ben Affleck gives us the perfect illustration of this mindset. “Of course, we do,” he say when Sam Harris says, “Ben, we have to be able to criticize bad ideas.” “No liberal doesn’t want to criticize bad ideas,” Affleck agrees. But he says this while characterizing criticism of Islam as “gross and racist.” Thus the ideology of antiracism produces what George Orwell calls in Nineteen Eighty-Four “doublethink,” the ability to accept contradictory beliefs simultaneously, which Orwell sees as a result of political indoctrination. Believing criticism of Islam is racist selectively negates the belief that bad ideas need criticizing.

There is little doubt that Affleck hears racism in Harris’ words. That he is operating on an emotional level is betrayed by his flushing. He is angered by criticisms of Islam. But to characterize Harris’ argument as racist is self-evidently fallacious since Muslims are not a race. Muslims are devotees to a political-religion ideology. Describing Muslims as a race is analogous to describing Christians or Nazis as a race. But irrational thinking is not concerning to the Antiracists who is working from the following principle: “I will define racism in a way that will make your nonracist arguments racist.” Even denying that he is right to do this becomes evidence of your racism. More than this, the antiracist defines racism in a way that makes his racist argument nonracist. Any open letter that begins with “Dear black people,” written by a white person with critical content to follow, will be deemed racist. But an open letter that begins with “Dear white people” will not be racist because white people cannot be the targets of racism. White people are, by definition, racist. That they take issue with that fact proves it.

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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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