Home > philosophy, social justice > I, too, am prejudiced.

I, too, am prejudiced.

Our local freethought group has engaged in quite a bit of social justice dialogue recently.

OK, i suppose that phrase—social justice—needs a bit of contextualization itself first. Social justice spans a wide range of topics, including prison reform, food sustainability, poverty, theocracy, and so much more, and concerns wide swaths of religious, political, and other organizations. By my reckoning, most such topics are uncontentious, at least insofar as being important topics, among mainstream progressives and irreligious folk. In odd contrast, the dialogue on systemic discrimination, marginalization, privilege, and oppression is so contentious by its very existence that its proponents have been dealt what might be the most bizarre pejorative i’ve ever learned, “social justice warriors”, or SJWs. The notions that prejudices can be unconscious; that responsibility, vulnerability, and culpability can be asymmetric; that solutions may not be fair; and, generally speaking, that context matters*, so repulse various contingents within movement secularism that spaces in which these topics are discussed must be closely moderated.

Much of this resistance is rationalized in terms of the offending tone, taxonomic terminology, and pithy deontology of the online (hence readily accessible) though largely internal (among social justice advocates) dialogue, especially on Tumblr, or on the grounds that they level disproportionate criticism people like me (setting economic aside). While i empathize with the sense of alienation that comes with being singled out for chastisement on the basis of gender or race or somesuch, i beseech anyone who finds it unfair to consider mulling over the direct object in the first half of this sentence.

While eventually i want to dig into the various quips that have been cited to demonize the dialogue, i’ll need to first get past a definitional sticking point.

I am racist.
(I could have said “sexist” or “ableist” or any number of other things, but the point is easier to get across in terms of a specific, commonly-recognized form of prejudice. Substitute freely.)

A lot of my friends would dispute this claim, and they’d be right—because multiple definitions are at work here. I am “not racist” in the sense that i don’t consciously (or at least not self-consciously) judge or discriminate against people based on their (perceived) race**; indeed, i am anti-racist insofar as i make a conscious effort to adjust my thinking, my behavior, and my politics to account for the fact that race does play a role in disadvantaging many people.

However, what one comes to realize while learning about racism is that it is not limited to our (self-) conscious attitudes and behaviors. Much of what is called “racism” today involves unconscious biases, insensitivity, and indirect inferences. These subtler forms cannot be understood in terms of the overt (conscious, often codified) forms white people*** are most familiar with, such as segregation and profiling. They are fundamentally different phenomena, and must be understood in a different disciplinary context.

For example, i oppose racist ideas when i encounter them, personal or political. Insofar as people of color face restrictions to education and employment that (1) are due to socioeconomic conditions rather than intrinsic differences and (2) do not autocratically approach insignificance over time, i recognize the need for affirmative action programs, and in view of the general agreement among sociologists that these conditions exist i support them. On the other hand, my feelings toward people are, i can detect without much trouble, tinted by appearance, and especially by race, though i try to swallow these feelings. And, while i thought that i was pretty efficient during the Implicit Association Test on race, my results turned out to conform precisely to how i would “rank” the four races depicted by feel. This is anecdotal, but the research that led to and built upon these tests is not. To the extent that these prejudices are statistically common and that the limited attempts i’ve made to assess them in myself have come back positive, i can be reasonably confident that i succumb to them as well. (It would be wise, for example, to predict that i would achieve more equitable results on the IAT after experiencing the rubber hand illusion with an apparently black hand.)

So, i am racist. One difference between this statement and the one that might be inferred from its blunt delivery above is that it doesn’t make me a horrible person.

There are many more subtleties worth exploring. Varieties of racism other than internalized bias and outright bigotry—what i’ll call “personal racisms”—include what i’ll call “institutional racism” and “systemic racism” (in an attempt to most closely conform to widespread usages with which i don’t quite agree, though bear in mind that i’m no expert). Institutional racism characterizes the effects of either form of personal racism by those persons who control or inform institutions that impact other people. These persons range from active recruiters, as in the famous Bertrand–Mullainathan and Pager–Western studies, to long-dead founders, as in the case of Brigam Young and the enduring (though flexible) racism of the Mormon Church. Such racism in an institution of government would be “state racism”. As embedded within the scientific community and establishment, overt “scientific racism” has been rationalized on grounds ranging from anatomical configuration to standardized test scores.

Meanwhile, the “ambient” racism of a society not reducible to, or explainable in terms of, the impacts of specific institutions constitutes systemic racism. This includes the unconscious biases measured by the IAT and the cumulative microaggressions that pervade our everyday behaviors. It includes the invisibility of microaggressions to those who commit them (a component of privilege) and the internalization of racist beliefs by those whom they hurt, two cognitive errors that facilitate the just world fallacy. This makes systemic racism especially relevant to meta-institutional phenomena like the school-to-prison pipeline (a component of the so-called prison-industrial complex). These are major components of what is called “economic racism”, which also includes such banal instances of personal racism as the aforecited hiring biases.

So, in partial sum, racism can be facilitated by subconscious or unconscious biases as well as by ignorance and malice, and can take personal, institutional, and systemic forms.

(And there are still more subtleties to explore. I don’t, for example, go to the full extent that i might to account for the reciprocal advantages conferred upon me by these imbalances; i haven’t even gone to the effort of figuring out how best to do it. That is, i willfully benefit from—i take advantage of—systemic unfairness. This might actually make me a horrible person in some people’s eyes; while i could muster a defense of myself, i could not fault them for taking that position.)

While we’re on the subject, another, intensional definition is worth acknowledging: the conjunction of prejudice and power—popularly, “racism = prejudice + power”. Rather than a different source or manifestation of racism, this is a model that can be employed to understand and critique any variety. The equation traces back to Bidol’s book Developing New Perspectives on Race and evidently encapsulates broad usage within critical theories. While the quip is useful (i guess i did get to my first one), it shifts the ambiguity of “racism” to one of “power”. (“Prejudice” encompasses the aforedescribed racisms.)

When the power is infrastructural, or systemic—generally the context in which the quip is employed—then the racism is almost logically constrained to that of white people toward people of color, or at least downward among axes of race. This doesn’t preclude the existence of individuals and institutions who fit the previous descriptions, but it depends on their inability to receive infrastructural reinforcement, or to draw support from systemic beliefs and biases. This, one comes to realize after not long, is what SJAs mean when they further quip that “anti-white racism does not exist” (second!). Such individuals and institutions cannot be racist in this sense, while anti-color individuals and institutions, even marginalized movements like the neo-Nazis, can, by leveraging and reinforcing systemic racism.

This is a logically narrow, however sociologically vital, context—other sources of power allow for other varieties of racism, including “reverse” and inter-marginal. And there are several more useful definitions of racism****, and of prejudice and privilege and marginalization generally. Many of these also have a place in the empirical discourse. Care must only be taken to clarify which definition is in use. This holds especially if one feels unjustly accused by, or aspires to criticize, a dialogue of which they are not an active part.

* Somewhere, probably on Reddit, a fellow Atheist+ pithily characterized Atheism+ as “the radical notion that context matters”.

** Race is part, but not all, perception.

*** This post is written from a US-centric perspective.

**** Miri at Brute Reason recently critiqued a perhaps less useful one.

  1. July 15, 2013 at 6:19 pm

    I wasn’t able to get to this post until now, but You bring up a lot of relevent issues. I’ve taken the IAT a few times, and while I don’t know enough yet about psychology to give a useful opinion on it, I can see why it is controversal. The rubber hand illision is also fascinating, and I have a couple questions: To what extent, if any, do you think tests/activities like these can help someone overcome their racial predjudices? As far as discussion of racial inequality goes, do you think phrases like “People of color” in their attempt to be respectful, inadvertantly promote an “us-them” mentality?

    • July 15, 2013 at 8:33 pm

      I expect that any way any researcher attempts to measure racial bias will be controversial, regardless of the results. What i’d like to find somewhere is a repository for this kind of research—how much weight sociologists put on each, and what they say. I haven’t found such a review yet; these were just two examples from the sample i have come across.

      To your first question, i’m not quite sure what you mean by “overcome”. I don’t put much stock in the idea that people can “purge” themselves of racial biases by any other means than living and interacting regularly among a racially diverse community…something that society-level forces seem to have ever worked against (and probably not even that). But what research i have found indicates that an awareness of these biases can be very effective at helping people—of any race—account for them. So i’m living by that rule until persuaded not to.

      As for phrases like “PoC”, i usually defer to the consensus opinion, if there seems to be one, of people who (a) are members of the relevant disadvantaged group and (b) have made a clear, long-term effort to understand and communicate these phenomena. (I’ll assume that you mean the use of race-specific phrases at all, which would include “black”, rather than the use of “people of color” instead of “black people”; let me know if i’m mistaken.) Such phrases may indeed contribute to an “us–them” mentality; but this consideration must be taken together with (a) the fact that this mentality preceded the choice of terminology, i.e. “people of color” is used not to describe people with certain skin tones but to describe people who share certain disadvantages and experiences attributable to a racist culture, and (b) abstention from such phrases in favor of terminological “colorblindness”, especially in discussions of racism, makes the discussion of the differential impact of racist culture on different communities more difficult to talk about.

      The FAQ at the Crommunist Manifesto addresses (i think) these and many other subtle questions in detail that a skeptic can appreciate…in case you haven’t checked it out yet!

      • July 15, 2013 at 8:44 pm

        I had not previously heard of this site, Thanks!

      • July 16, 2013 at 3:12 am


        And, right on time, the Monkey Cage deftly delivers an overview of the statistically likely racism of the Zimmerman–Martin saga, replete with a link to this review of “research that demonstrates how the actions of even well-intentioned and ostensibly non-prejudiced individuals can inadvertently contribute to these disparities through subtle biases in decision making and social interactions”, now at the top of my queue.

  2. May 29, 2013 at 3:05 am

    Reblogged this on Reality Enthusiast.

  1. September 30, 2013 at 5:44 pm

Enlighten me.

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