Thursday, August 15, 2013

Who Is A "Racist?"

"Who Is A 'Racist?': Food for Thought that We've Never Tried" by Jack Kerwick

This is an excerpt from an article at Jack Kerwick's blog at Beliefnet.

If, as Eric Holder claims to want, we have ourselves an honest discussion of race, then we should determine, or at least try to determine, what it means for one to be a “racist.”

Is a “racist” one who has certain kinds of thoughts?    
“Thoughts” aren’t necessarily beliefs.  Fantasies, sensations, emotions—in short, perceptions of all kinds, are thoughts. To experience thoughts isn’t automatically to believe in those thoughts.

That a person’s thoughts are an insufficient basis for judging his character can easily be gotten from an infinite number of examples from everyday life.  A person who fantasizes about being a hero is no hero until he actually acts heroically—and even then, as Aristotle would be quick to note, the true hero isn’t just one who acts heroically; the hero is he who habitually acts heroically.  In any case, there is all of the difference between imagining oneself a hero and acting like one. Conversely, one who only thinks about ripping off the head of the person who cuts him off on the highway, or, say, imagines himself killing the lowlife who raped and murdered one of his loved ones is no killer until he actually kills.

Similarly, whatever a “racist” thought might be, he who has such thoughts is no more a “racist” than is the person a killer who merely has thoughts of killing another.

Is a “racist” one who holds certain kinds of beliefs?
For the same reason that thoughts generally can’t establish character, neither can thoughts that are beliefs do so.  A person is what he does. The familiar objection that beliefs are the basis of actions can be met by one very simple reply: it simply ain’t so.

First, it is not at all uncommon for the average person to have any number of beliefs that he never acts upon. As even his star pupil Plato recognized, Socrates was wide of the mark when he sought to account for wrongdoing in terms of ignorance of the good.  All too frequently, we act wrongly in spite of knowing that we are acting wrongly.  We act contrary to our beliefs, for the old Enlightenment fiction notwithstanding, human beings are not logic-chopping machines.

Second, even if it was true that our beliefs are always the bases of our actions, any belief can lead to more than one possible kind of action.

For instance, the belief that animals are inferior to humans need not motivate its holder to treat animals unkindly.  It could—and, as we know from experience, it more frequently than not does—drive the believer to go to great lengths to make sure that animals are protected.  The believer in animal inferiority could be an “animal lover” or an “animal hater.” For that matter, his belief could lead him to be altogether indifferent toward animals.

Similarly, a white person who believes in, say, the inferiority of blacks could support or oppose “affirmative action,” Jim Crow, slavery, reparations for slavery and Jim Crow, “historically” black colleges and universities, etc. Such a person could believe that while blacks are inferior to whites, it is precisely because of this that whites have a responsibility to care for blacks, to provide them with opportunities that they otherwise wouldn’t have left to their own resources.

Or a white person who believes in, for instance, the moral superiority of blacks may be moved to either a murderous envy or an admiration that propels him to seek out the company of blacks for instruction (or redemption).

But notice, in all of these examples, it is the actions that follow from the beliefs, not the beliefs themselves, that elicit opprobrium or approval.  Actions are praiseworthy or blameworthy, while beliefs are true or false.  If one is immoral for holding a false belief, then all of us are immoral, for there isn’t one among us who hasn’t entertained false beliefs. But if all of us are immoral for holding false beliefs, then we are still left wondering what is so distinctively objectionable about false beliefs that are “racist.”

Of course, one may contend that only some false beliefs, say, those beliefs of a moral nature, are immoral.  “Racist” beliefs could fall into this category.  And one could further argue that such false beliefs are the function of a corrupt character.

This, sadly, will not do.

In fact, it even proves the point that it is not beliefs, but actions, that are moral or immoral, for a corrupt character is nothing other than a vicious character, i.e., a character that is the product of acting viciously.

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