Health and safety warning

Professors at prestigious American universities and members of other vulnerable groups may experience vomiting and fainting fits as a result of exposure to other people's opinions. If you think you may be affected, you should click on the Back button and seek medical advice before returning to this site.

Mr Grumpy can now be found posting at

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

What is racism?

Normblog has a debate between Eve Garrard and Shalom Lappin on Leeds University's suspension of Frank Ellis (see my past posts on the subject here and, more substantially, here).

I esteem both protagonists highly in other contexts, but in this case I think both of them make a crucial omission by not unpacking the concept 'racism'. We have become so used to this being the deadliest of modern sins that we have stopped noticing that it conflates two concepts which are fundamentally different in nature - a moral one and a factual one.

The moral component (let's call it racism A for convenience) is, obviously, the principle that Dr Ellis should not give different marks to two equally able students because one is black and the other white. 'Odious' is a description rightly applied to such behaviour, and if Dr Ellis has been guilty of it he should be sacked forthwith. But in fact this is not what he has been charged with.

The factual component of 'racism' (call it racism B) is the assertion of differences between populations which correlate with racial identity - especially if such differences are alleged to be innate. Dr Ellis believes there is a biologically determined difference between the average intelligences of black and white people. Clearly this is a factual assertion which may be right or wrong. Its truth value is a matter for scientific enquiry, and it is not the case that there is no evidence whatsoever which supports it. That being so, applying the word 'odious' to Dr Ellis's opinion is, strictly speaking, meaningless.

And note that the morally odious behaviour implied by the word 'racist' is not logically entailed by Dr Ellis's opinion about a matter of fact. For he is certainly not committed to the view that every white person is more intelligent than every black person. To take an analogy which exaggerates the point, I think it is reasonable to believe that on average adults are better at composing music than children, but it does not follow that I think I could compose better music than the infant Mozart.

Note also that the question whether Dr Ellis would be fit to serve as a juror in a case involving a black defendant is, logically speaking, a red herring - unless he has also expressed views about innate racial differences in morality and criminality. It is quite conceivable that he is an unusually fair-minded person.

I'm not suggesting that the conflation of racism A and racism B into a single concept is simply arbitrary. Empirically it is obvious that they frequently go together in the sense that beliefs about racial difference are invoked to justify racial discrimination. In reaction to this liberals typically refuse to consider the possibility that the claims of racism B may have any truth to them because they assume that this would legitimate the morally intolerable racism A.

But there is no logical necessity about the connection. It is possible for a white person to hate and despise black people (or vice versa) without having any illusion that there are rational grounds for doing so. Equally it is possible that a white person holding Dr Ellis's views would invariably treat individual black people with faultless courtesy, respect and fairness.

Indeed, where racism A and racism B are conflated into an ideology, it is always illogical and irrational. Factual propositions about racial groups can never supply a moral justification for treating an individual human being as something other than what he or she is. Under apartheid in South Africa you could win a Nobel Prize and still be a second-class citizen because of the colour of your skin. No amount of scientific evidence about racial differences could ever have made this morally tolerable.

Given the lack of a necessary logical connection between racism A and racism B, those who assume that if Dr Ellis holds racist opinions he must be guilty of racial discrimination become guilty of prejudice. The only kind of evidence that would prove him guilty of discrimination is evidence that he does in fact practise discrimination.

PS I wrote in my first post on this topic about the special status of Holocaust denial, and it is worth reiterating the point briefly. Here the factual claim has an inbuilt moral component, for its plain implication is that all Jews, or the vast majority, are morally deficient, being involved in a vast conspiracy to defraud and manipulate the rest of the human race. The historical evidence for the Holocaust is dismissed on the basis of a prior assumption that Jews are congenital liars. Nobody holding this belief can possibly be relied on to treat an individual Jew with the respect due to a fellow human being - whereas this, mutatis mutandis, is precisely not the case with Dr Ellis and his black students.

No comments: