Monday, October 22, 2007

The Role of Intent in Defining Racism

Following my previous post on the subject I had a chance to think more about current operational definitions of racism. Having had the chance to chew on the subject for awhile it seems that intent plays a key role in deciding whether a behavior can rightly be classified as racist.

I came at this by way of analogy. Consider the assertion that men are, on average, stronger than women. I would submit that asserting this fact, by itself, isn't sexist, despite postulating an innate difference between two groups. This fact can certainly be used to support arguments about the superiority of one sex over another in relation to various activities. I'll even go so far as to say that supporting the superiority of one sex over the other is not intrinsically sexist, provided you'll grant me a paragraph or two to explain myself.

We regularly note systematic differences among individuals or groups without concern that such distinctions promote one "ism" or the other; differences, and the noting thereof, are value-neutral. If we then go on to say that those differences, innate or otherwise, make some groups less worthy of respect, or use such differences to justify denying some groups full personhood, that's when such behavior descends to the level of "ism".

Consider the following assertion by way of example: African-Americans have darker skin, on average, than persons from Northern climates. Noting that they have dark skin, or inquiring as to why they have, on average, darker skin, are not racist activities. But using the fact that they have dark skin to justify their mistreatment (see, for example, the curse of Ham) is clearly a racist activity.

Mandolin was kind enough to leave the following comment in response to my previous post:

Unfortunately, the concept as postulated has been soundly debunked, leaving only those who are racist still clinging to it.
I disagree, because its possible that persons who hold that theory a) don't know that it has been debunked or b) remain unconvinced by the material that has been put forth in rebuttal. In either case they could still assert the theory without necessarily being racist. If they believe that the theory is false, and choose to assert it anyway in defense of some nefarious agenda, that is clearly racist behavior.

Some of you are undoubtedly accusing me of sophistry and/or pedantry at this point, but I think that making intent an integral part of any definition of racism (or any other "ism") solves a couple nagging problems:

  • Overly broad definitions: Some operational definitions of racism that I've run across make racists out of people like Dr. King. Including intent in the rubric for racism prevents that sort of absurd result.
  • "Off-limits" topics: If certain assertions are inherently racist (or sexist or whatever) then they become socially taboo. It becomes difficult to discuss them, subject them to empirical analysis, etc., despite the fact that such activities serve to suppress isms in the long run.

That's my $0.02 for this morning, carry on.

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