Features Australia

Unpacking racism

Looks like we’re all racists, now

1 May 2021

9:00 AM

1 May 2021

9:00 AM

Across the democratic world these days the ultimate weapon in silencing views you don’t like – a weapon far more frequently employed by the Left than the Right – is the charge of racism. So let’s unpack the notion of racism because there are at least three distinct allegations possibly in play.

The first sort of racism I will call ‘old racism’ or ‘real racism’. This occurs when someone believes (or has been inculcated to assume, without much thought) that some races are flat out inferior to others.  The belief in play here is that some groups are better than others as a group. (Call them ‘races’ if you like, though the truth is that there is less genetic difference across humanity than across chimpanzees and the very notion of ‘race’ is lacking in sturdy criteria.) The supposed inferiority might be a moral one or an intelligence one. Either way, this old-fashioned or real racism will see the group differences as inherent, genetic. And from those sort of premises you don’t have to look hard to find calls for discrimination or separate treatment.

This was certainly a widespread sort of racism a century ago. Maybe there were still significant numbers of real racists even a half century ago. But in my experience there are very few old-fashioned racists about these days. Virtually none exist in the universities, churches, government bureaucracies or big corporations. That is in large part because most of us today see these sort of beliefs as wrong-headed and reliant on big dollops of ignorance.


The second sort of racism I’ll call ‘actuarial racism’. Exhibitors of this sort of racism will agree that all races or groups are equally worthy. They will deny there are any moral or other inherent differences between groups or races. In that sense they simply are not racists in its old or original sense. But they know their statistics. To take an example not to do with race, but rather with sex, they know how many young women get pregnant and how much it will cost their small business if that does happen so they look to hire men or older women – not because they think young women less worthy or less smart.  They may well think the exact opposite.  But costs are costs and where the world imposes big costs they act accordingly. The same sort of principle is at work generally when the taxi driver refuses to drive through certain parts of town that are known to be extra dangerous and peopled mostly by one group or race. It’s not any belief in some group’s inherent inferiority; it’s weighing up likely outcomes in the world as it is, the one the taxi driver actually inhabits – actuarial not real racism then. You might see it when people generalise in a rough and ready, but often accurate, way about likely future outcomes. Those who do so may well be aware that something in the country’s history led to today’s state of affairs that makes the generalisation roughly reliable.  They may lament it and want to fix it. But they still don’t wish to drive through that part of town at night. So for our unpacking of the notion of racism I’m calling that actuarial racism.

Lastly, we’ve got the flavour of the day. Let’s call this ‘structural racism’ or ‘systemic racism’. This third sort of charge of racism turns from individual responsibility to a supposed group one. That is why it can be criticised as playing identity politics, because the focus is only on the group level, never on the individual him or herself. You see, with charges of structural racism the allegation is that some race or group has been systematically disadvantaged in the past.  Maybe it’s been a long history of discrimination; maybe it’s been long-standing poverty; something some minority group can point to that disadvantaged it in the past. And because of that it does not matter how much effort, money or time is put into ensuring equality of treatment today.  That will never suffice. That’s because equality of treatment and equality of opportunity are neither here nor there for this sort of claimed racism. All that matters is equality of outcome. Measure the size of the supposedly victimised group as a percentage of the population. Measure the size of that same group when it comes to some desired positions – on corporate boards, on a university’s professoriate, as a political party’s candidates, in the incoming university student class, you name it. If there is any statistical mismatch, that’s structural racism, baby. By definition, as it happens. All you need is to be part of a group that can claim to have done badly in the past.

There is so much wrong with this notion of structural racism that it’s not clear where to begin. First off, its workings are wholly arbitrary in all sorts of ways. Why should someone today with one great grandparent in the victim group get to say that seven of his great grandparents oppressed the eighth so he now gets to benefit today? (Try to answer that with a straight face.) And why are only a few outcomes considered, not all? For another sex-related example, why only focus on corporate boards and TV presenters and not on garbage collectors? And why not equalise the fact that over 90 per cent of deaths at work are men’s? Same type of questions apply with race. Why the cherry picking? And why are you accountable for past actions of others in your group? Likewise, if you go down the ‘put everyone in a group and social engineer to equalise outcomes road’ why don’t we play this woeful game good and hard? Over three or four per cent of employees are homosexual, you say? Well, better fire a bunch to bring it in line with the population at large. Same with basketball teams, an awful lot of black privilege there. Take your eyes off a few top jobs or other fashionable areas of interest and the ‘put everyone in a group and go for exact equality of outcome’ is disastrous. It kills all scope for individual choice and difference and variable preferences. We all just become cogs in our group’s identity, the leaders of which become world class rent-seekers.

Worse, the consequences of forcing all to see themselves as victims are terrible – for society and for the individual.  It’s just flat out illiberal, remembering that the core of liberalism is to focus on the individual. Nor does the single-minded pursuit of equality of outcome have much of a track record – just check out communist regimes in the last century.

And that brings me to this last point.  We all know that charges of ‘structural racism’ are so weak and so unpalatable that they simply would not be effective were they not trading on an unspoken elision with the first sort of racism. No right-thinking person wants to be thought of as a real racist. So throw around the charge of structural racism with wild abandon and hope some of it sticks as of the old-fashioned variety. That’s how this game works. We’re being played for suckers.

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