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What is a Racist? Why Moral Progress Hinges on Getting the Answer Right

The charge of “racist” represents a scalpel that has been substantially dulled in recent years. The result is an inability to cut cleanly around the cancerous tissue of racism. The term has been co-opted by well-meaning social justice advocates, and is no longer reserved for people who treat members of other groups as inherently inferior to members of their own group. Nor is it used to identify people who fail to treat members of other groups as the individuals that they are. Instead, “racist” is casually hurled at anyone who expresses ideas that have been emblazoned on an intellectual “no-fly list.”

This is not to say that the charge of racism lacks punch. Most reasonable people want to avoid being called a racist, or having people think that they are racist. Perhaps nowhere is this more pronounced than in the modern academy. Scholars are well aware of how damaging a charge of racism can be to a career. Luminaries like E.O. Wilson, Arthur Jensen, Richard Herrnstein, Hans Eysenck, and the Nobel Prize winner James Watson have all brushed up uncomfortably against charges of racism. At universities around the country, students and faculty brand almost any belief about the biological basis of group differences as “scientific racism.”

The fallacy of modern racism

Although it might make us uncomfortable to think about, it is a scientific question whether meaningful differences exist across groups. It may, in fact, be true that there are important differences between racial groups, and these differences may cut across everything from psychological to physiological traits. Most social scientists, in fairness, already acknowledge average differences between groups, even for certain psychological traits. The most disconcerting aspect of this for critics — the no-fly zone that is likely to get you called a racist — is the possibility that some of these differences might be based in biology. In a previous essay, one of us noted:

To suggest that races might possess slightly different temperamental, cognitive, and other psychological traits, and that some of these differences are partly genetic in origin, is to violate a powerful — perhaps the most powerful — academic taboo. The incendiary nature of the subject seems to flow largely from the fear that discussing biological group differences will foster racial prejudice among the general public. Indeed, people bent on quantifying human worth have erected racial hierarchies, propped them up with pseudo-scientific theories and folk understandings about group differences, and conscripted them into service towards reprehensible ends. History, in places, is a wasteland of tragedy when it comes to the treatment of minority individuals. Yet, the reprehensible treatment of minority groups currently, or in the past, does not constitute empirical evidence that race is a fiction, or that differences in the psychological constitutions across racial groups are purely environmental in origin.

It is true that assertions about group differences can be motivated by malice. But group differences either exist, or don’t, regardless of whatever motivations are in place to seek them out. In the parlance of scientists, “it’s an empirical question” whether groups differ, on average.

It might even surprise us which direction these differences take. For example, many in the media focus on black/white differences in outcomes and infer that all of them result from racism, or “structural oppression.” But they often (deliberately?) omit the fact that Americans from South and East Asia perform better on a variety of metrics than other groups. Asian Americans have slightly higher SAT scores and higher incomes than Americans of European descent. And in every country in which they are represented, Ashkenazi Jews are disproportionately productive, innovative, and creative. Is it plausible to argue that such statements about Jews or Asians are racist? Hardly. In fact, failure to acknowledge the possibility of genetic differences in intelligence has led some to search for bizarre explanations of Jewish success, like supernatural sorcery or global conspiracies.

Many academics deny that races exist at all, thus sidestepping any need to think critically about the causes of group differences. The basic idea is that these categories have been used (and in some places continue to be used) as socially constructed tools of oppression. So, the argument goes, acknowledging biological differences between groups like races (or sexes) should be rejected outright because of the bad consequences it might produce.

Pause momentarily, though, and consider whether it would really even matter to you, in your daily life, what caused the differences between groups — genetics, environments, or some combination of the two? Would that knowledge inform, or should it inform, how you treat the neighbor who lives beside you?

If to avoid being a racist, one has to maintain that all groups are the same (or that differences only emerge from one or two socially acceptable causes), then we are going to have to spend a great deal of time lying to ourselves and ignoring the world we confront every day.

None of this diminishes the fact that racism is real, and that it has an ugly history. But many people, especially intellectuals, go to elaborate lengths to explain every possible difference between groups by appealing to a discriminatory culture. If the outcome is different, one group must be oppressing the other group. Maybe they’re right, but that should be settled by investigation rather than by assumption.

So, What is Racism and Who Are the Racists?

If believing in the reality of race, or the existence of race differences, is not equivalent to racism, then what is? The issue seems to have everything to do with the worth placed on individuals. If an individual is assigned more or less worth depending only on the racial group they identify with (or are identified with by outsiders), that is racism. By using this definition, we avoid the worries about both group differences and race differences. Group differences will either exist, or not, and they’ll be caused in part – or not at all – by biological factors, and none of that will alter the worth of the individual in question.

The case for moral equality and individual dignity does not rest on genetic or ancestral identity. It rests on compassion and a desire to judge an individual by the “content of his or her character” rather than the various groups to which they belong.

We are not arguing that racism has vanished, or that racists don’t exist. We’re making precisely the opposite argument. There are racists out in the world. They assign the same level of worth to everyone from a given group.

John McWhorter recently wrote an essay relevant to the current discussion. As McWhorter notes, at some point the term “’racist’ starts to come off as a mere angry bludgeon used by a certain set of people committed to moral condemnation and comfortable with shutting down exchange.”

Our search for cultural tumors must be constrained. If everything is cancer, then nothing is.


Jonathan Anomaly is a Lecturer at Duke University and Research Assistant Professor at UNC Chapel Hill

Brian Boutwell is an Associate Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Saint Louis University. Follow him on Twitter @fsnole1


  1. Group difference, competition and selection objectively exist and act. Do we like this or not. They are simultaneously the source of failure and suffering as well as success and wellbeing. The source of experience and progress. If you stop group competition and selection and you’ll destroy human wellbeing. And you’ll doom humanity to suffering much more terrible than cause what is called “social injustice”.

  2. “If an individual is assigned more or less worth depending only on the racial group they identify with (or are identified with by outsiders), that is racism.” << This is the definition of racial prejudice.

    Racism is when an individual or group is oppressed and have their rights denied, or when they exercise those rights they are retaliated against, on the basis of racial prejudice, skin color and associated with the ethnic group.

    It is plausible to argue that such statements above about Jews or Asians are racist, when they are used to marginalize, or deny the rights of others. In the Bay Area, people see white flight from local schools that have diverse population of Asians, where white parents claim that it is "unfair" and unfit for their special snowflakes to compete with Asian children that were raised by strict tiger parenting standards. That, is racism. Because the logic is based on prejudice and not facts.

    In fact, lumping all Asian Americans together and claiming that they are more intelligent, is racist.
    Some Asian Americans students test higher SAT scores and some have higher than average household income. The difference between the success of these groups within Asian Am community is not "inherent intelligence" but the privilege by which they arrive in the USA. Those Asian American immigrants who came to the USA to continue education, and come here by choice, fare so much better than the immigrants who came to the USA to escape war, persecution, and poverty. Hence why many Japanese immigrants fare better than Vietnamese, the new wave of nouveau riche Chinese fare better than the previous wave of Chinese immigrants. Kenyan and Ghanaian immigrants do better than Somali immigrants.

    • None of what you said (that there are individual or group differences between asians) is inconsistent with what the authors said. The only difference is that you attribute 0% of all human differences to genetics, whereas they say such differences may owe to a number >0.

  3. Yandoodan says

    ” In the Bay Area, people see white flight from local schools that have diverse population of Asians, where white parents claim that it is “unfair” and unfit for their [children] to compete with Asian children that were raised by strict tiger parenting standards. That, is racism.”

    If this is so (I have no information one way or the other) it is amazing. The European-descended parents are claiming that their children are racially inferior, and so should get special treatment as if their “race” were a disability. This is a weird way of using a race construct to advance oppression — but people can be pretty weird.

  4. Santoculto says

    ” Ashkenazi Jews are disproportionately productive, innovative, and creative.”

    So disproportionately creative ”,” innovative and productive that they invented or re-reshaped most of all this illiberal ideologies… and worst, because most of this ideologies are not wrong, in their surface, ”they” are just the evolution of [quite hypocrite and wrong] older/christian/monotheist moralities.

    The Frankfurt Mafia simply start to destroy the human virtues.

  5. Santoculto says

    Race-ism is a broad and abstract concept, just like ”consciousness”, what the hell is it**

    Consciousness can be so many things with so many aplicabilities. The same for racism.

    Homo-‘phobia’, in other hand, is quite understandable, a direct ‘and” objective concept.

    Racism is, in my view, maliciously projected to be vague and abrangent, in the way, racism is what you believe is it. The same for ”feminism”.

    Feminism ‘is’

    – defense for equal rights to the women
    – women can wear the clothes they want to wear
    – women are over-protected class
    – women are superior than men
    – women can accuse men to the sexual abuses even without evidences…

    The fundamental problem of racism is not exactly their broader and vague conceptualizations but how this has been applied in the western societies, double/unfair standards.

    – only white people can be real racists
    – only white people can be labelled as racists
    – only white people can’t have pride about their race
    – only white people can be beated in the streets by non-white people and specially by black people because it’s just ”historical reparations”.

    The vague concept contribute to the people use it in the way they want and in many wrong ways.

    Based on correct aplicability of racism in the macro-social sphere, white caucasians are suffering racism by their current elites because they are denied the right to live in their own lands, specially in their [more] ancestral lands, the right to fight for their own biological preservations, being discriminated in american universities, etc…

  6. Danny says

    “failure to acknowledge the possibility of genetic differences in intelligence has led some to search for bizarre explanations of Jewish success, like supernatural sorcery or global conspiracies.”

    That’s complete bogus, to the point where it needs to be removed from the article. Academics aren’t the ones asserting Jewish conspiracies or magic. The people responsible for these theories are in no way interested in the academic literature of race, and would absolutely continue making those claims regardless of what studies existed.

    • Reply to Danny says

      The article is not just about academics. It’s about journalists, academics, and everyone else. Though to be honest, academics are often worse than ordinary people because they are often blinded by their ideological commitments. As Jon Haidt says, many people with a high IQ are superior rationalizers but inferior reasoners. Dumb people have talked about Jewish conspiracies. But some otherwise smart people say equally implausible things like “they come from a culture of learning.” Please. Non-religious Ashkenazis are at least as smart as religious one. And they are accomplished wherever they are found on earth, even when they share no culture at all.

  7. Clearly, with the definitional expansion of ‘racism’ due to the utility of the claim to political activism, your response above will have little to no impact.

    But I would also like to take issue with another point. Humans self-segregate naturally in multi-ethnic societies, whilst still giving voice to egalitarian and race-blind perspectives. In other words, their ethnic identity is meaningful to them, even if only half-consciously. Clearly for a site that recognises biodiversity, it’s not hard to see that relatedness underlies much human attachment and behaviour and had a root in our very nature. To reduce it to the most basic element, we don’t spurn our own children to take in those based on greater following some abstract scale of want, or justness.

    Are you really suggesting that people who differentiate in their behaviour towards peoples based on their relatedness are guilty of a serious moral infraction?

    Further, this requirement to treat people as ‘individuals’ is an outgrowth of the idea of trust in society, something that has developed almost alone among European (Western) peoples. Most other societies have relied on trust within kin groups and clans. As you know there’s been much discussion about whether the issue drove certain tendencies in Western civ.

    If this is true, then demanding Europeans (because of course, that’s whom this missive is aimed at) treat people as individuals – regardless of background – as a moral requirement, might put them at a fundamental disadvantage if other groups operate a non-individualistic and clannish pattern of behaviour.

    In both cases, I’m not feeling it, I am afraid.

    Racism is: unwarranted antagonism towards a racial outgroup due solely to being a member of such a group.

  8. * “The issue seems to have everything to do with the worth placed on individuals. ” Are you really suggesting that people who differentiate in their behaviour towards peoples based on their relatedness are guilty of a serious moral infraction?

    (I left out the intended quote from the article)

  9. Timmy says

    Yawn. Tedious journey through an English major’s struggle with reality. Sailer et al are light years ahead of you. We’re still waiting for the egalitarian acid trip to wear off on droogs like you. Fed up waiting.

  10. Nick Good says

    >What is a Racist?<

    The term has become meaningless – it's akin to in days of yore, calling someone a witch or a heretic.

    It used to refer to those who hold race-based animus, who didn't treat folks of other races with empathy and humanity.

    It has morphed to encompass anyone who does not hold to blank slate dogma, anyone who does not hold Pakistanis, Somalians, Swedes and Japanese as plug and play components. Any white person that is not fine and dandy with immigration at levels that will make them a minority in their own homelands. Anyone who is against race-based preference policies – so it involves a blindness to irony too. Anyone who voted for Trump or Brexit.

    The sting's gone out of it,so this will no longer do.

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