Bryan Caplan  

What Racism Is

Surowiecki's Levy and P... Stanford Marshmallow Experimen...

Megan asks, "What is racism?":

Part of the problem with talking about race and gender in America is the definition of racism and sexism. Most of us use a working definition of racism and sexism that is something like "Holding (bad) false beliefs about racial minorities and women". But if that is our definition, everyone is going to fail a racism/sexism self-check: no one believes that their own beliefs are false.
Under the influence of the economics of discrimination, I distinguish between:

(1) Pure aversion/dislike/hatred of members of a group.

(2) Aversion/dislike/hatred of members of a group caused by what some members of their group did. (In short, assigning collective guilt).

(3) Having unrealistically negative beliefs about the average characteristics of a group.

(4) Having realistically negative beliefs about the average characteristics of a group.

So where do you draw the line of racism/sexism/etc.?

(1) instantly qualifies.

(2) also seems clear-cut, but don't be hasty. It depends in large part on whether group membership is a choice. To hate all Germans for the Holocaust is racist (or chauvanist, anyway). To hate all Nazis for the Holocaust is not.

(3) is often evidence of (1) or (2); people easily rationalize pure hatred into false accusations. But by itself, (3) could just reflect a mistake, and we all make mistakes.

(4) isn't racist/sexist at all. Constantly pointing out the shortcomings of another group could be symptom of (1); but on the other hand, it could easily be a response to unjustified accusations of (1).

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (22 to date)
General Specific writes:

Caplan: "Constantly pointing out the shortcomings of another group."

Some might call it "tough love." Others might call it "being a jerk."

A person who walks into a room full of sub-par students, announcing "Ok, you guys are all retarded, I'm here to help you" is not helping.

My limited exposure to those obsessed with IQ (mensa types): they aren't really that interested in helping to create a better, more stable society--or even environment around them. They're just people who tested high on IQ tests, often obsessed with themselves and their tricks (call it hoop-jumping), who aren't really that great at motivating in a positive direction a society made of people with many different capabilities.

Because they're too busy marching into rooms telling people they're "retarded."

mgroves writes:

In all cases, shouldn't the "negative thoughts" be addressed? This is more of a philosophical issue than an economic one, but Walter Lippman said, "Before you can begin to think about politics at all, you have to abandon the notion that there is a war between good men and bad men."

Don writes:

General Specific, you might gain some insight into Mensa by thinking of it as a voluntary signal. As such, those with the most to gain by displaying the signal will be those who just barely score high enough on the test; I didn't see too many professors at Princeton proudly displaying framed Mensa memberships in their office.

They're also people for whom intelligence is a particularly important component of identity.

Maniakes writes:

2 also depends on the degree to which the offense is related to the group's mission or identity. Being a Republican is a choice, but it'd be unreasonable to hate all Republicans because of McCarthyism.

Psychistorian writes:

There is one you might number 3.5 that seems relevant: giving excessive weight to averages when evaluating individuals.

For example (to use an example that was used in this blog), I may have a well-justified belief that being a libertarian economist is correlated with being (relatively) bad at math. If I meet a libertarian economist, it is rational to assume he is bad at math. If I subsequently learn he also has a Ph.D. in math, and I ignore this strong indicator in favor of the weaker indicator of his being a libertarian economist, I've made a mistake.

Doing this with information regarding races leads to a result that could be rightly described as racist (or at the very least seriously mistaken). If I continue to use a person's race to evaluate him after I have better information that makes any correlations with race irrelevant, then I seem to be doing something racist.

rvman writes:

It is pretty clear that many people do count (4) as racist. These people (call them leftwingers) believe that there are no differences between races, and that the very act of studying that issue indicates racism. A related group believe that merely noticing race is racist - the mere act of identifying some guy as 'the black one', when that guy is the darkest pigment member of some group, is a racist act. Most of these additionally require membership in what they consider the dominant group as a requirement - it is perfectly ok for a dark-pigmented person to 'see' race, but it is racist for the light-pigmented person to do so, because of the historical advantage the light pigmented person has received from that perception.

This is a truly racist position, in my book, though. My definition of racism is the act of attributing an individual's moral import or worth to the designation of race.

Noting empirical differences between groups isn't racist. Granting or denying individuals a legal right based on race is racist. Failing to go out of ones way to recruit minorities(or, alternately, doing so) isn't racist. Rejecting a given candidate based on race is racist.

Saying "the average black American has a measured IQ 10 points lower than the average white American," isn't racist. Saying "Blacks are stupid and inferior," is racist. Saying "Low-skill foreigners benefit economically from free trade at the expense of low-skilled Americans," isn't racist. Attributing moral or policy importance to that fact (i.e. saying that the government should protect American workers from the foreign competition) is racist.

Steve Sailer writes:

As used at present in the U.S., "racist" is just an-all purpose smear word with no objective meaning other than "I don't like him," much as "un-American" was in 1951.

dearieme writes:

Given that Social Scientists are virtually professionally wedded to confusing correlation with cause, it seems a bit rich of them to complain that the layman sometimes does too.

David N. Welton writes:

With regards to 4), do you think that people never, sometimes, often or always tend to attribute things to groups (especially large groups) that aren't really born out by the facts? In other words, inventing "stories" about groups that make things easier, but aren't really things that are true of the group as a whole, when examined closely.

Troy Camplin writes:

Racism and sexism both are manifestations of tribalist thought, the least complex psychosocial level in humans, and one which we all have to go through developmentally in order to get to more complex levels of thinking and social organization. In tribalism, there is "us" and "them." The easiest way of doing this is through visual cues -- skin color, ways of dressing, and even gender. The tribe is the extended social self, and love of one's self gets turned into dislike of what is not oneself. This would have a strong selective advantage, since one does not have to get to know a stranger to learn if you should like them -- anyone who thught that way would get a spear through the head, while those who were more likely to launch spears through the head would survive. Thus we have racism as somehting naturally selected for. This does not mean it is a good thing -- especially in modern societies -- nor does it excuse it. But we cannot fix a problem if we don't know how to identify the problem. Not all elements of tribalist thinking are bad, but things like racism and sexism are some of its worst elements. Knowing that, we can begin to work on creating a healther tribalist level within ourselves, and we can teach our children that people who don't look like us are, in fact, in our tribe.

John S Bolton writes:

Racism IS mainly a smear term, but one that relies on equivocation and slippery slopes to extreme possiblities. Interestingly the posting equivocates racism to mean almost any sort of disaffinity. One ought to have very strong disaffinity for that equivocation. Racism 1=racial-genetic inheritance of ideas, 2=disaffinity relative to some group with multigenerational stability, 3=belief in inequality between races, 4=being from a dominant race, 5=wish to oppress on racial grounds, 6=wish to exterminate a race,7= trying to exterminate a race, and many more, all of them equivocated so as to smear and shift the burden of proof on to some opponent of the left, or to smear someone who opposes a political move which has no argument in its favor. It gets the targets of the smearing on the defensive, trying to prove there not a (hyper-equivocated) 'racist'. It's the new left approach almost to the exclusion of all others.

I think that racism is always irrationally derived, as either a sociobiological device or the result of socialization. In contrast, if hatred of a group develops through knowledge or exposure to a group, it may not be "racism" as much as a semi-scientific conclusion.

Therefore, I would not say a person who has ONLY been exposed to members of a group who perform evil acts is racist for believing the race is evil. That's logical and potentially socially useful, since the genetic and cultural markers that characterize the "bad race" would statistically offer some insight into the intentions of the race's members.

I would say a racist is someone who ignores the good qualities of members of another race because of the presence of the race's genetic or cultural marker-quality itself, thereby shielding him from a logical conclusion that would conflict with the idea that the race is evil.

Thus, I don't think 1,2,3, or 4 necessarily qualify.

Josh Adams writes:

I don't see anywhere in there a non-negative definition of racism/sexism. I've always considered undue positive bias based solely on sex/race to be racism as well.

Troy Camplin writes:

I thought I provided a non-biased definition, though admittedly with my own biases exposed afterward. The sociobiological explanation is a non-biased explanation. It explains why it would be good to hate those not yourself from the point of view of natural selection. Seeing as tribalist thinking is at the foundation of our psychology and social behavior and structures, it explains how things like racism and sexism are difficult, at best, to exterminiate. And whether you are making a negative or positive stereotype about a group, that is, of course, racism or sexism.

8 writes:

I draw the line at actions versus thoughts, especially since the majority of the truly negative thoughts have a healthy dose of ignorance. You are only a racist or a sexist if you do something to make your beliefs self-fulfilling.

Also, consider the "rules" for racism in the context of short, fat, or ugly people, especially in light of the fact that researched shows short men earn less than tall men.

Barkley Rosser writes:

A bit odd that while this discussion is labeled as having been inspired by the "economics of discriminiation," there is nothing about discriminiation in the discussion. There is a very useful old distinction that needs to be kept in mind: that between thought and action. What is being discussed here is thought, or more accurately, attitudes. That is "prejudice" (or maybe not, depending), not "discrimination."

"Discrimination" is action, not wanting to hire, rent to, let one's child date, and so forth, someone from a particular group because of their membership in that group ("I don't rent to n*****s"). It is inappropriate discrimination that was outlawed by various civil rights laws.

This brings up the fact that the two may not necessarily coincide. Certainly prejudice ultimately underlies discrimination, but an individual in a racist/discriminatory society, e.g South Africa under apartheid or the US South prior to the 1960s, might be forced by their friends/neighbors/coworkers to engage in discrimination ("don't you dare sell your house to a n****r!"), even if they are not personally prejudiced. Likewise, the passage of laws that forbid discrimination might not lead individuals to cease being prejudiced, even if they are prevented from exhibiting this by discriminatory behavior of certain sorts.

OTOH, there is some evidence that being forced not to discriminate does actually lead to social changes in views, with racial prejudice having declined in some of the formerly discriminatory societies in which discrimination has come to be forbidden, despite all the yammerings about how "one cannot legislate morality!"

Troy Camplin writes:

We forget that in the South there were actually laws that prevented people from not discriminating. All we really needed to do (and what in fact succeeded) was eliminate those laws. It is free markets which eliminate discriminatory behavior, as the Southern states knew, which is why they had to have laws to enforce discriminatory behavior.

Jenny WCU 7470 writes:

I think that informing college students now about things such as "the economics of discrimination" is only going to give them a competitive edge to fight wage discrimination. Introducing a subject like this to students before they are in the work force at least allows them to be more aware of what is going on in certain corporations. It seems the only way to fight things of this nature is to produce better educated future leaders.

Chris Collins writes:

I don’t know if I’m going to agree with the statement but I think racism is a very sensitive subject because we all have different view of. I know there are ignorant some people out in the world, but I feel as if most people are passed racisms in it work definition. I believe that we all have our views but they are racist. Just me personally I’d rather not talk o the subject.

Charlie writes:

I agree with the majority of this article. I do, however, wish to add a point. To determine what is racism vs. what is just being realistic, facts should be examined. Just as with any claim, evidence should be provided to back up whatever statement is being promoted.

One thing to remember is that while generalizations should not be assumed true without proper evidence, those generalizations came from something. In most cases, someone did not just decide to make up something about a specific group, racially-based or otherwise.

Dr. Troy Camplin writes:

We should also be certain that our means will result in achieving the actual goal. We need to start holding people responsible for the bad results of their good intentions.

Linda Cooper writes:

Children are not born racist. This is something that they learn by watching other children and adults as they are growing up. I have written a blog that discusses Racism and Children and ideas to help promote tolerance between children.

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