What is racism?

What is racism? In The Enduring Appeal of African Gangs, to choose a better example than most, C.M. Hendy writes:

There are some political issues that have a peculiar ability to remain topical over many news cycles, interest slowly waning then somehow being sparked again. The term ‘African gangs’ is probably instantly recognisable for this reason – if you live anywhere around Melbourne you will have heard about the menace of immigrant teenagers terrorising communities and burglaring homes in an unprecedented binge of lawlessness and violence. Or you may have heard the exact opposite, and been told that the press and conservative-leaning parties have sensationalised the issue in a pernicious attempt to stoke racial tensions and win cheap votes. …

The message is simple enough – both the Greens and Labor wish to make it known that they operate from a position of perfect ideological purity, harbouring an evolved utopian worldview that has completely transcended race in a quest for love, peace and every other banal humanitarian buzzword.

The flaw in this position is the brute fact that it’s only racist to suggest that individuals of African heritage are somehow more genetically predisposed towards being violent criminals – it’s perfectly valid to observe that crimes are being disproportionately committed by groups of people with African descent. Unfortunately, the subtlety is lost at both ends of the political spectrum.

Oh so confused. C.M Hendy misses another subtlety. It’s not racist to suggest that “individuals of African heritage are somehow more genetically predisposed towards being violent criminals”.

Is it racist to note that “individuals of African heritage are somehow more genetically predisposed towards darker skins”? Obviously not. It is merely stating a fact. Likewise, the number and types of aggression genes in someone or a group of people is merely a matter of fact.

What is racist is treating individuals differently on the basis of their race.

What bedevils race relations, however, is the genuine conundrum that arises when there is limited information. Sometimes it is irrational not to treat people differently based on their race — i.e. to act on racist stereotypes, to be racist. Let me explain with an example.

You are walking a street alone at night, and you spy a male in his twenties walking towards you, the only other person around. Do you cross the street to avoid him, or do you walk on right by him? You have only limited knowledge of the individual: looks fit, male, about twenty, and you can just make out his skin color and race — black, probably of African descent.

Two stereotypes (or statistical facts about various groups) are relevant here: the oncoming person is male and black. Being well versed in crime statistics, you know that when it comes to assaulting or robbing strangers:

  1. Males have a higher propensity than females.
  2. Blacks have a higher propensity than say whites and Asians.

So do you cross the street or not? To do so is both sexist and racist, but it is a safer move that plays the odds better. On the basis of the limited information you have about the oncoming individual, it is rational to cross the street. Better safe than sorry, eh?

Look closely at nearly any dispute over race that make the news nowadays and will you see involved the issues illustrated above. Yes, groups vary statistically — that’s just a fact, and the modern left is willfully stupid in denying it. Yes, treating individuals differently on the basis of race — when you have all the relevant information about the individual — is morally wrong. But information is always limited, and therein lies the inescapable dilemma.