Prejudice is only indirectly related to racism. Prejudice is a preconceived opinion that is not based on direct experience or reason. Prejudice, or pre-judging, can lead to a dislike and rejection of people from different cultural, ethnic, religious and national backgrounds. However, such prejudice, despite its unpleasant and even inhuman elements, should not be equated with racism. . . . Not liking or trusting or respecting other people might be a backward and irrational attitude, but it is not necessarily evidence of racism.
Yes, prejudice is quite natural. Contrary to Furedi’s implication, though, prejudice does not merely target those who are different. What happens is that when several people in a group all have the same prejudice, it tends to target people with a trait not shared by all the people in the group. That’s called politics, where viewpoints are narrowed by the necessity to achieve artificial consensus, and realistic viewpoints are unwelcome, because they offend narrow-minded people.
That group dynamic is separate from the subjectivity of prejudice, which is dependent on all kinds of conditioning. Someone can be prejudiced against people just like them, if they despise their own upbringing, habits, or characteristics.
We should recall that until the outbreak of the Second World War, racial thinking was rarely questioned in any part of the world. Even in academic circles, critics of racism were very much in a minority in the 1930s. Back then, the term ‘racist’ was used neutrally and sometimes even positively in Western societies. It was only in the 1930s that the word ‘racism’ started to acquire negative connotations. It was in that decade that the use of the word racism in a derogatory way was first recorded in the English language (1). But even then, the idea of racial equality had few defenders – including within the intellectual community.
Of course, that is because equality is truly an idealization. It requires a non-materialist viewpoint looking to origins, or end-states, or essences, or something else not directly measurable. It is always speculative or transcendent, and can only be enacted imaginatively or by fiat. It has an ideal existence in law or philosophy or religion, obviously, but also in the false generalizations of social relations.
By contrast, racism as an ideology is a materialist viewpoint requiring superstitious belief in the ability to isolate a phenotypic difference, associate it with a specific genotypic factor, and derive a individualized behavioral prediction, or a useful social policy, or an evaluation of some intangible quality. It is superstitious because it relies not on directly manipulable causality, but rather on the unwarranted expectation of uniformity of habit and thought.
People may still have their prejudices, but very few individuals now define themselves as racist. Indeed, the term racist is looked upon negatively even by people who do feel some form of prejudice against a foreign ethnic or religious group.
I have deliberately constructed my definition above so that it applies to all those who think in this manner, regardless of how they politicize the term “racist”. Anyone who operates under the delusion that their perception of a superficial physical trait empowers them to comprehensively define someone’s identity is, by this account, racist; that includes the moralizers who demand class-action victim status for everyone with a particular shade of skin color. The fact that they are accepting the assumptions of the other party (“skin color defines who you are”) and repurposing that for “social justice” doesn’t change the fact that they are morons. Their prejudices may be “righteous” insofar as they are “oppressed”, but they are no more capable of clear reasoning than the oppressors.
Historically, racism expressed the worldview of the powerful. A sense of superiority, be it biological, moral or cultural, was integral to the outlook of the elites that dominated Western societies. Today, those with economic, political and cultural power rarely express themselves through the narrative of race. The powerful rarely express open hostility or crude prejudice towards other groups of people. On the contrary, today it tends to be those who feel they have been left behind, who believe they have been socially and culturally marginalised by mainstream society, who express some kind of racist thinking.
Yes, victim status is necessary to make a moral claim in contemporary ethics. In the insecure and weak-minded, this is conflated with arrogant triumphalist proclamations of cultural superiority. In US politics, this takes the form of pretending that Euro-Americans are inherently better at technology and long-view thinking, yet victimized because they are not arrogant enough; or that Afro-Americans are inherently better at being long-suffering and honest, yet victimized because they are not arrogant enough.
In practice, “racism” has become a pointless epithet, exactly as the Euro-American weenies claim, since it has been diluted to mean “whatever the oppressor class does that makes the oppressed class unhappy”. This unhelpful dilution removes the ability to describe it objectively.
The fantasy of widespread racism is driven by a conviction that, regardless of what individuals say or do, many of them are unconscious or unwitting racists. Since the early 1980s, racism has been subtly redefined as a psychological problem. The redefinition of racism from an act of conscious oppression to an unwitting problem of the mind was boosted by the former British High Court judge, Sir William Macpherson, in his 1999 report into the Metropolitan Police’s handling of the murder of a black London teenager, Stephen Lawrence. The Macpherson report defined institutional racism as something that ‘can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racial stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people’. The key word here is ‘unwitting’ – this depicts racism as an unconscious response driven by unspecific emotions. The idea that people can be racists unwittingly means that literally anyone can be a racist – whether they know it or not.
The idea of unwitting racism makes everyone either a potential racist or a potential victim of racism. It racialises every facet of life. It also raises an important question: who decides whether someone is guilty of behaving in a possibly unconscious racist manner? The complexity of the psychological motivation behind so-called unwitting racism was discussed by Macpherson in the following terms: ‘A racist incident is any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person.’ In making individual subjective experience the foundation stone of accusations of racism, Macpherson ensured that ‘unwitting racism’ would be a problem that would expand exponentially as time went by.
Yes, once the oppressed class accepts the terms of conflict (“race is the single most important determinant of human life”) and specifies the reward they expect whenever they win (moral “reparations”, as distinct from definable “compensation”) and the conditions (“whenever a member of the predefined oppressed class feels oppressed”), then everything is set.
In effect, what counts in the discussion of racism today is not any particular act but rather the perceptions of the accuser. . . . it is clear that for most people, most of the time, making an accusation of racism carries little risk. In fact, such accusations are now routinely used morally to denigrate apparently ‘bigoted’ people. Increasingly, the institutionalisation of official anti-racism is really an act of moral distancing, an attempt to separate ‘those bigots’ from us, the enlightened people. It’s about pathologising the morally inferior – which rather suggests that this new ideology of anti-racism has more in common with the racist imagination of the nineteenth century than it would ever dare to admit.
As usual, whenever a conflict is more about ego and identification than any quantifiable prize, both combatants agree on the terms first and then square off, with all the social inferiors and trophy mates watching breathlessly. Then they start trash-talking, grunting, gesturing, bluffing, and positioning, before beating each other bloody. The objective is not to kill, if the combatants are conspecific; the objective is to prove social superiority and win the loyalty of bootlickers and mates. Woe to the social outcast who denies the terms of conflict and points out that the combatants are both brainless animals.