How We Think About Racism

Stamp Out Racism, Belfast, August 2010

We often talk about racism as if it was a dichotomy. We hastily label others as racist or not racist, acknowledging no gradations. This is misleading because most human characteristics, including racial prejudice, do not work this way. Consider intelligence as an example to illustrate this problem. It would make little sense to lump every person we met into the categories of "dumb" and "smart" because we know that intelligence is a continuous variable (i.e., people vary along a wide range of intelligence). We are far more interested in knowing someone's level of intelligence than in forcing them into only one of two arbitrary categories. Height provides us with a similar example. If we force everyone into the categories of "short" and "tall," we create something that bears little resemblance to reality, losing valuable information in the process. Perhaps racism is like intelligence and height in that racist beliefs exist on a continuum so that it is more meaningful to consider degrees of racism than dichotomous labels.

Treating racism as a dichotomy is a problem not only because it does not match up to reality and omits valuable information; it is also detrimental because it shuts down the possibility of meaningful dialogue with others. Classifying others as "racist" is linked to moral outrage and can make it harder to fairly consider their point of view. Moreover, when we slap these labels on others, it makes it much more difficult to do the one thing almost everyone says we should be doing more of: talking about racism and attempting to find solutions.

Since many atheists, skeptics, freethinkers, and/or humanists are fond of claiming that we reject religion because it is important to us that our beliefs and behaviors are consistent with reality and because we prefer to preserve true beliefs and reject false beliefs, one might assume that we are well-positioned to correct problems like this. At the very least, one could be forgiven for being surprised that so many of us fall into this trap of treating racism as a dichotomy rather than something that exists on a continuum and then angrily applying these frequently inaccurate labels to others.

Snap Judgments of Racism

Before we consider how we might assess racism more accurately, it is worth briefly considering what many people do instead and why. Typically, dichotomous judgments (i.e., "racist" vs. "not racist") are made quickly and often on the basis of a single incident. A stranger makes a comment one considers racist, and one leaps to the conclusion that this stranger is "a racist." No distinction between saying something racist and being a racist is acknowledged.

I suspect that this happens, at least in part, because our motive for labeling others has little to do with accuracy. Part of our motive likely has something to do with our desire to rapidly classify others in our environment into categories like "threat" and "not a threat." From a survival standpoint, there is a great advantage to being able to identify potential threats quickly.

Besides the self-protective aspect of quick threat assessment, another part of our motive may have something to do with our desire to punish those we perceive as making us angry or hurting our feelings in some way. In contemporary society, being a racist is socially undesirable. For many, it is one of the worst things someone can be. By labeling someone as "a racist" when we are upset with them, we are inflicting a form of social punishment on them (and perhaps virtue signaling). Doing so may make us feel better about ourselves and may lead us to believe that we are dispensing justice. This seems to be an important aspect of what I have previously labelled outrage culture.

While our use of snap decisions involving dichotomous labels may be understandable, it does not necessarily produce the most accurate understanding of the world around us and others who inhabit this world. Those of us who are motivated to bring our beliefs and actions in line with reality might give some thought to how we can improve our accuracy.

Assessing Racism Accurately

Instead of trying to determine whether a particular person is "a racist" or "not a racist," based on a comment he or she made, we might consider an alternative question. For example, we might ask how racist this person is likely to be. If we understand racism as existing on a continuum ranging from virtually no racism at all to extreme racism, we might try to locate an individual's position along the continuum. Doing so would probably provide us with far more useful information.

Sounds easier said than done, doesn't it? How might we do this? We'd certainly take a look at the person's beliefs, often inferred on the basis of the content of his or her speech. For example, someone who regularly used a variety of racial slurs when referring to others would almost certainly be viewed as being higher in racial prejudice than someone who did not. We'd also consider the person's behaviors. No matter what the person said, we'd be interested in how he or she acted. Someone could easily engage in racial discrimination, for example, without expressing blatantly racist ideas or using any racial slurs.

If we cared about being accurate in our assessment, we'd want to make sure that we were basing it on an adequate sampling of the person's beliefs, speech, and behavior. Instead of making a snap judgment and labeling someone we do not personally know as "a racist" on the basis of a single comment we discovered on one of his or her social media accounts, we'd classify the comment as racist and consider it as one piece of relevant evidence. We would then seek additional evidence because we understand that one racist comment does not necessarily mean that the person who made it is high in racism. Specifically, we'd be looking for a pattern suggestive of racism (i.e., we'd want to know whether this person had a history of making racist statements and engaging in other behaviors suggestive of racism). The more evidence we saw, the higher the level of racism we could safely infer.

Of course, as good skeptics, we would also seek disconfirming evidence. We would recognize that we are all biased to pay more attention to information that confirms our views while overlooking evidence that is inconsistent with them. Thus, we would guard against this bias by going out of our way to consider the possibility that this person is not a racist and examine evidence consistent with this possibility too.

Talking About Racism

We do not have the best track record when it comes to having meaningful discussions about the subject of racism. The Internet in general and social media in particular can help by providing a space within which we can engage in such discussions with people from very different backgrounds. In order for that to happen, though, we need to progress beyond the constant outrage that characterizes much of social media and make a genuine effort to utilize our ability to reason, empathize, and perspective-take when we interact with others.

With that in mind, I'd like to conclude this post by repeating something I said above: It is a mistake to label someone we do not know as "a racist" on the basis of a single comment we consider to be racist. We might be wrong, we might lack the context to understand what the person said, or we might be facing an anomalous situation where someone who is extremely low in racism had a lapse of poor judgment and/or a loss of impulse control. But even if it turns out that our hasty judgment was correct in the sense that the person turns out to be high in racism, we do not know this when we issue our snap judgment. Because of the destructive potential such accusations can do, especially when we make them public for all to see, we are all better served by making the effort to conduct an accurate assessment first.