Defining racism

How would you define racism?

I’ve been thinking about this lately in light of some of the scandal around research into race and IQ. It’s a harder question than you may initially think; many of the definitions that pop to mind end up being either too strong or too weak. The term also functions differently in different contexts (e.g. personal racism, institutional racism, racist policies). In this post, I’m specifically talking about personal racism – that term we use to refer to the beliefs and attitudes of those like Nazis or Ku Klux Klan members (at the extreme end).

I’m going to walk through a few possible definitions. This will be fairly stream-of-consciousness, so I apologize if it’s not incredibly profound or well-structured.

Definition 1 Racism is the belief in the existence of inherent differences between the races.

‘Inherent’ is important, because we don’t want to say that somebody is racist for acknowledging differences that can ultimately be traced back to causes like societal oppression. The problem with this definition is that, well, there are inherent differences between the races.

The Chinese are significantly shorter than the Dutch. Raising a Chinese person in a Dutch household won’t do much to equalize this difference. What’s important, it seems, is not the belief in the existence of inherent differences, but instead the belief in the existence of inherent inferiorities and superiorities. So let’s try again.

Definition 2 Racism is the belief in the existence of inherent racial differences that are normatively significant.

This is pretty much the dictionary definition of the term “racism”. While it’s better, there are still some serious problems. Let’s say that somebody discovered that the Slavs are more inherently prone to violence than, say, Arabs. Suppose that somebody ran across this fact, and that this person also held the ethical view that violent tendencies are normatively important. That is, they think that peaceful people are ethically superior to violent people.

If they combine this factual belief with this seemingly reasonable normative belief, they’ll end up being branded as a racist, by our second definition. This is clearly undesirable… given that the word ‘racism’ is highly normatively loaded, we don’t want it to be the case that somebody is racist for believing true things. In other words, we probably don’t want our definition of racism to ever allow it to be the right attitude to take, or even a reasonable attitude to take.

Maybe the missing step is the generalization of attitudes about Slavs and Arabs to individuals. This is a sentiment that I’ve heard fairly often… racism is about applying generalizations about groups to individuals (for instance, racial profiling). Let’s formalize this:

Definition 3 Racism is about forming normative judgments about individuals’ characteristics on the basis of beliefs about normative group-level differences.

This sounds nice and all, but… you know what another term for “applying facts about groups to individuals” is? Good statistical reasoning.

If you live in a town composed of two distinct populations, the Hebbeberans and the Klabaskians, and you know that Klabaskians are on average twenty times more likely than Hebbeberans to be fatally allergic to cod, then you should be more cautious with serving your extra special cod sandwich to a Klabaskian friend than to a Hebbeberan.

Facts about populations do give you evidence about individuals within those populations, and the mere acknowledgement of this evidence is not racist, for the same reason that rationality is not racist.

So if we don’t want to call rationality racist, then maybe our way out of this is to identify racism with irrationality.

Definition 4 Racism is the holding of irrational beliefs about normative racial differences.

Say you meet somebody from Malawi (a region with an extremely low average IQ). Your first rational instinct might be to not expect too much from them in the way of cognitive abilities. But now you learn that they’re a theoretical physicist who’s recently been nominated for a Nobel prize for their work in quantum information theory. If the average IQ of Malawians is still factoring in at all to your belief about this person’s intelligence, then you’re being racist.

I like this definition a lot better than our previous ones. It combines the belief in racial superiority with irrationality. On the other hand, it has problems as well. One major issue is that there are plenty of cases of benign irrationality, where somebody is just a bad statistical reasoner, but not motivated by any racial hatred. Maybe they over-updated on some piece of information, because they failed to take into account an important base-rate.

Well, the base-rate fallacy is one of the most common cognitive biases out there. Surely this isn’t enough to make them a racist? What we want is to capture the non-benign brand of irrational normative beliefs about race – those that are motivated by hatred or prejudice.

Definition 5 Racism is the holding of irrational normative beliefs about racial differences, motivated by racial hatred or prejudice.

I think this does the best at avoiding making the category too large, but it may be too strong and keep out some plausible cases of racism. I’d like to hear suggestions for improvements on this definition, but for now I’ll leave it there. One potential take-away is that the word ‘racism’ is a nasty combination of highly negatively charged and ambiguous, and that such words are best treated with caution, especially when applied them to edge cases.

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