Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Racism Generalized

[Greg Bullock]
Nearly everyone knows that racism and stereotyping are wrong. Unfortunately, people don't stop to analyse why, or to generalize and apply the moral principles that forbid racism to other areas in which people judge individuals by the groups into which they are classified.

The problems with racist thinking are two-fold. Racism is first a mathematical error. A blanket statement about people of the form "all X's are Y's" is erroneous if a single counter example exists. Even when a premise is put into statistical form, such as "X is on average worse (in some area) than Y," assuming that a specific member of X is worse than a specific member of Y would be a mistake. Of course, these errors are greater in a situation where not a kernel of truth exists in our stereotypes. Human cognitive biases ensure that we will be enthralled to innumerable stereotypes, often without being aware of it.

These abstract points might be academic if it were not for the second problem with racist thinking. The mathematical errors implicit in such attitudes have moral consequences. We treat people differently from how we should because of our errors in reasoning. The consequences can range from accidentally giving offense to persecution, oppression, and genocide.

Decades of education have endowed most people with a finely-honed instinct for recognizing overt racism. Unfortunately, this instinct seems to be useless in noticing stereotypes not associated with historically persecuted classes, i. e., those stereotypes we decry as racist or sexist. As a simplistic example, it is common for people with progressive ideas about race to make statements which depict southerners as racist and backwards. When challenged on such points, perpetuators of stereotypes typically respond exactly as a racist does: "but it's true." They dismiss counter-examples in the same way, by adducing reasons the counter-example is nonrepresentative.

As an instructive exercise, you could substitute the name of a minority group for the group which such a person is defending his right to slander; If you were then to create a transcript of the altered conversation, you would see nothing that wouldn't be at home on the web page of a hate group.

Because the speaker hasn't generalized the principles that make racism wrong to govern his broader thinking, he continues to be no better than the hated racist. We might benefit from subsuming terms for specific categories of unenlightened thinking under the term "generalism," rather than racism, etc. We would certainly benefit by being more considerate of the ways in which we think of people as members of a group rather than individuals.


  1. Great post. Another thing to note on racism/stereotyping is that it is a byproduct of our ability to learn. Our brains naturally categorize things in order to make sense of our world; without it, we wouldn't be able to understand our environment. Unfortunately, that same function is responible for overgeneralization, and stereotypes and racism are both forms of overgeneralization. Since we all possess bias, we must constantly keep this in check so that we are not guilty of the negative effects of overgeneralization. It is not just a logical flaw, but an instinctual one as well that we must constantly be aware.

  2. You are absolutely right, Bek. Few things are all good or all bad. As an example related to my post, fear of outsiders might be one side effect of a tight-knit community known for taking care of its own. We can only educate ourselves and be mindful of our own thoughts and behavior in hopes of continually doing better.


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