For some, especially on the right, reverse racism is just as serious and problematic as regular racism. For others, especially on the left, reverse racism is impossible; a black person, say, may be hostile toward or prejudiced against white people, but cannot count as racist toward them.
This disagreement is due, in part, to a further disagreement as to whether racism, and/or the badness of racism, is essentially a matter of individual attitudes and actions, or essentially a matter of systematic power relations. And the same issues arise with sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, and so on.
I think both sides are wrong. That is, I think reverse racism (along with sexism, etc.) is a) possible and real, but b) less seriously problematic than the regular sort. Let me say why.
I’ll start with a thought-experiment designed to convince those who already accept the existence of reverse racism (etc.) that it is less seriously problematic than the regular sort.
Thought-Experiment #1: Bobby Shafto’s Burger Shack
Bobby Shafto has an odd obsession with freckles, specifically facial freckles. He likes people with an even number of freckles on their face. (That includes people with no freckles on their face, since zero is an even number.) But he has an aversion toward people with an odd number of freckles on their face, and he refuses to allow them into his Burger Shack, either as employees or as customers. In his world, which we’ll suppose to be ours as well, Shafto’s particular prejudice is of course highly unusual. But on Twin Earth, let’s say, the same prejudice is widely shared among the even-freckled, and as the even-freckled command the lion’s share of economic and political power, they are able to make their prejudice effective.
Suppose Bobby Shafto and his odd discrimination policy really exist somewhere. We might well disapprove. But how concerned would we be about it? Not very, I suspect. And the reason isn’t hard to find: Shafto’s prejudice is so rare that it causes very little overall harm; it’s easy enough to find other places to work or to eat.
By contrast, when we consider the Twin-Earth scenario in which Shafto’s prejudice is the norm among those with economic and political power, then the life-choices of odd-freckled people would start to be systematically constrained, and the prejudice in question would begin to look like something in need of being condemned and combated in a serious and organised way. (Such combating need not necessarily take the form of legal coercion; but that’s a distinct issue.)
When I say that prejudice against odd-freckled people is a worse evil on Twin Earth than in our world, I don’t just mean that it has worse consequences (though that’ part of what I mean). I also mean that it evinces a worse motive and character – since it involves knowingly contributing to ongoing oppression, as Shafto’s does not.
So discrimination against the odd-freckled is a serious evil on Twin Earth; but our world is not Twin Earth. And considering Bobby Shafto in our world – Bobby Shafto the isolated eccentric weirdo – I ask those who think reverse racism is as seriously problematic as regular racism whether they also think Shafto’s discrimination policy is as seriously problematic as regular racism. If – as I predict – they mostly don’t, that would seem to show that they’re committed to acknowledging that the badness of racism is at least in large part a matter of the systematic constraining of people’s options – of their oppression, in Marilyn Frye’s sense. But that means that reverse racism – i.e., racism by an oppressed group against a non-oppressed group – cannot be as serious an evil as racism by a non-oppressed group against an oppressed group.
My argument presupposes, of course, that blacks are an oppressed group and that whites are not. (And ditto mutatis mutandis for women vs. men, etc.) Obviously some of the people who worry about reverse racism will deny that supposition. I think they’re crazy to deny it, but that’s a debate I’m not getting into here. For purposes of this post I’m addressing those who grant that blacks are oppressed while whites (quawhites) are not, but who nevertheless regard regular racism and reverse racism as equally bad. The point of my comparison between Bobby Shafto and Twin Earth is to convince holders of that position that they can’t hold it consistently.
Let me now turn to the second group – those who deny the possibility of reverse racism, on the grounds that racism is essentially about systematic , institutional oppression, not merely individual attitudes. The usual criticism of this view is that it conflicts with ordinary usage. That criticism is, I think, a strong one, but not quite as strong as its proponents suppose.
Why is the appeal to ordinary usage strong? Because the standard use of the word “racism” in ordinary language does treat individual attitudes as sufficient (even if not necessary) for racism. People are of course free to give the word “racism” a special sense as a technical term referring exclusively to institutional racism; but if that is all they are doing, then they are not entitled to criticise others who use the term in the ordinary way. By analogy, the term “trope,” as used in my profession, means something radically different from its use(s) almost everywhere else (whether in rhetoric, in literary theory, or in ordinary language); but it would be silly for me to criticise those who don’t use it as analytic philosophers do.
Why is the appeal to ordinary usage not necessarily decisive? Because a term’s ordinary use can legitimately be rejected if there turn out to be something wrong with that use – as I’ve argued is the case with, for example, the term “capitalism.”
But is there anything wrong with the ordinary meaning of “racism”? It allows for the possibility of reverse racism, of course, but is there anything wrong with doing so? One might think so, if one thought that acknowledging reverse racism as a category committed one to regarding reverse racism as comparable to regular racism either in extent or in moral seriousness; but no such commitment exists. (That the existence of reverse racism does not entail its being comparable in moral seriousness to regular racism was the moral of my Bobby Shafto thought-experiment above.) Of course the sort of people who tend to bang on about reverse racism do typically regard it as comparable, both in extent and in moral seriousness, to regular racism; but we do not need to deny the existence of a category in order to deny that the category has the significance that those who are most invested in the category generally attribute to it.
Another reason one might have for rejecting the ordinary meaning of “racism” is simply the need for a term that conveys the systematic, institutional dimensions of the problem; if “racism” as commonly used doesn’t do that, maybe we should change it so that it will. But in fact we have terms that do the trick, such as “oppression,” “white privilege,” and (mutatis mutandis) “patriarchy.” Those terms are all asymmetric; “racism” doesn’t need to be (nor, e.g., does “sexism”).
In any case, insisting that nothing counts as racism unless it involves systematic, institutional oppression has some consequences that even those who take that view ought to find awkward. This brings me to my second thought-experiment.
Thought-Experiment #2: Unfrozen Caveman Owner
Take someone you think is an obvious racist; presumably Donald Sterling will do (he’s also a sexist, so this example can do double duty), though pick someone else if you like. Now suppose that while touring a cryogenics facility he falls into the vat and is instantly frozen. When he is revived, many years (decades? centuries? millennia?) have passed, and he wakes into a world in which true racial (as well as gender, etc.) equality have finally been achieved. But all of Sterling’s attitudes remain the same as they were in the early 21st century. Is Sterling no longer a racist (and ditto for sexist)?
If racism necessarily involves society-wide power relations, then Sterling in my example is not a racist once he wakes up, since the power relations in question are gone. But it seems bizarre to deny that future-Sterling, with all his attitudes unchanged from those of present-Sterling, is a racist. I don’t just mean that it seems bizarre to me. Rather, I’m predicting (subject of course to falsification) that even those (or most of those) who are attracted to the denial of the possibility of reverse-racism will find it plausible to think of future-Sterling as a racist. But if he is a racist, then racism does not essentially depend on systematic oppression (even if much of racism’s moral interest stems from such oppression), and so the chief case against the possibility of reverse racism must be abandoned.
But perhaps it will be said that future-Sterling counts as a racist only because his beliefs and attitudes were formed in a social context of white privilege and so are still defined by their origin. Well in that case let’s consider a final thought-experiment.
Thought-Experiment #3: The Red and Yellow Peril
Two distinct ethnic groups, the Winkies and the Quadlings, live in adjacent territories. Each side regards the other as racially inferior degenerates who deserve to be either subjugated or exterminated. The two are at constant war with each other, but as they are roughly equally matched, neither side has succeeded in subduing the other. Are the Winkies and Quadlings not racist?
The mutual race hatred between the Winkies and the Quadlings seems like the kind of situation that the concept of “racism” is tailor-made to describe. But while each side seeks domination, neither has it. There’s no inequality, no privilege, no oppression. So racism, I suggest, need not involve these. In which case reverse racism is possible. Though not necessarily that big a deal.
In 2012, a student was violently raped by a group of fraternity members at the University of Virginia, a story that was recently re-told by Sabrina Rubin Erdely in Rolling Stone. Erdely’s description of the rape culture at UVa, and the reaction to the story, is especially upsetting because it shows how universities, these beautiful institutions where people have the chance to discover and maybe even contribute to some of humanity’s greatest achievements, can tolerate and protect the worst of humanity as well.
In response to the story (and notably, not to the rape allegations, which the University was aware of before Rolling Stone broke the story) UVa President Teresa A. Sullivan announced that she was suspending all fraternities until the spring semester. In that letter Sullivan wrote:
At UVa we speak in idealistic terms: honor and tradition inform our thinking, and balance our daily actions. And it is easy here, where success is demanded as much as it is sought, to let our idealism outweigh our reality. Jefferson, as he always does, provides a compelling backdrop:
It is more honorable to repair a wrong than to persist in it.
It’s telling that Sullivan chose to reference Thomas Jefferson. Erdely describes the central role of Jefferson in the campus culture of UVa:
Thomas Jefferson, whose lore is so powerfully woven into everyday UVa life that you practically expect to glimpse the man still walking the grounds in his waistcoat and pantaloons. Nearly every student I interviewed found a way to mention “TJ,” speaking with zeal about their founding father’s vision for an “academical village”.
As Erdely reports, when a student was raped in the 1990’s, she was told that better lighting on campus would “ruin Jefferson’s vision of what the university was supposed to look like,” by a UVa administrator.
“It is more honorable to repair a wrong than to persist in it.”
Among the (many) steps that UVa’s campus community must take to repair the wrong of rape-culture on campus, one change that must be on the list is scaling back all the TJ talk. Thomas Jefferson was a rapist. If UVa is serious about changing their longstanding tolerance for rape, they should start by withdrawing any idolization of their founder- who not only owned hundreds of people he also had an ongoing sexual relationship with Sally Hemings, whom he never freed.
Although there are many definitions of rape and sexual assault, let’s agree that sex without the presence or possibility of consent is rape. Under the institution of slavery, people who are legally enslaved do not consent to work. They work because they are implicitly or explicitly threatened with death or violence, and those threats violate slave’s rights. In other words, slavery is forced or coerced labor. Similarly if a slave owner has sex with a slave she cannot consent, because if she refuses (just as if she refused work) she could be killed or otherwise assaulted and she would have no legal rights. In other words, sex with a slave is forced sex, which is rape.
That’s why Thomas Jefferson was a rapist.
It seems strange to me that I need to spell this out, but when the President of UVa approvingly quotes Jefferson in a letter about rape culture apparently it needs to be said.
If people in higher education want to show that they are serious about condemning rape, then they should stop glorifying known rapists.
I realize that it will take a lot to change rape culture on campuses. That’s why it’s especially demoralizing that Universities are unwilling to even take a small steps toward sending the message that powerful rich men cannot get away with raping women. For example, maybe universities could start by removing famous alleged rapists from University boards and taking down the statues of Rapists from American History.
No one today even knows what Sally Hemings looked like, but at UVa, Jefferson is everywhere.
Here is another excerpt from the current draft of “When May We Kill Government Agents?”. This section appears after I’ve debunked (or tried to debunk) a range of arguments for the special immunity thesis. (The cases A-E listed below, and an explanation of what the special immunity and moral parity theses are, can be found here.)
We are still looking for reasons why it would be impermissible to kill government officials in cases D-F even though it is permissible to kill civilians in analogous cases A-C. One such objection goes as follows:
If citizens believed they were at liberty to kill democratic officials (under the principles described above), then this would cause dangerous instability and fallout. If civilians kill a bad cop, the other cops are likely to retaliate by harming other innocent people or curbing their rights. If civilians kill an evil president, future presidents or congress are likely to retaliate by harming other people or further violating their rights. Therefore, it is wrong to assassinate democratic officials.
The idea here is that morality is a strategic game. What I am permitted to do might depend on how others will respond to what I do. Perhaps what would otherwise have been a permissible action might be rendered impermissible if others will perform wrongful actions in response to it. That is, perhaps the threat of extortion might change my moral duties.
Presumably, there’s no moral duty to choose a red over a blue toothbrush. However, suppose a terrorist threatens to nuke DC unless I choose blue. Must I then choose blue?
Consider a variation on minivan shooter. Suppose Ann is about to kill the cop who is shooting at the children. However, just as she does so, another cop yells to her, “We cops stick together. If you shoot him, I’ll kill two minivans full of innocent kids. That’s not a threat; that’s a promise.” Is it still permissible for Ann to save the kids in the first van, or must she submit to the cops’ threat?
These are hard questions. How we are required to respond to extortion is bound to be controversial. Fortunately, though, I don’t need to answer these questions here. Even if we assume for the sake of argument that A) extortion or retaliation do indeed render impermissible what would otherwise would have been permissible acts, and B) that democratic governments are likely to use extortion and retaliation to prevent civilians from killing wrongdoing government agents, this still doesn’t justify the Special Immunity Thesis. Instead, it is compatible with the Moral Parity Thesis.
For the sake of argument, suppose it is impermissible for you to kill a wrongdoer if there is a real threat that others will respond by committing even greater harm or injustice. This provides us with no in-principle reason to treat democratic government officials differently from civilians. After all, civilians can and often do respond to what otherwise would have been justifiable violent self-defense or defense of others by threatening to cause even more harm. A bully on the playground might threaten to beat up two other kids if you stick up for your friend. The Mafia can and does tell people that they’ll kill even more people if their victims start to defend themselves. The Joker might threaten to bomb Gotham City if Batman tries to rescue Commissioner Gordon.
It may turn out, empirically, that democratic governments are unusually willing and able to use extortion to prevent us from defending ourselves against their wrongdoing agents. If so, it may thus turn out, empirically, that the conditions under which it is permissible to kill a wrongdoer are less likely to obtain when the wrongdoer is a government agent than when he’s a private civilian. But this remains compatible with the Moral Parity Thesis, because it allows that the conditions under which it is permissible to kill wrongdoers are the same. In both cases, we’re allowed to kill wrongdoers in certain conditions, one of those conditions being that killing the wrongdoers won’t incite other wrongdoers to commit even greater harm or injustice.
So far, I have assumed for the sake of argument that we are required to surrender to credible threats of extortion. But that’s not obviously true. It is not obvious that what would have been a permissible action becomes wrong just because someone else threatens to react badly to it. Suppose I kill the would-be Tuvalu-nuking president, even though I know my fellow citizens will react by rioting. During the riots, they kill 10,000 innocent Americans (more than the population of Tuvalu.) It’s at least not obvious that this makes the assassination wrong when it otherwise would have been right. After all, when I kill the president, my fellow citizens are obligated not to riot in response. They should instead apologize for their despicable support of war and praise my heroism.
As I noted in the introduction, many believe it is justifiable to assassinate totalitarian dictators, such as Stalin or Hitler. However, killing a totalitarian dictator or a criminal mastermind seems more likely to endanger innocent third parties than killing a democratic official. Fanni Kaplan tried but failed to assassinate Lenin in 1918. Lenin and his government responded with the Red Terror. Even if Kaplan had killed Lenin, there was a good chance Lenin would have been succeeded by someone worse or at least equally bad. Totalitarian communist regimes do not value individual human life. After a successful assassination, newly installed dictators are likely to terrorize citizens into submission.
Compare this to the United States and other democracies. Four US presidents have been assassinated, and many more have been targets. Thirteen congresspersons have been assassinated, and a few others have been targets. None of these events resulted in humanitarian disasters or terror purges. The US has committed a great many atrocities, but not in response to assassination. Assassinating Lincoln got us Andrew Johnson. The attempt to assassinate Reagan just got us stronger gun control laws. The attempted assassination of Gabriel Giffords resulted in public figures pledging (insincerely, it turned out) to use less aggressive political rhetoric. When the IRA assassinated MP Ian Gow in 1990, the British did not respond by killing innocent Irish citizens. When Swedish Prime Minister Palme was assassinated in 1986, the government convicted a suspect of the murder, but the conviction was overturned on appeal. And so on. Compared to other forms of government, democracies tend to be more concerned with their citizens’ welfare. For this very reason, assassination in democracies will tend to be relatively safe—democracies do not respond by crushing their citizens. Political scientists who study this issue empirically tend to find that democracies handle assassinations well, and the fallout from assassination is minor.[i]
Consider also the history of the civil rights movement in the U.S. Charles Cobb, Jr., and Akinyele Omowale Umoja both argue in their recent books that the success of the civil rights movement depended on civil rights activists using violence in self-defense and defense of others. According to Cobb and Umoja, the later “non-violent” phase of activism worked only because in earlier phases, blacks had armed themselves and shot back in self-defense.[ii] Whites initially responded to black activism by beating, killing, and lynching blacks. Armed blacked militias fought back, sometimes by killing cops or national guardsmen. Once whites learned that blacks would fight back, they turned to less violent forms of oppression, and blacks in turn began using the non-violent tactics with which we are familiar.[iii] Even Martin Luther King, Jr., explicitly endorsed the common law right of self-defense, had applied for concealed carry permits, and had armed guards protecting his house.[iv] Cobb, Jr., further claims that black civil rights leaders were very careful to weigh the possibility of retaliation in determining when and where to use violent self-defense.[v]
[i] For further empirical confirmation of this point, see Zaryab Iqbal and Christopher Zorn, “The Political Consequences of Assassination,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 52 (2008): 385-400; Benjamin Jones and Benjamin Olken, “Hit or Miss: The Effect of Assassination on Institutions and War,” American Economic Journal: Macroeconomics 1:2 (2009): 55-87; William Spragens, “Political Impact of Presidential Assassinations and Attempted Assassination,” Presidential Studies Quarterly 10 (1980): 336-347;
[ii] Cobb 2014; Umoja 2013.
[iii] Cobb 2014, 137-8.
[iv] Cobb 2014, 7-9.
[v] Cobb 2014, 129.
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