Andrew Crooks - The Nature & Cause of Racism
Delivered (shorter version) 05 July 2006


Any highlighting is the author's.


Email Andrew Crooks: Any feedback or discussion on this topic welcome. I will reply.

Defining our terms

Racism is discrimination on the basis of racial characterisation. Discrimination is simply a choice made on the basis of some standard of value. Discrimination is a natural and proper action for humans. Humans are special in that they can choose their standards of value (the realm of ethics), and thus have the capacity to act for or against their own existence, to pursue life-sustaining action or to pursue some form of self-destruction, or more often than not, some path in between. Another peculiarity of humans is the capacity to reflect on their standards of value, to analyse and change them. Ultimately humans can acknowledge the existence of an objective reality or evade such knowledge. Ultimately the choice is between 'playing the ball' (in terms of a sporting vernacular) or the man. If reality is not the standard of value, then the alternative is some subjective standard, eg. Intuition, collective (democratic) values or mysticism.

Some would argue 'each to his own'. I however support an objective standard. I would argue that 'rational' discrimination is moral or virtuous, and irrational, arbitrary or subjective standards are immoral. Racism is immoral because its contrary to the values which sustain human life.

The morality of racism

Morality is the science of applying value judgements to human action. Many philosophers believe morality pertains only to social interaction. A great many philosophers believe that morality has nothing to do with human nature, that it's a mystical revelation or subjective indulgence. One of the few champions of individualism - Ayn Rand - makes the point that a single individual (say on a uninhabited island) has a greater need for a moral code by virtue of the fact that they cannot rely on the actions of others (the group) to sustain their existence. Opponents might argue that we don't live on deserted island, but the fact remains that 'discrimination' is the essence of our existence, that we have to 'choose' by some standard, so should it not be a rational standard; that is, a standard consonant with the facts of reality. It is the role of science to debate what that nature is. Whether racism is moral or benign depends upon the following. Its:

  1. MORALLY BENIGN if they recognise that they might be overgeneralising and maintain an active judgement
  2. IMMORAL if they conclude that all people within a racial group have identical values in denial of the facts of reality - all humans have free will.

Its hard to imagine any context where a victim would not have the opportunity to confront explicit racist behaviour.

Should racism be illegal?

I have asserted that racism is immoral because its based on an irrational standard. Ie. It doesn't pertain to the facts of reality. That's not to say its exponents suffer neurosis, but more likely are making rationalisations based on ignorance or insecurity.

Of course rationalisation can work both ways - both in making a case for racism and also for undermining the credibility of its exponents. A person might well have rational or plausible reasons for supporting zero immigration. They might well be pacifists opposed to public policies that they interpret as precipitating racial conflicts. If that is their interpretation, then at worst, they are ignorant, since they are dropping the context.

Racism in itself should not be illegal. But if it incites violence, threats or destruction of property, then certainly its perpetrators should be pursued to the full extent of the law. Racism is no different from any other irrational standard applied to all of us. Throughout our lives we will experience a wide variety of 'irrational discrimination', perhaps because of insecurity, gross over-generalisation, or simply lazy thinking. We might be judged because because we are too tall, too think, look ethnic or too intellectual. People sometimes have to make judgements on sparse information because they have their own preferences (hierarchy of values), and this can cause conflicts with our own purely because there is no opportunity to debate the facts. Offence can be caused, but that reflects more upon the 'victims' state of mind than the actual facts. The respond to an experience of racism can be reactionary or reflective, and might well say more about the 'victim'. Perhaps the person doesn't know me well, has low self-esteem, has made a rash judgement, etc. Regardless what does it matter - I know the facts to be otherwise.

If racism is illegal, then the argument should hold for all acts of immorality. The reality is that humans are not omniscient, they make mistakes, so society is so structured to compensate those people who suffer some commercial detriment from racism. Unfortunately the law goes too far if it awards damages for psychological scaring, because it might reflect more upon the victim, or their parents than the racist perpetrator. So we prosecute or criminalise behaviour that impacts on others. Unfortunately these principles are not consistently applied and laws are defined more by vested interest groups than principles. It goes without saying that discrimination cases are difficult to prosecute since you need to know the context in which the discrimination occurred. You need to know the reason the defendant discriminated, and arguments can be reconstructed after the event. Its unfortunate that such laws become political footballs and are in themselves often held as arbitrary principles. Its in this context that laws on racism can be perceived as a form of welfare, or have the stigma of such laws.

Impact of anti-discrimination laws

Laws are humans attempt to codify moral values. Governments have attempted to prevent racial vilification by outlawing it. Notwithstanding that racism can be immoral, is it sensible to outlaw it? The implications depend on the context. Because people's concepts and values are socialised, and governments have conspired to make 'racism' politically incorrect through the education system, the consequence is that they have reinforced:

  1. Collectivist philosophy or socially defined values > which is actually an underlying cause of racism, as well as religious, ethnic, social class, school and other group (gang) based identities
  2. The identification of minority groups as 'special cases' and thus targets of resentment.
  3. Broadly facilitated tensions on a range of other characterisations, whether it be

The morality of racism does not lie in the action but in the 'perpetrators' reasoning. Sadly acts of parliament have little to do with objective law, or any search for integrity. Legislation is not even based on social values, but more expediently the values that vested interest groups at the margin of popular opinion deem to be expedient at the time. Such pragmatic politics no doubt derives from microeconomic analysis - the study of marginal costs and benefits, as political parties seek to preserve power rather than pursue a moral agenda.

Some might argue that the governments anti-racism legislation is an attempt to encourage 'rational' values. But the rational is not forced, its accepted on the basis of argument leading to understanding and acceptance. I argue that by 'forcing' reason, they are actually undermining the basis for understanding - human's faculty of reason. How so? Well, the current policy is subjective. It attempts to win a battle on 'racism' but surrenders the war for reason. So we end up with publicly accepted policies like the 'three (uranium) mines policy.

Racism - misconceptions & rationalisations

There are instances of people being accused of racism, when in fact its not the case.

  1. Self righteous: People might be regarded as racist because they assert or believe their values to be superior to those of other races. There are 2 plausible evaluations:
    1. Objective: Such an interpretation is based on the premise that certain values are intrinsically good for humans because they are consonant with the facts of reality. Such a person might generalise that they are likely to be culturally the same because they come from a country with a collectivist culture. The question is - do they have an active or closed mind.
    2. Subjective: There are 2 plausible causes for this type of reaction.
      1. Collective: This person might view their collectively held beliefs as superior to another
      2. Mystical: A person might take it as a mystical revelation that they are superior.
  2. Generalisation: Many people will incorrectly tie racial groupings to certain cultural values. The implication is that if you look a certain way, you think a certain way, because of parental or identity linkages. Whilst that is possible, even probably, its not a necessary condition. A person from a collectivist culture is just as likely to repel their cultural origins if given a standard of comparison early enough, or if their life experience demands it.
  3. Rationalisation: There are 2 aspects to logical discourse - differentiation and generalisation. The problem is not that people's analysis is inappropriate, its that it doesn't reconcile with the facts of reality. No direct causal link (as far as science is concerned) can be made between race and culture.

Its difficult to have a conversation about racism without discussing racial prejudice based on cultural, religious, nationalistic identities.

The origin of racism

Racism arises because it's an expression or externalisation of blame by people unhappy with their lot in life. The reality is that immigration can boost economic activity and thus jobs if its properly structured. Heterogeneous populations can be more adaptive to change and more interesting than those homogeneous cultures that have an 'entrenched' set of social values. Such cultures tend to change suddenly rather than gradually, and that will often take the form of a violent revolution.

People can be racist to differing degrees. Superficially a person might believe that immigration reduce his job prospects, and thus resent the immigrants whom he perceives as taking them away from him. The 'core' racist however has a collectivist soul, or social identity. As such he is prone to distrust his own judgement, and to place others judgement above his own. He cannot avoid the knowledge of his mental inefficiency, and as such he seeks constant reinforcement of his own value in the peers of peers. Such a person cares little for the facts of reality, he cares more for what people perceive to be the facts. He thus interprets reality 2nd hand.

When a person has a social standard of value, his security lies in his collective identity, but this forces him to either:

  1. Denigrate alternative interpretations that conflict with his own. This is the mind-set of the pseudo-egoist. More typical of the west because of their mixed set of values.
  2. Humility - look down upon themselves. Eg. Asian way.

Racism is most apparent in those countries with a strongly collectivist philosophy, but with an egoist influence, eg. Middle East, Europe, Russia. It is weakest in Asia because they are self-effacing, particularly so in a social context. The worst countries for racism are inclined to be those cultures where it is legally sanctioned. Yet there are other factors. Eg. There is a legal sanction for racism in Japan, but I think this reflects local factors, namely the degree of homogeneity of the population. Before racism is institutionalised, it has to be sanctioned by the community.

It is apparent that a personal philosophy and identity is closely related to your self-concept, and thus the level of your self-esteem.

Racism in the United States

Its often the case that the victims of racism are their own worst enemies. Some black Americans are amongst the worst racists in America today. They reveal themselves through their public policy suggestions - like:

  1. Segregated schools to give blacks a better self concept
  2. Calls for more black role models - what's wrong with white, yellow or mixed ones.

They are essentially saying is that blacks are not up to any objective measure of value. It is thus a testimony to their willingness to be identified as a victim.

On the other hand, a person might be perceived as racist if they are cautious when confronting a black person walking down the street. Whilst this is a racist judgement, in the absence of other conclusive information, blacks are more likely to a threat than other racial groups. It makes no imposition on the black bypasser, and the context is very different from a black seeking work, because in that context we have the opportunity and justification for investigating further. The flipside is - an ethnic prospective employee might be a better worker because:

  1. He has battled discrimination and overcome it
  2. He has a greater desire to prove himself
  3. He is only unemployed because of prejudice elsewhere

Racism in Japan

No country is under greater attack for racism perhaps than Japan. The Japanese Foreign Ministry says that it is opposed to discrimination. In 1996, Japan joined the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, promising to take all measures, including legislation, to stop discrimination on the basis of race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin. Ten years later, Japan still has no law outlawing racial discrimination and the Diet has stifled attempts to pass one by publishing a book attacking the national human rights bill ('jinken yogo hoan'). Various manga (magazines) for the masses have depicted foreigners picking fights in bars, lying down on the job, and laying waste to apartments. Other articles depict human rights agencies asking workers and customers to rat on any boss, barkeeper or landlord. The Japanese critics argue that 'there is no minority in Japan'.

Its easy to interpret actions as prejudicial, but often there are other motives for 'suspect' behaviour. Japan is a highly homogeneous population. Even if there are a significant number of ethnic Koreans' and Chinese, by appearances, they blend in easy. The Japanese therefore have little experience of the outside world, foreign countries and their values. Japan is a large economy, so like Americans, the Japanese tend to be inward focused. The Japanese know surprisingly little about their own country (except food & culture - the basis of their identity) and even less about the outside world. Japan divides the world into Americans (whites & blacks) and Asians (Chinese). You are categorised as an English teacher, soldier or Chinese alien. Its almost that bad - for some. Others are equally bad in a positive sense - desiring you because you are a foreigner. The issue I believe is not racism - but identity and understanding. With little understanding of foreign cultures, a great many Japanese are apprehensive about meeting or confronting foreigners. They are as bewildered by our behaviour as we are of theirs.

They have a strong sense of nationalistic pride, and based on their limited knowledge or perception of the outside world, they might be considered arrogant. But in fact they can be quite thoughtful and curious. The reality is they are not trained to be discerning thinkers, and as a country, they have no great personal ambition. Their learning is highly structured, and thus controlled by government. With scant public holidays, they rarely get overseas to be touched by other cultures, and even then they don't have the confidence to relate to foreigners.

I have never experienced any racial vilification in Japan, but I constantly face resistance because I don't speak Japanese or because I'm a foreigner. Actually they speak English quite well, but they don't want to use it, lest it reflect on them. Trying to buy insurance is difficult - I had to make 3 inquiries to be taken seriously (by an American-owned insurance company), and ended up paying $50 more than the Japanese. Japanese landlords are mostly unwilling to rent to foreigners, but for good reason, Japanese tend to take greater care (eg. Removing shoes), as well as a desire to avoid cultural conflicts, higher maintenance costs and language difficulties. The Japanese have a great dislike of conflict - preferring harmony. Foreigners are rarely attacked, but more likely excluded or marginalised. Why? Because foreigners do not accept the local rules of 'social harmony/identity'. Westerners want rights that the local Japanese don't have, so little surprise they get little sympathy from Japanese people. More surprisingly is that the vast bulk of Japanese don't want change, and those that do would prefer to live offshore. Why? Because they don't like conflict either.

Racism in Australia

There is racism in Australia - and some of it has a similar nature to the USA, though because of the stronger activism there, it seems to be limited to the private sector. In Australia, we see racism institutionalised by government. Welfare applicants are/were (??update) specifically asked whether they are 'descendants of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders'. In Australia, racism is intricately associated with welfare. I have reproached an aboriginal for asking me for a cigarette. A person on the train responded 'Leave him alone'. Meaning - Give him a break, implicitly I guess because he is aboriginal, or perhaps just because he's needy.

The underlying moral framework to fight racism

There is scope to be both right and wrong in our thinking. The key is not to be 'open minded' as if concluding that we can always be wrong, but to always have an 'active mind' prepared to hear new evidence. For a discerning thinker, the certainty of our judgement depends on the context of our knowledge. We have a core area of knowledge that we don't question, whilst peripheral knowledge is probable at best. Importantly, the validity of our knowledge rests on the specificity of our concepts (defining our terms) and our realm of experience. You can have all the experience in the world, but if your conceptual formulations are grounded in contradictions, then your mind and certainty is under attack from self-doubt, and any form of collectivist philosophy. The implication is a loss of mental efficacy and self esteem. Your mind is paramount to your self-concept, yet no effort is made to teach students how to think at school. Little surprise that the great majority of people just regard concepts as socialising tools for communication. Concepts are the basis upon which we hold knowledge. If they are arbitrary, they undermine your ability to convey meaning, but more importantly, they undermine your ability to understand, which for self-preservation reasons is far more important.

Broader issue of prejudice

Racial discrimination is just one type of collectivised value judgement stemming from a collectivised (subjective) identity, or alternatively a pragmatic compliance to it. Prejudice is a statement of opposition to humans whom are different because their values are a repudiation of their own. Really? There are members of society whom feel compelled to compare themselves to others. Condescension or vilification of others serves as a means of elevating themselves. The collectivist alternative is self-denigration. There are many issues upon which prejudice can be applied:

  1. Coming from the wrong side of the city
  2. Playing soccer instead of football
  3. Having excess black body hair - or too little

The question arises - how much prejudice is irrational? How much does it reflect psychological (implicit) rather than conceptual (explicit) values?

Objective public policy

What would be a more objective public policy direction? Difficult question because it depends on the philosophical context in which public policy is being framed. In an ideal world, if reason were the standard of value for government and thus 'subjective' democratic voters were mute, then racism would not be an issue. Why? Because racism derives from ignorance, fear (stemming from a socialised identity) or psychological inferiority (low self esteem), or more concrete-based misconceptions about the impact of immigrants on labour markets. Mostly such concrete objectives are merely rationalisations for a deeper sensitivity to the conflict of values. Clearly then public policy should focus on:

  1. Recognising the importance of egoism - rational self-determination
  2. The importance of a purpose and setting goals
  3. Education to support public policy
  4. Greater political accountability and participation to foster greater interest in politics and public policy