Tag Archives | Antiracism

On Reverse Racism: Three Thought-Experiments

[cross-posted at BHL]

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)?

ice-captain

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.

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Check Your Privilege / Check Your Premises

[cross-posted at BHL]

Info on the next Molinari Society panel:

Eastern APA, Marriott Philadelphia Downtown, Monday, 29 December 2014:

Molinari Society, 1:30-4:30 p.m. [GIX-3, location TBA]:
Libertarianism and Privilege

chair:
Roderick T. Long (Auburn University)

presenters:
Billy Christmas (University of Manchester), “Privilege and Libertarianism
Jennifer A. Baker (College of Charleston), “White Privilege and Virtue
Jason Lee Byas (University of Oklahoma), “Supplying the Demand of Liberation: Markets as a Structural Check Against Domination

commentators:
Roderick T. Long (Auburn University)
Charles W. Johnson (Molinari Institute)

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Andromeda Strain

Here are some pictures of Andromeda, the princess that Perseus rescued from a sea monster and then married. Notice anything about her?

Yes, she’s naked and in chains. I’m sure you noticed that right off. But what else?

She’s white.

What’s wrong with that? Well, Andromeda was an Ethiopian princess. “Ethiopian” comes from a Greek word meaning “burnt face.” In other words, the Greeks knew perfectly well that Ethiopians are black, so the correct colour of the woman whose beauty so stunned Perseus would have been traditionally understood by ancient audiences. Modern depictions have erased a fairly important woman of colour, and a fairly important interracial marriage, from Greek mythology.

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Fernando Tesón’s “Hang Tough, Israel”: A Response

Guest Blog by Irfan Khawaja

[cross-posted at C4SS and BHL]

In a recent post at Bleeding Heart Libertarians, “Hang Tough, Israel,” Fernando Tesón takes issue with those of his “libertarian friends” who are “relentless” in their criticisms of Israel, and responds to them by translating a longish passage from Spanish by the Argentinian writer Marcos Aguinis. What follows are four remarkably ignorant and offensive paragraphs on the Israel/Palestine dispute which I’m assuming that Tesón endorses. The post is too short to deserve a very long response, but I think it deserves more criticism than (with some notable exceptions) it’s so far gotten. Since I assume that Tesón endorses Aguinis’s claims, I’ll refer mostly to “Tesón” rather than “Aguinis”; if Tesón doesn’t endorse Aguinis’s claims, I have no objection to his publicly disowning as many of them as he now decides to reject.

Much of Tesón’s post involves generalizations about the moral character of Palestinians, and Palestinian youth in particular. Here’s a particularly offensive one:

In our postmodern times it is increasingly irrelevant where the good and the bad reside. Does it matter that the Israeli youth dream with being inventors and scientists, while the youth of Hezbollah and Hamas dream with being martytrs? Apparently not. Does it matter that in Israel children are not taught to hate the Arabs, while among the Arabs, the Protocols of Zion and Mein Kampf are best sellers, and that the Egyptian TV broadcast a repulsive series where the Jews would extract children’s blood for their rituals? Apparently this doesn’t matter either.

It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Tesón that if you’re going to describe “Israeli youth” in one clause of a sentence, the contrasting clause should make reference to “Palestinian youth,” not “the youth of Hamas or Hezbollah,” as though Palestinian youth were, as a whole, reducible to a faceless mass of terrorist fanatics, among whom the very essence of “badness” resides.

More fundamentally, I’d ask Tesón pointblank how much face time he’s ever had with Palestinian youth (or Palestinians generally), and if he hasn’t had very much (as I’d surmise), what conceivable basis he could have for a generalization of the sort he endorses in that post. How fluent, for example, is his Arabic? Evidently not fluent enough to list on his CV. But then, how can a person who speaks no Arabic know what Palestinian youth are like? Imagine generalizing about American youth but being unable to string together a sentence in English. That’s the caliber of the discussion he’s initiated, and which he regards as a serious contribution to the debate. (For the record: my Arabic is very rudimentary, and I have no facility at all with Hebrew, but then, I’m not inclined to make wild generalizations about either Palestinians or Israelis, as Tesón is.)

Last summer, I spent some time in the West Bank, and in particular in the city of Hebron and the village of Beit Umar. One contrast that I observed between Israeli and Palestinian youth was instructive: In Beit Umar, I watched youthful Israeli soldiers (in their 20’s) taking physical control of the village by force of arms – machine guns, tear gas, armed vehicles – blocking its roads so that settlers could help themselves to its resources. Meanwhile, unarmed Palestinian youth confronted them and remonstrated with them by discourse.1 This is an everyday occurrence in Beit Umar and the West Bank generally, though not one typically reported in our media or current in our discourse. It doesn’t exactly square with Tesón’s picture of terroristic Palestinian youth.

Meanwhile, just a few miles away, in the town of Abu Dis, my friend Munir Nusseibeh runs the Human Rights Clinic at Al Quds University, specializing in property rights claims – a kind of Palestinian version of the Institute for Justice. Munir leads a group of non-violent activists in property rights litigation against a military occupation whose bureaucrats literally enforce their whims and those of the settlers they protect, at gunpoint. After a few intense hours of conversations with him, it occurred to me that he had a better grasp of the nature and value of property rights than most political philosophers I know – and certainly better than Tesón himself who, despite his official rejection of collectivist conceptions of property ownership has nothing to say about the explicitly collectivist and expropriative character of Israeli land use policy. (For more details on Israeli land use policy, see Oren Yiftachel’s excellent book, Ethnocracy.) None of this squares with Tesón’s picture, either.

And then there is Lucy Nusseibeh, a one-woman powerhouse who runs MEND, an institute for non-violent protest and democracy.2 Her message? She wants to “demilitarize our minds” – not exactly the stuff of Hamas or Hezbullah. The non-violent nature of her activities has not, of course, prevented her from being raided and shut down by the Israeli authorities – the same authorities whom Tesón advises to “hang tough” as they hunt down such threatening Islamist figures as Big Bird, Cookie Monster, Ernie, and Bert.

Excuse me, but who is operating by the pen here and who is operating by the sword? And my anecdotes merely scratch the surface of the work that Palestinians are doing to create the basis of a non-violent civil society in the West Bank. In mentioning these anecdotes, I don’t intend them as data for generalizations about the depravity of “Israeli youth” or the heroism of “Palestinian youth,” but as data against facile generalizations of the kind Tesón takes for granted.

There’s no doubt that Palestinian political culture has its deformities, some of them deeply grotesque, unjust, and irrational. I have no qualms about saying that to anyone anywhere, as I have for decades – whether in The New York Times in 1987, or in front of an irritable West Bank audience in 2013.3 (Feel free to do a search on “Irfan Khawaja” in this book for some more documentation.) But Tesón writes as though the cultural deformities were all or uniquely Palestinian. As it happens, the falsity of this claim is becoming increasingly obvious, and has been obvious for decades. This past Friday’s New York Times has a story that makes explicit what most informed Israelis probably take for granted:

Tamir Lion, an anthropologist who studies youth, said he was troubled by the changing attitudes among Israel’s young people. For many years, Mr. Lion interviewed soldiers about why they chose to enter combat units. “The answers,” he said on Israel Radio, “were always about the challenge, to show I could make it, the prestige involved.”

That began to change in 2000, he said. “I started to get answers – not a lot, but some – like: ‘To kill Arabs.’ The first time I heard it, it was at the time of the large terror attacks, and since then it has not stopped.”

A generation has grown up in a period of Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with suicide bombs and military incursions, rocket fire and airstrikes. Young people on both sides may think about the other more as an enemy than as a neighbor.

Mr. Lion, head of research at the Ethos Institute, said he was troubled. “Today I can say, and everyone who works with youth will say it, Jewish youth in Israel hate Arabs without connection to their parents or their own party affiliation and their own political opinions.” (“Killing of Palestinian Youth Puts an Israeli Focus on Extremism”).

Those tempted to excuse these attitudes as a justified or understandable response to Palestinian suicide bombings may want to remember that such inferences run both ways: if it’s understandable that terrorism-traumatized Israelis should want to kill Arabs, it ought to be equally understandable that occupation-traumatized Palestinians should want to kill Israelis. It also ought to be rather obvious that a forty-seven-year long military occupation offers more than its share of opportunities for Israeli depredations. The inferences can only run asymmetrically if we assume either that Israelis have intrinsically greater moral weight than Palestinians, or that Palestinians are always the aggressors and Israelis always the defenders against their aggression. Neither assumption is true, and neither issue is adequately addressed by Tesón’s post. (Israeli rights violations are systematically documented by such organizations as B’Tselem, Al Haq, and the Human Rights Clinic at Al Quds University. I don’t necessarily agree with everything that they say or do, but their work is generally admirable and indispensable for understanding the realities of life under Israeli rule.)

I can’t literally replicate the reality of Palestinian life under military occupation in a short essay like this one, but You Tube offers a useful supplement to the written word. In offering the videos in this essay as evidence for my claims, let me stress that I am not making global generalizations about Israelis or Jews as such, much less making claims about their heritable traits. I’m pointing to well-established socio-political trends within Israel, trends that are the predictable result of its occupation and settlement of the West Bank, and of Zionist ideological assumptions generally.

This seven minute video provides a disheartening account of Anti-Arab sentiment in Israel (though I think Uri Davis understates the degree of anti-Semitism on the Arab side). This ten minute video candidly discusses “Israel’s New Generation of Racists.” This eight minute video offers a rather unflattering picture of attitudes among Israeli youth and of specifically American complicity in those attitudes. While you watch it, imagine a comparable scene involving thousands of white American youth with anti-black attitudes marching triumphantly and gleefully through a historically black neighborhood (in drunken throngs, at 3 am) – be it Harlem, Watts, Newark, or Detroit – while expressing themselves as these Israelis do. For a glimpse at life in Beit Umar, watch this video. For an ordinary day in Hebron, try this one. While watching these videos – and you can find hundreds more like them online – you might ask yourself how long Palestinians are supposed to endure behavior of the kind depicted in them without taking it upon themselves to engage in retaliatory self-help. You might try to put yourself in the place of the Palestinian victims in these video, a heuristic familiar to most grade school children but notably absent from Tesón’s post.

I’ve saved the best and most topical video for last. It doesn’t need much in the way of comment, at least if you’ve been following recent events in Israel. As you watch the video, try repeating the following Tesónite mantras to yourself and observing how they affect your ability to process what you’re watching:

Does it matter that the Israeli youth dream with being inventors and scientists, while the youth of Hezbollah and Hamas dream with being martytrs?

Already several generations of stoic Israeli citizens have defended the country with one hand while working with the other.

Does it matter to Tesón that the Israeli youth depicted in this video are not dreaming of being inventors or scientists, but of revenge fantasies which they’re enacting in real life? Does it matter to him that what we see here are not “Stoic Israeli citizens” defending the country with one hand while working with the other, but overwrought Israeli soldiers beating a child with their hands and feet in broad daylight?

I said I would focus here on Tesón, but I should perhaps say a word about Marcos Aguinis. I don’t know a great deal about his work, but if what I’ve read is any indication of his knowledge of the region and its issues, he’s little more than a crude propagandist at the level of Joan Peters, from whom he seems to have gotten a good part of his rhetorical playbook. To quote from an article of Aguinis’s:

No me gusta ser apologista, pero hay hechos demasiado evidentes que se tratan de negar falazmente.
[Rough translation: I don’t like having to function as an apologist, but there are facts that are sufficiently evident yet are gratuitously denied [and require a response].]

Delete the “No” and the whole second clause of this sentence, and you have a good summary of the agenda involved here. Twenty-two years after Rodney King and the LA riots, American readers ought to know better than to accept rhetoric of this nature about a whole ethnicity – and frankly, deserve better in the way of reading material on Israel/Palestine from supposedly eminent experts on the ethics of international relations. That Tesón should offer this post in all seriousness to a supposedly serious audience suggests that as far as attitudes about Palestinians and Arabs are concerned, we have a long way to go before we achieve even minimal decency in discussing the subject.

The bottom line is that Israel is a country that has operated a nearly fifty-year long military occupation and militarized settlement campaign at the expense of the millions of Palestinians who live under its rule. It claims to fear Palestinian terrorists, and has built a “security wall” to keep them “out,” but then insists on placing its own population on both sides of the wall, nullifying the point of having a wall, and erasing the “inside/outside” distinction which gives the wall whatever point it was supposed to have. Unfortunately, this desire to have things all ways at once is the classic hallmark of pro-Israeli discourse today, especially in its militant right-wing variety, which, regardless of his intentions, is the variety that Tesón’s post exemplifies. Israel may in many respects be a liberal democracy as Tesón and Co. claim, but unfortunately, the occupation proves that you can’t have your liberalism and eat it, too. That, I’m afraid, is the unintended but actual message of Fernando Tesón’s post.

Irfan Khawaja
Dept. of Philosophy
Felician College

 

 

 
Notes

[1] This is what force looks like when it confronts discourse, by the way. So where is the closed area, exactly? Is it just wherever the soldier’s tear gas happens to float? It turns out that one can’t ask IDF soldiers simple questions like this when they’re mad and on patrol – qualities that seem to go together a lot. Their rather non-responsive answers to simple questions often seem to take the form of dirty looks, lots of yelling in Hebrew, angry spitting on the ground, and the gratuitous firing of tear gas rounds. But I don’t regard any of that as an answer. Actually, I have a feeling they don’t, either.

[2] Lucy Nusseibeh and Munir Nusseibeh are not related, but Lucy Nusseibeh is married to Sari Nusseibeh, the well-known Palestinian intellectual. Coincidentally, she’s also the daughter of the philosopher J.L. Austin.

[3] I signed the 1987 letter with my middle name rather than my last name after my father took exception to it. I was a minor at the time, and living under his roof.

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iRad I.4 in Print, iRad I.3 Online

[cross-posted at BHL]

For various reasons (well, mainly money), the fourth issue of the Molinari Institute’s left-libertarian publication The Industrial Radical has been delayed for nearly a year; but today it is finally at the printer. Issue I.4 features articles by William Anderson, B-psycho, Jason Byas, Kevin Carson, Nathan Goodman, Irfan Khawaja, Tom Knapp, Smári McCarthy, Grant Mincy, Anna Morgenstern, Sheldon Richman, Amir Taaki, Mattheus von Guttenberg, Darian Worden, and your humble correspondent, on topics ranging from the Manning / Snowden whistleblower cases, the protests in Brazil, deference to authority, America’s foreign policy morass, Obama’s war on the environment, and the myth of 19th-century laissez-faire to alternative currencies, identity politics and intersectionality, abortion opponents as rape apologists, the Trayvon Martin / George Zimmerman case, the inside scoop on PorcFest, and why anarcho-capitalism cannot be a form of capitalism.

Issue 2.1 will follow soon thereafter, and we’ll be on an accelerated schedule until we’re caught up.

With each new issue published, we post the immediately preceding issue online. Hence a free pdf file of our third issue (Spring 2013) is now available here. (See the first and second issues also.)

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