How Nick Cater misunderstands the debate over racism

Nick Cater is sensitive about accusations of racism. In his book The Lucky Culture he writes:

To judge someone as prejudiced is character assessment; to call them racist or, even worse, a racist, is character assassination. One can be a little bit prejudiced or a little bit ignorant, but it is impossible to be a little bit racist; it is a sin beyond redemption.

Cater sees claims of racism as a political ploy by progressive intellectuals who want to weaken or silence their opponents by claiming the moral high ground. Back in the late 1990s journalist Paul Sheehan made a similar argument when he quoted anthropologist Kenneth Maddock: "The aim is to soften up your opponents by making them feel bad about themselves or their ancestors. This puts them in a mood to make concessions."

Cater’s mistake is to think that the debate over racism is about blame and moral superiority. In reality the reason most activists worry about racism is because of the stigma and disadvantage it causes. Given that most Australians genuinely hold egalitarian values, the aim of studying racial bias should be to help us understand how we sometimes fail to live up to these values and show us how we can do better.

Maybe everyone’s a little bit racist

Everyone’s a little bit racist, says Deadspin’s Emma Carmichael in a piece on a 2007 study by economists Justin Wolfers and Joseph Price. The study found white National Basketball Association referees called fouls at a greater rate against black players than against white players. It was widely reported as evidence of racism.

But despite the claims of racism few experts would argue that this kind of bias is part of a conscious attempt to discriminate against black players, let alone that is motivated by hatred or beliefs about racial superiority. As an article in the New York Times explains, the point isn’t that NBA referees are more racially biased than other Americans but that unconscious attitudes can bias people’s decisions even when they consciously endorse egalitarian values.

Some psychologists refer to this as ‘aversive racism’. Discussing the research of John Dovidio and Samuel Gaertner an article in the Association of Psychological Science’s Observer explains:

Aversive racism is characteristic of many White Americans who possess strong egalitarian values and who believe that they are not prejudiced. But many also possess negative feelings and beliefs of which they are either unaware or try to dissociate from their images of themselves as being non-prejudiced.

This illustrates how the meaning of ‘racism‘ has shifted in recent decades. It no longer necessarily refers to conscious beliefs of racial superiority or feelings of hatred and contempt. For most researchers, the point is not to blame people, but to encourage them to be more aware of how their behaviour systematically disadvantages others.

But surely it’s wrong to call that racism?

In her 2011 book The Imperative of Integration, American philosopher Elizabeth Anderson argues that the term ‘racist’ should be reserved for people "who consciously endorse particularly hateful beliefs and attitudes toward members of a racial group" and for those who consciously engage in stigmatising and discriminatory behaviour.

Racism "is a highly charged term, both morally and emotionally, which provokes unproductive, defensive reactions and shuts down urgently needed discussion", says Anderson. "So let us reserve ‘racism’ for judgments of serious vice, while observing that not all injustice is caused by a vicious character."

Anderson distinguishes racism from the broader concepts of racial stigmatisation and racially unjust conduct. While these kinds of distinctions make sense in a philosophy text, there’s little hope that journalists and opinion writers will embrace them. As with the Wolfers and Price paper, any claim about racial bias will end up being reported as a claim about racism.

Conservatives tend to see behaviour as an expression of character. Where economic liberals stress the importance of incentives and progressives stress the importance of social structures, conservatives tend to see negative behaviour as the product of individual weakness or malevolence. This means that conservatives are more likely to interpret discussions about racially biased behaviour the way Cater does — as "character assassination". This poses challenges when we talk about racial stigmatisation and discrimination.

Let’s focus on behaviour not character

Cater is right to say Australians are an egalitarian people. There are few of us who would openly claim that one ethnic group, religious group or gender is superior to others. But what he’s more reluctant to admit is that we often fail to live up to our own values.

When we argue about behaviour that systematically humiliates or disadvantages a group of Australians we shouldn’t get caught up in a debate over character or start splitting hairs over the definition of ‘racism’. We ought to take a practical approach and ask what we can do to fix the problem.

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48 Responses to How Nick Cater misunderstands the debate over racism

  1. Jim says:

    I like your description of three drivers of behaviour: character, incentives and social structures. I don’t agree with the way you have linked them to particular social movements. A good model of human behaviour would include all three elements (and more) and their relative strength would not be constant.

  2. Sancho says:

    Conservatives tend to see behaviour as an expression of character [and] tend to see negative behaviour as the product of individual weakness or malevolence. This means that conservatives are more likely to interpret discussions about racially biased behaviour the way Cater does — as “character assassination”.

    That, and a whole lot of conservatives are consciously racist. This really isn’t debatable: where you find outright hatred of non-whites, it’s almost always sitting comfortably alongside a host of standard right-wing beliefs.

    Many conservatives don’t appear to believe in racism at all. To them, it’s a frustrating game created by progressives, in which white people lose points for stating the obvious fact of their genetic superiority.

    The right could actually make gains by being culturally supremacist – there’s no real counter-argument to the assertion that western democracy is superior to the various other types of values and government being practiced – but the moment someone on the left agrees with that, out come the pointy hats and the whole thing starts over.

  3. Mel says:

    Both conservatives and liberals try to expand the definition of pejorative words to suit their ideology to the detriment of clear communication. Hence conservatives want socialism to mean high taxes as well as government or communal ownership of the means of production whereas liberals want the word misogyny to cover anything that could possibly upset a woman short of forgetting to put down the toilet seat.

    I hope Paul Frijters reads this piece as his racism on the bus paper excludes the possibility of unconscious racism as an explanation for certain findings..

    • Patrick says:

      Well said.

      Although I think you have misplaced the distortion of socialism – these days, it is liberals who claim that socialism is redistribution but not communal ownership.

      Conservatives for their part are usually (in practice) able to live with high tax, it’s the communal/government ownership which upsets them(/us)!

    • Sancho says:

      Conservatives routinely claim that taxation is theft and socialism. The US Republican Party has pledged not to increase or add taxes ever.

      No one, anywhere, claims that leaving toilet seats up is misogyny. Toilet seat lowering is not a lowercase liberal shibboleth. No left-of-centre political party has toilet seat etiquette anywhere in its policy platform.

      You’ve equated something that conservatives do all of the time with something liberals do never, because modern conservatism is so extreme that it can only be seen as reasonable if compared to a satirised caricature of real-world liberalism.

      • Sancho says:

        Ah, I misread. Short of leaving the toilet seat up.

        The point stands. Cite some specific acts that you believe the left unreasonably brands mysogynistic, because you’re comparing it to the concrete, openly-declared tax paranoia of the modern right.

      • john r walker says:

        “modern conservatism is so extreme” Vs a ” satirised caricature of real-world liberalism”.

        Are you sure you are not looking at a mirror?

        • Sancho says:

          That’s neither helpful nor meaningful.

          I’m not sure how much there even is to debate on this subject. It is simply standard, baseline conservatism to equate taxation with communism and claim that any increase in tax brings us to Stalin’s door. There is nothing similarly simplistic and reactionary on the left.

        • john r walker says:

          If you want to define conservatism as equal to ‘preserve our bodily fluids’… have at it.

          As for “There is nothing similarly simplistic and reactionary on the left.”.. are you really lacking in capacity for recursive thought… or are you having a bit of fun?…… its hard to tell from this side of the Turing test.

          Some pentecostal ‘folk religion’ types believe that once you have Jesus you no longer have to worry .. or think. The your usage of “left” sounds like another variety of folk religion.

        • Sancho says:

          Feel free to give some examples of left-wing equivalents to the conservative freak out about taxes.

          Much of the modern right’s extremism seems to be based on the assumption that it’s required in order to combat even greater extremism on the left. You know – science must be purged because it’s a front for a massive communist conspiracy; government must be destroyed because it’s poised to stage a socialist revolution; taxation of any sort is de facto communism and is on the verge of destroying the west; environmentalism is simply a ploy to attack private industry. And so on, and so forth.

          Imagine, just for a moment, that what conservatives consider “the left” is in fact a centrist and centre-left social-democratic movement, and not an aggressive global conspiracy that reveres the Soviet Union.

          From that perspective, modern conservatism seems downright insane, doesn’t it?

        • john r walker says:

          “Conservative” is not necessarily the same thing as a extreme position, on anything.
          And “left” is not necessarily the same as progressive, ever heard of Aurthur Caldwell?

          And the currant merde about 457 visas shows that the ‘left’ is still quite up for a bit of racism when it suits job protection .

        • Sancho says:

          Oh yes, there are conservative leftists and progressive right-wingers, but for the most part the left-right spectrum works well enough for description.

          Why are you so reluctant to point out some topics on which left-wing/progressive/small-L liberals demonstrate the type of reactionary, extremist behaviour the right does on taxation? Is it because there are none?

        • john r walker says:

          I do not accept the conservative/ left rut you are framing all this in has meaning…. is useful.

          As for a examples of tax and subsidies that are not progressive , enthusiastically pursued by the ‘left’, the Artist resale royalty scheme is a good example.
          It is a much bigger proportion of a small profit on resale than it is of a large profit on resale . It applies to losses . Most of the money goes to those artists who have done better than most- you need lots of first sales to have resales of any significance, Sid Noland did not die poor.
          And if it wasn’t for our constitution membership, cross-subsidy support by right-holders of this authoritarian non sense make work scheme would have been compulsory.

          Another example is the solar rebates that have contributed to the raised the cost of electricity for the poor ,who cannot afford $10,000+ for panels. In my region , where -5 C is quite normal for months, people who need charitable help so as to stay fairly warm at night is climbing exponentially .

        • Sancho says:

          Where are the millions of lefties freaking out that any change to art or solar subsidies is a fascist attempt to destroy civil society and create a new Reich?

          Can you point us to the liberal rallies with people waving signs suggesting they need to start shooting politicians if those subsidies are stopped?

          How many Australian left-wing militia movements have formed over fear that the Liberal Party is going to send the army to collect their galleries and solar panels?

          There simply is no equivalent to the fearful extremism of the modern right.

        • john r walker says:

          The Artist resale royalty was and is a darling of Authoritarian Left Luvies,If they had had their it would have created a compulsory ‘right’ to a massive, inalienable, management cross-subsidies for them.

  4. john r walker says:

    Unconscious (or conscious) fear, re ‘difference’ is pretty basic to humans, to use the term ‘racist’ when you really mean afraid is not helpful.

    The second of the four great vows of Mahayana Buddhism goes:

    “Thou fear greed and ignorance arise unceasingly in me, I vow to cut them off completely.”

    As for the left right merde can you really argue that the many Labor figures who were and are afraid of ‘cheap’ exotic labor are …..?

  5. TimT says:

    There’s surely a basic problem with this idea of ‘unconscious racism’, in that when we talk about ‘unconscious’ motives, we by definition begin dealing with a subject that is sometimes difficult, often impossible to fully define. Morality – and I take discussions about racism to be ultimately discussions about a specific moral problem – must of necessity be largely confined to things we are conscious of. How could it be otherwise? Because the alternative is a world where people go about attempting to detect ‘unconscious racism’ (or ‘unconscious sexism’, to take another example) in one another; inevitably there would be a lot of fabrication and pretense and self-righteousness in this process.

  6. TimT says:

    Indeed, one problem I’ve had with the discussion of ‘racism’ following the Adam Goodes/Eddie McGuire incident is that the word ‘racist’ has been repeated mindlessly, more in the manner of an accusation than a description. Culturally I think we’ve reached a point where the term ‘racist’ frequently distracts from moral issues rather than clarifying them.

  7. TimT says:

    Sorry one more quick comment – surely the problem with detecting ‘unconscious racism’ is analogous to the problem with the claim that ‘it is up to the victim to decide whether something is offensive (racist) or not’. I just can’t see how this really helps a ‘practical approach’ to ‘fix the problem’ of racism; it seems to be specifically designed to encourage and/or create a class of victims.

  8. Jim says:

    An action doesn’t have to be conscious to make it a) bad and b) blameworthy. Consider someone who drives a car too fast and hits a pedestrian. They didn’t consciously hit the pedestrian but they are morally culpable. Now consider an employer who, after adjusting for experience and skills, is less likely to interview some group (females, jews whatever). The employer doesn’t intend to discriminate (they are not aware this is what they are doing), but he/she is being racist and this is a bad thing. Maybe it is morally excusable because it is hard not to be prejudiced, like if the car driver wasn’t speeding and it was raining and dark, and the pedestrian wasn’t at an official crossing, and was running etc. Or maybe it isn’t so difficult after all.

    • TimT says:

      One problem with that argument would be that prejudices like ‘racism’, especially when its unconscious racism, may change greatly over time and be extremely difficult to perceive accurately: the way a person these days ‘unconsciously’ perceives African Americans may be incredibly different to the way a person ‘unconsciously’ perceives African Americans 20 years ago, 50 years ago, or a century ago.

    • john r walker says:

      Dangerous driving is objectively testable. You don’t need to establish intention, to prove that doing 180 on a suburban street is “dangerous driving”; The car driver example you give is death by accident.

      However proof of ‘Racist’, must involve proof of intention. There are lots of non intentional non racist reasons why your employer might interview few ‘jews’ , for example the business in question might be a prosciutto maker.

      • john r walker says:

        “Consider someone who drives a car too fast and hits a pedestrian.” AND “if the car driver wasn’t speeding and it was raining and dark, and the pedestrian wasn’t at an official crossing, and was running etc.”
        Changing the basic terms of an analogy halfway through … is cheating.

        • Jim says:

          Dude, discrimInation is measurable. There are loads of studies where people send our resumes to jobs changing only the sound of the names and measure the proportion of call backs for interviews.

          Just asserting that racism has to be intention doesn’t make it so. You need a conceptual argument. The point of my analogy is that other activities you can not intend to do harm but be held accountable for doing harm. Sometimes society takes into consideration ameliorating factors. That is why I changed the analogy. Learn to read!

        • john r walker says:

          Driving at cautious speed, in the dark and then colliding with a pedestrian who steps out suddenly, because they are too busy with their iphone is not, “ameliorating factors.”, no legal offense has occurred in the first place, dude.

  9. Sancho says:

    Sift through a few pages of this. See how many you can find that aren’t conservatives on conservative websites.

    • TimT says:

      Huh? The majority of examples on the link seem to be extremists who are neither ‘conservative’ nor ‘right wing’ in any meaningful sense. Stormfronters, Aryan Nationals, etc. The rest you’d have to follow the links to their blogs to ascertain whether they are ‘conservatives’ or not.

      • Sancho says:

        Stormfront and Aryan nationalists aren’t right-wing? How about Free Republic, or the thinkers at “Niggermania”?

        This is why this debate is so contrived in the first place. To even argue that racism isn’t a driving factor in conservative thinking is a straight denial of the obvious.

        • TimT says:

          No, those organisations are not right-wing. There is a broad agreement amongst the right that groups such as Stormfront are extremist, not in any meaningful sense representing right-wing thought.

          For one thing those organisations draw on influences from the left as well as the right – for them the idea that racial purity has to be protected is usually coupled with the idea that national industries have to be protected with tariffs, etc.

          And so, with all due respect, when you say ‘To even argue that racism isn’t a driving factor in conservative thinking is a straight denial of the obvious’, your argument effectively reduces down to an assertion that has no supporting evidence. You are wrong.

        • Sancho says:

          There’s very little of that on Stormfront. The skinheads are, overwhelmingly, conventional Christian conservatives. It’s not enough to say “yeah, most of those beliefs are right-wing, but they also take a couple of those things too far, so they’re not right-wing any more.”

          It’s also a dodge to focus solely on Stormfront. Sites such as Free Republic are acknowledged as being strongly representative of Tea Party Republicans, and I bet you won’t find much protectionism at Niggermania.

          Citing rare counter-examples or mitigating factors doesn’t alter the fact that the torrents of racist garbage on the internet issue almost solely from websites that are unambiguously right-wing and supportive of mainstream conservative parties.

        • TimT says:

          Stormfront and Aryan Nation were your examples Sancho, no dodging from me. The only way to counter your evidence-free assertions and cherry picking quotes, it seems, is with evidence-free assertions and cherry picking quotes of my own; and I don’t have time for that, sorry.

        • Sancho says:

          They were half my examples. The other half you don’t want to talk about. Why not?

          And look, if you can link to some left-leaning websites full of racist attacks and white supremacism, it would disprove my claim, so go ahead.

  10. john r walker says:


    Much of what you are saying about ALL conservatives if changed to a statement about a group classification based on religion or ethnicity would easily qualify as racist generalisations.

    • Sancho says:

      Conservatism is an ideology and political movement with distinguishing features. One of those is racism.

      Feel free to criticise religion all you like. I do, because it’s a choice. Perhaps even more of a choice than political affiliation.

  11. desipis says:

    An action doesn’t have to be conscious to make it a) bad and b) blameworthy.

    This is my biggest problem with the way the left frames the debate. I think it’s vitally important to consider the intent or knowledge aspects before considering whether someone is “to blame”. The simple fact that an action had a particular negative outcome is not sufficient to lay blame on an individual.

    The whole purpose of considering morality is to influence the way people behave. If someone is not even aware their actions have potentially bad outcomes then there is no capacity for them to modify their actions. Blaming someone for outcomes they could not foresee is ultimately a harmful approach to justice.

    You might wish to redefine racism from being an ideology premised on valuing races differently to being anything that has a negative racial effect. This would allow you to define particular terms as racist regardless of the intent or understanding behind them. However, in doing so racism no longer becomes something that is an inherently indicates the morality of an action or individual.

    Once you shift racism from being an inherently immoral issue, it becomes just another ill society faces. It becomes just another risky or harmful habit that people have; another form of ‘accident’. If another player were to fall on the ground behind Adam Goodes, and Goodes were to unknowingly step back onto that player causing a serious injury, would we point at the injury and ‘blame’ Goodes? Or would we simply call it an accident or bad-luck? If Goodes were to say ‘sorry about the injury but i didn’t mean to hurt you’, would we call it a gutless not-pology?

    It also raises all sorts of questions about how to appropriately address the problem. In particular it raises the question of what sacrifices are appropriate for people to make in order to attempt to reduce the problem. How do the costs weigh up against the benefits of reducing harmful behaviour and how equitably are we distributing the cost? Is it reasonable to expect everyone in society to be well versed in every possible way everyone of every race can possibly be offended? Is it reasonable to expect that should someone fail to do so that they be publicly vilified if they fail to do so and unintentionally or unknowingly cause offence?

    One can look at behaviour such as speeding and judge that it puts others at unreasonable risk, but part of that assessment relies on the fact that going fast is not all that important or necessary in life. However, I can’t see a reasonable line when it comes to saying things that offends other people of race. Do we expect people to give up all speech? Is there an agreed publicly available list of off-limit words or phrases that would be reasonable for everyone to learn? I’ve yet to see someone define an objective and reasonable line in respect to speech, that doesn’t rely on the notion of intent.

    This leads me to agreeing with mel’s comment above. It seems to me that part of the reason some people are keen to extend to use of the word racism is to attempt to carry over the inherent moral judgement of the original definition. In this way they hope to avoid the difficult questions of morally solving the issue in favour of doing-good with mindless “zero tolerance policies”, decrying any negative outcome related to race as blameworthy racism; happy to discount just how many individuals get thrown under the PC bus or what else society sacrifices in the process.

    • john r walker says:

      Agree. A skeptical ‘left’ leaning friend has a term for this sort of stuff that we love : ‘loose morals’.

      • Jim says:

        “Blaming someone for outcomes they COULD not foresee is ultimately a harmful approach to justice”. No argument here. But your side is arguing that people are blameworthy only if they intend to be racist.

        We consider people blameworthy when they they did y, y caused x, x was bad, and it was reasonable to foresee that y would cause x. Doing y to cause x isn’t necessary to be blameworthy. Examples: manslaughter, drink driving, shooting a gun in the city, drugging the water supply etc.

        The only argument is that non-intentional prejudice isn’t reasonable to foresee. But it is widely known that unless people make special efforts they will be biased against certain groups.

        • desipis says:

          My side, huh? You agree with my comment but then lump me in with some ‘side’ you disagree with? I explicitly indicated the necessity for “intent or knowledge“. That knowledge being the prerequisite knowledge required to foresee the harm as the natural consequence of the action.

  12. Sancho says:

    Quick quiz. See if you guess whether these quotes are from left- or right-wing websites:

    “If only white men voted”

    Ah, the good ol’ days.

    [G]et rid of white men, then you won’t have a democracy

    New York City…is far more efficient and desirable place to live than when it was an open sewer with a couple of millions Wogs, Paddys, Chinks and Polaks shitting everywhere and making love to livestock.

    [T]he Labour candidate was even a towelhead, Imran Hussein.

    Only blacks and public servants live in DC. It probably would have been 100% except a few pulled the wrong lever due to crack abuse and gunfire.

    Bob Carr has a foreign wife, enough said.

    Handing back Honkers to the Chicoms was supreme cowardice. They should have told the Chinks to suck their nuts.

    And, of course…


    • TimT says:

      Cherry picking quotes is always an effective and convincing way to win an argument.

      • Sancho says:

        Those quotes exist, so where do you think they’re from? A right- or left-wing website?

        Simply ignoring evidence is also not a great way to win an argument.

        • Mel says:

          Affirmative action is a form of racism favoured by many on the Left. One could also easily argue that the concept of white privilege, now very popular in lefty circles, is racist.

          Events like the Duke Lacrosse Rape Hoax bring thousands of lefty racists out of the closet.

          Some conservatives are also racist, most are not. Show us a scholarly peer reviewed paper that suggests otherwise or take a shower.

  13. Ben Harris-Roxas says:

    Like sexism, you don’t have to be a raging misogynist to be a beneficiary of patriarchy. Similarly you don’t have “be a racist” to benefit from a society that’s systematic structured around racism.

    Good post.

  14. FDB says:

    Blaming someone for outcomes they could not foresee is ultimately a harmful approach to justice.


    However, if they merely DID not foresee the outcomes, it becomes much more reasonable. Particularly if there is a very public and ongoing discussion to the effect that they OUGHT to foresee them, because they DO occur.

    See why calling out racism is important now?

    • desipis says:

      I can see why education about the potential harm is important. However, that needs to be focus on the action and the harm and not focus on the individual. Using politically charged labels such as “racist”, or taking punitive action, will tend to focus the attention on the individual rather than the harm the action caused. The exception being where the is intent, as the intent is a part of the individual and itself a wrong worth “calling out”. I don’t think ignorance of specific things should be considered a moral wrong, and is not something that justifies blame (unless the ignorance is wilful).

      It’s also a challenging question to determine what circumstances justify a conclusion that someone could foresee the harm. How much knowledge about the harmed individuals in question is needed? How likely is the harm required to be before it’s foreseeable? Are there specific contexts that make the harm less likely? In theory anything could offend anyone, so it’s not practical to take it to extremes. There needs to be a consideration of all the circumstances before blame can be attributed.

  15. Jim says:

    I don’t think an individual’s knowledge is a prerequisite for blame worthiness, though this is debatable. Generally, society creates a standard it expects all people to follow and be aware of. Ignorance of this standard usually isn’t an excuse. The exception is the insane and a few other perculiar cases.

    In terms of prejudice, the standard is evolving and rising, but not especially ambiguous: in the public sphere (including the workforce) be careful not to discriminate on characteristics irrelevant to the job at hand, and collectively make investments to broaden access (eg toilets for disabled). In the private sphere, hang out with whom you like, say what you like, but don’t say mean things in ear shot of people who will get hurt by what you say (that is bad manners). This isn’t especially onerous and is not a significant infraction of liberty. It is aligned with good conservative values and good communist values. It just involves not being mean to people in groups who aren’t as strong as your group.

  16. Alphonse says:

    “where you find outright hatred of non-whites, it’s almost always sitting comfortably alongside a host of standard right-wing beliefs.”

    Only since Howard wooed the lefty racists across the party divide and transformed good old fashioned racism into what now looks like standard right wing belief. It was the right wing dog whistles motivated by aracist vote gathering that transformed right wing parties into racist parties. In the US, Nixon just presaged Howard by thirty years.

    Of course you had to be functionally racist to be a Nixon or a Howard, but not necessarily racistly motivated.

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