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.