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Tuesday, April 16, 2013


Those of you who have taken a look at my essay, "Macros and PC's," will know that it grew out of a graduate seminar on Ideological critique that I taught at UMass twenty-two years ago.  One week after the class meeting in which one of the students questioned the rote formula "racism, sexism, classism," I distributed a lengthy memorandum about the concept of racism.  It occurred to me that folks might find it interesting to read, so here it is.  It dates from September 13, 1991.

This will be a lengthy meditation on such concepts as racism [and sexism, elitism, ageism, classism, etc. etc], which I believe to be much more complicated and problematic than the discussion in class suggests.  But first: Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa! Bob is absolutely correct. Exodus, Chapter 12, Verses 35-36: "And the children of Israel did according to the word of Moses; and they borrowed of the Egyptians jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and raiment: And the Lord gave the people favour in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they lent unto them such things as they required. And they spoiled the Egyptians." So much for relying on a memory corrupted by Cecil B. De Mille!


Now, let us turn to more serious matters [though what could be more serious than the Exodus out of Egypt, I don't know.] I will develop my analysis in reference to the term, "racism," and will leave it to you to think through analogous analyses for other terms. My aim here, as throughout the course, is two-fold: to get you to think historically, and to get you to think more complicatedly. I want you to learn to bring to bear on highly charged, politically highly inflected  matters the care, precision, and analytic skill that you learn to use when writing about arcane matters of epistemology, metaphysics, logic, or language.


We start with the state of affairs that existed -in late medieval Europe, or in ancient Greece and Rome, or in the United States before the Civil War, or in South Africa today. A number of different legal statuses are explicitly defined by statutory or customary law, to which are attached differential benefits and burdens. In the twelfth century, in what is now France, if you are a member of the regular clergy [i.e., a member of an order that lives by a rule- is "regular"- such as the Benedictines], legal questions concerning your property, or damages you are accused of having inflicted on another, and so forth, are heard in an ecclesiastical court.  If you are a peer of the realm, such matters will be heard by one of the courts of the provincial Estates.  If you are a freedman, your case will be heard in a court presided over by the lord who rules the domain in which you live.  If you are unfree - a serf, i.e. "servile"- you will not have the right to have your cause weighed by a court of law.  The taxes you owe, the military service you owe, the labor services you must render, whether you may marry and whom, and many other things as well, will be determined by your legal status. Similarly, in classical Greece and Rome or ante-bellum United States, such matters will be determined by whether you are slave or free.  In the United States, but notin Greece or Rome, all those who are slaves are thought of as belonging to a single race of the human species - although that is a concept that is not in fact as old as the institution of slavery even in the United States. In South Africa, there is a legal system of racial classification on which rests the right of individuals to reside, own property, vote, marry, travel, hold jobs, and so forth.


The absolutely crucial thing to get clear at the start is that, at this point in the historical development of what will eventually become the concept of racism, we are talking about legal statuses, not feelings, attitudes, theories, prejudices, or unacknowledged limitations of perception.  In South Africa, for example, each year there are a hundred or more court cases in which individuals are officially reclassified from one racial group to another. [It is also the case, on occasion, that members of the same immediate family are assigned to different racial categories.] Now, there is, of course, a tricky theoretical question whether such legal statuses are descriptive or ascriptive, and my own view is that they are ascriptive. Briefly, what is at issue is the question whether the law describes someone's status - discovering it, when operating correctly, or making a mistake when not - or alternatively ascribes a status to an individual by means of a legal procedure. On the ascriptive interpretation, for example, the statement that A killed B is, or purports to be descriptive, but the statement that A is a murderer is ascriptive. On this view, there is no meaning to the question, "Is A really a murderer, even though the courts have failed to find him guilty?" any more than there is to the question, romantic though it might sound [to some, but not to Lisa], "Are A and B really married, even though they have never gone through a marriage ceremony?"


Accompanying the differential legal statuses may be some rationale or justification that appeals to supposed innate differences among individuals assigned to different statuses

- such as a theory of racial, ethnic, religious, or gender differences. For example, medieval Muslim law treats "people of the book"- i.e., Jews and Christians- differently from infidels, on the ground, supposedly, that Jews and Christians acknowledge portions of the revelation

that Muslims drum to have come from Allah. And the Greeks deprecated "barbarians" - i.e., those who did not speak Greek, and hence sounded, to the Greeks, as though they were saying "bar bar bar." But in a system of legally ascribed statuses, how one is treated is a function of one's legal status, regardless of what others feel or think about one.


The first step in any liberation struggle is, inevitably, the attempt to remove the legal disabilities and instead establish it as a matter of law that the group seeking liberation has the most preferred legal status, and also, usually, the associated attempt to reduce all legal statuses to a single one. So, the elimination of ecclesiastical courts and aristocratic privileges, along with the elimination of serfdom, results in the single category of citizen [which, at any given historical moment, may or may not include everyone in the society, of course]. Once again, although the rationale for such a legal change may be the rejection of some theory of racial superiority, the change consists in the alteration in legal status, not in the success in persuading everyone to reject the theory that justified the old system of differential statuses.


All of this is obvious and well-known. I emphasize it because I want to suggest that all subsequent elaborations and developments of the notion of racism are parasitic on this original notion of legal statuses.


Immediately, of course, it is discovered that the elimination of the legal disabilities does not bring about everything that the liberated group has been seeking. A former slave in Alabama may be legally permitted to own land, row crops, hire laborers, and sell his produce, but he cannot find a white man to sell him land, etc. "No Irish need apply." "Coloreds to the back of the bus." There is no question in anyone's mind that differential, discriminatory decisions are being made on the basis of race, even though Negroes and Whites have in law the same right to own land, enter into contracts, and so forth. Now, what is needed is not the removal of laws, but laws positively designed to force people to stop these differential practices. And beyond that, of course, are needed penalties to enforce the laws, and law enforcement officials ready and able to carry out the enforcement.



Before, an employer couldn't hire a slave even if she wanted to, for wage labor is a legally enforceable contract, and slaves have no standing in a court of law to make and enforce contracts. How she feels about Nigras is irrelevant. She may have the warmest of feelings for them. Nor do questions of social pressure and such arise. She is no more legally allowed to hire a slave than an employer today is permitted to hire an alien without a Green Card (though, of course, they do - and so did employers hire slaves in the Old South, but that is neither here nor there.]



The natural thing to say about the situation at this point is that it is one of virtual slavery [see Proudhon's famous remark that property is theft, or the coining of the marvelously powerful phrase, "wage slavery," the force of which is now lost on those for whom slavery is not even a memory.] In other words, it seems natural to say that these discriminatory practices, designed to single out just exactly those who, under the old regime, suffered from the ascription of a differential legal status, are no different from or in effect the same as the old system of legal slavery. To some extent, this way of speaking is simply campaign rhetoric, but it is also designed to force people whose attention has been focused on the legal issues to recognize that extra-legal or post-legal ways have been found to perpetuate the disabilities that were originally legally imposed. But of course such a way of speaking involves a shift in the original meaning of the term.


Now, we see a series of further shifts. Even after laws are passed, and even to some extent enforced, one sees two patterns of events or sets of phenomena to which the name "racism" becomes attached. First of all, and very distressingly [it is important to remember this - one must never forget the high hopes with which those fighting against the disadvantaged status of some group greet first the elimination of differential legal statuses and then the imposition of laws  requiring equal treatment of persons who are equal before the law] it happens again and again that patterns of differential treatment continue, even in the face of laws against such treatment, because people in positions to make decisions - bank managers granting mortgage loans, landlords renting apartments, employers hiring workers and then promoting those who have been hired, college admissions officers, etc. continue to make differential judgments because of their private attitudes toward racial differences, either independently of or in contravention of the law. At this point, in the absence of the legal justification of differential legal statuses, these individuals justify such behavior to themselves or others by appeal to evaluative stereotypes or even some more general theory of innate racial differences.


Even more difficult to deal with, conceptually, are two further forms of differential treatment, neither of which involves a conscious act of discriminatory judgment on the part of any individual.  First of all, people in positions of decision-making may make judgments that they themselves believe to be objective and unaffected by considerations of race, but which others, looking at them, can see to be based on systematic misperceptions - biases - that shape their evaluations. Calling such behavior "racist," and calling those who exhibit it "racists," can be understood in either of two ways, not always distinguished:  either it is a way of saying that these people unconsciously,  subconsciously, or in a self-deceiving manner, actually hold the sorts of beliefs that would, in those consciously holding them, issue in differential treatment of people on the basis of race;  or, something quite different, it is a way of saying that it is as though these people held such views or attitudes, even though they don't, and hence that they are no better  than,  or have the same effect as, someone enforcing a legal system of differential statuses.  Secondly, practices of discriminatory treatment may become encoded in, built into, the administrative and bureaucratic procedures of an institution such as a law court, an army, a college, or a corporation, in such a way that discriminatory  treatment  is reproduced  even when  none of  the individuals administering the institution hold, either consciously or unconsciously, discriminatory beliefs.  To take a familiar example, colleges may administer an admissions procedure based heavily on SAT scores, which scores in turn reflect the degree to which those taking them have had middle class experiences [by way of the sorts of "A is to B as C is to X" examples they use, etc.], with the consequence that the admissions officers will make choices biased toward middle class applicants regardless of whether they themselves have, consciously or otherwise, a bias toward middle class applicants. This last pattern of institutional behavior comes to be dubbed "institutional racism."


Now, clearly there are very great differences between legal differentiation of statuses and institutional racism [whatever anyone may think about the relative degree of harm each inflicts]. To refer to them all as racism is, once again, either a polemical device, or else- AND THIS IS WHERE THINGS GET IMPORTANT AND INTERESTING- it implies the claim that there is some essence, which we label racism, the presence of which manifests itself in different ways, but the nature of which is unchanged, and which is the same essence in the South African system of  legally defined  racial  categories,  in the  ante­bellum legal system of slavery, in the virulent hatred of lynch mobs, in the deliberate law­evading practices of red-lining insurance companies, and in the admissions practices of a college whose admissions officers are trying, unsuccessfully,  to overcome the built-in  bias of their own admissions regulations. Now, this may in fact be true, but it is at least worth pointing out that  the very same people who forcefully reject "essentialism"  in general are prone to employ such terms as "racism" in ways that make sense only if one supposes that the word names some such essence.


There is one last stage in this progressive development, the roots and implications of which are rather curious and surprising. The accusation of racism is, of course, an example of the sort of ideological critique that Mannheim analyses. The accusation of racism makes no sense in the South American context. To accuse someone in South Africa of treating people differentially on the basis of race has about the same force as the accusation in this country that voters are treated differently according to whether they are registered or not. The obvious answer is, but of course! It's the law! To accuse someone with a "No Irish need apply" sign in his front window of discriminating against the Irish is fatuous. But to accuse someone of racism who claims to be hiring on the basis of merit is to attack her integrity, her honesty, and thereby to show her up to be something other than she claims to be. When accusations of racism are combined with the notion of institutional racism, and the unstated premise is invoked of a secret essence present in the same form and virulence in all cases whether acknowledged or not, then one has indeed a very powerful polemical weapon.


Many people who are extremely eager not to have what they consider to be the morally or politically wrong views develop a hypersensitivity to this sort of ideological attack, fearful that they will discover themselves to have been guilty of harboring, unbeknownst to themselves, the hidden virus of the essence, racism. The result is a phenomenon with the most striking affinities to the behavior of the seventeenth and eighteenth century Puritans. The Puritans, who had embraced the doctrine of predestination [according to which God, from all eternity, has preordained who is saved and who is damned], were faced with the soul-numbing task of trying to ascertain whether they were among the elect, the saved. At stake was nothing less than eternal salvation, and the question was, by hypothesis, already decided. One's behavior therefore could not earn or lose salvation. All it could do was reveal whether one had in fact been chosen by God to be among the elect. The solution of many Puritans was to adopt the practice of keeping diaries, in which they wrote, without planning, editing, or forethought, their thoughts and actions. They would then read the diaries, created by a kind of free association, for evidences of election or damnation. Inasmuch as an easy confidence in one's salvation could well be a sign of sinful pride, and thus of damnation, while a too great dejection and self -deprecation could be evidence that the Holy Spirit was not within, you will see that this practice was destined to leave one in a state of perpetual uncertainty and torment.


Much the same sort of thing can be seen among those who examine themselves and each other endlessly for signs of racism, sexism, etc. Once again, we see the wisdom of Max Weber's observation that much modern secular behavior is best understood as a secularization of a distinctively Protestant ethic.



Well, where does this leave us?  I suggest, at the very least, that it shows us some of


the complexities in the concept of racism, which is used these days as though it were the name of a familiar vegetable or a well-known rock star. Think now of the compound word [if I may call it that] "racism, sexism, and classism" that I called into question in the last class. At the very least- as Mecke's shrewd intervention shows- it should be obvious that the historical development of the concept of sexism is different from that of racism, and that both are different from the more recent development of the notion of classism [whatever that is - I must say I'm really not sure]. To use that formula is, whether one wants to or not, to buy into the claim that these are the names of three essences that may or may not lurk in people, in institutions, in utterances, or in attitudes, the presence of which makes the people, institutions, practices, or attitudes in some way reprehensible. If you don't endorse this appeal to an essence that can meaningfully be said to reside in, or to characterize, a person, an institution, a practice, and an attitude [!!], then you have the task, before using the terms again, of thinking through what you mean by them, and what you intend to presuppose when you invoke them.


This is just the sort of activity Orwell is trying to get us to engage in. It is also the reason for our spending most of the semester on substantive materials rather than on abstract theorizing. I am going to try to stop you each time you idly fall into a lazy use of such language as "racism," when talking about a novel or an ethnographical study or an account of the politics or culture of Iraq or Saudi Arabia or the Maghrib.


mesnenor said...

Towards the latter part of the essay there are a few references to "South America". I suspect that South Africa is what was intended in all those cases.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Quite right. Thank you. It got changed in the conversion from PDF to WORD file and I did not catch it. Done in once more by technology! Rats. I have corrected it in the post.

AJV said...

Dear Professor Wolff,

I would love to see a copy of the syllabus for this course. Would you be willing to post it, or email it?

Adam Valenstein

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Adam, I am engaged in a death struggle with my printer, which does not seem to want to scan things, even though it knows perfectly well that it is supposed to be able to. If you email me an address, I will mail you a copy of the syllabus by snail mail.