30 years ago, in the fall semester of 1991, I taught a graduate seminar at the University of Massachusetts on the subject of ideological critique to a lively, engaged, very bright group of students. Not long after the seminar began, one of the students in a discussion made an offhand reference to "racism, sexism, and classism." The words rolled off her tongue easily and she clearly expected no objection to them but a very bright German student, Mecke Nagel (now a senior professor at SUNY Cortland), spoke up and objected, saying that she was opposed to racism and sexism but not to classism. The students were stunned into silence. They had never encountered anybody who objected to that formulation and they did not know what to say.
I was enchanted and decided to write something briefly about the subject of racism to distribute to the students before the next class. While sorting out my books brought home from Paris, I came across a copy of the 2600 word essay that I wrote and distributed. It occurred to me that some of you might be interested in reading it so here it is, dictated into my computer with my Dragon Naturally Speaking Program.
I will develop my analysis in reference to the term “racism” and leave it to you to think through analogous analyses for other terms. My aim here, as throughout the course, is twofold: 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 analytical 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 12th 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 Estate. If you are a freedmen, your case will be heard in the 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 tender, 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 antebellum United States, such matters will be determined by whether you are slave or free. In the United States, but not in 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 rights 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 100 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 re 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, “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 claim 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, grow 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 could not 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 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 extralegal 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 the first 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 believed 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 “racist,” 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 do not, 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 administered 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 consequences that the admissions officers 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 law evading practices of redlining 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 analyzes. The accusation of racism makes no sense in the South African context. To accuse someone in South Africa of treating people differently 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 is the law! To accuse someone with a “no Irish need apply” sign in his front window of discriminating against the Irish is fatuous. 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 what she claims to be. When accusations of racism are combined with the notion of institutional racism, and the unstated premises 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.
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 well-known rock star. Think now of the compound word “racism, sexism, and classism” that I called into question in the last class. At the very least it should be obvious that the historical development of the concept of sexism is different from that of racism, that both are different from the more recent development of the notion of classism (whatever that is – I must say I am not really 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 work in people, institutions, in utterances, or in attitudes, presence of which makes the people, institutions, practices, or attitudes in some way reprehensible. If you do not endorse this appeal to an essence that can meaningfully be said to reside in or characterize a person, an institution, 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 was trying to get us to engage in. It is also the reason for 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.