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Monday, July 26, 2021


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.


Another Anonymous said...

A few questions, observations about the essay:

1. Did Prof. Nagel ever explain/justify her non-opposition to classism?

2. In those states which recognize common law marriages, one can be legally married, enforceable in court, without having participated in a marriage ceremony.

3. Regarding the criticism that the SAT tests are biased against minorities because, for example, analyses like the analogy multiple choice questions favor those who have grown up in middle class homes in which they have been more frequently exposed to the concepts utilized in such questions. Could one not defend such test questions on the basis that, since we live in a predominantly capitalist society (regardless what one thinks about the equity of such an economic system), these are the concepts one needs to be familiar with in order to succeed in that society. This is not to say that there are not other legitimate forms of analytical thinking which are more prominent among minorities, but preparing a test which utilizes these forms of analysis will do nothing to insure that college
candidates with the skills needed to succeed in a capitalist society will be selected.

4. I am not sure that I understand your statement: “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.” Since you wrote this essay for the fall semester of 1991, and apartheid had only been officially repealed in South Africa in June, 1991, vestiges of that racist system most likely still existed. Were you using the word “fatuous” in the sense that the observation is so self-evident as to be fatuous? Or were you claiming that the observation is invalid, and therefore fatuous?

5. I do not understand your statement with respect to “classism (whatever that is – I must say I am not really sure).” Did not the millennia old caste system in India represent a legally institutionalized form of classism? Have not other cultures, e.g., in Great Britain, exhibit a class stratified society?

6. I have a question for the historians/anthropologists/sociologists who read this blog. Can they think of any culture or society in recorded history which did not exhibit at least one of the forms of discrimination which are the subject of this essay- racism, sexism, classism? Were there any Native American tribes, or Polynesian societies, for example, in which none of these forms of discrimination were practiced?

james wilson said...

Interesting to see a genealogical approach being advocated here. But wouldn’t a strict genealogist reject the notion that there was just a single grounding notion—“I want to suggest that all subsequent elaborations and developments of the notion of racism are parasitic on this original notion of legal statuses”—from which everything followed? That would be like claiming that the Christianity Constantine imposed had a singular unique starting point rather than emerging from the flowing together of a great many streams of beliefs and rituals.

Perhaps somewhat related (but perhaps not), it seems to me what’s absent from your account is a recognition that there is, if you like, a politics of conceptualisation. I.e., there’s conflict over how to understand and employ concepts and people try to bring power of various sorts (including intellectual power) to bear to try to make their understanding of a concept become the societally operative one.

Here’s a current example from the bitterly divided Labour Party in Britain:

The exact same conflict is presently tearing apart the Scottish National Party.

Otherwise, congratulations from getting safely home from Paris.

Jerry Brown said...

Yeah, I also request an explanation of the reasoning behind the statement that she was not opposed to 'classism'. It is an interesting statement she made that I thought your essay would address in some way. Being a Marxist and all.

s. wallerstein said...

I have no idea what she meant when she said that she was not opposed to classism, but in the Chilean left the term "classism" (in Spanish) is often used in a positive sense to refer to the working class's sense of itself as an empowered political agent. It could be that she meant that or something like that.

Jerry Brown said...

Yes S. Wallerstein. I guess it would also be important to know if she meant classism in the sense of 'workers of the world unite' or the quite negative classism that you might experience at the posh country club as one of the hired help.

Unknown said...

I wanted to let you know should you not be aware, Professor Wolff, that some months ago Andrew Levine, who I learned about (gratifyingly) from your memoir, passed away. Here is a lovely and thoughtful obituary of him. It turns out it indeed was the Carson show he was on (you speculated so in your memoir), where he shared his notable trick of speaking backwards. I shall take the time now to read some of his past writing.


T.J. said...

The claim that using the term 'racism' to name institutional racism, explicit racism of the KKK variety, and the implicit or functional racism of the rest of white America is either polemical or posits some racist essence to all of these phenomena is clearly false.

There are lots of ways it could come to be that we use the same word to refer to all three types of racism. The three words could be polysemous. 'Bank' could mean a financial institution, a physical building where such an institution offers services, or a collection of things (e.g., word bank or phone bank). 'Bank' here means three different things, but all three are related. I don't have to posit some bank essence which all three share, all I have to notice is that the three uses share similarities.

Similarly, 'racism' gets used with (at least) three different meanings. That doesn't mean there's an essence they all share, it might just be that the three uses refer to similar phenomena. The similarities between the three uses seem too obvious to require pointing out. That we use the same word to mean three things certainly doesn't require that we're using it polemically, though we might be. Then again, we could use any word polemically given the right sort of context.

I don't know whether this polysemy analysis is right, though it seems to me like it's getting close. All I mean to illustrate with it is that we have other possible explanations for using the term 'racism' in three different ways without either being polemical or positing a racist essence.

Another Anonymous said...

I was not familiar with Prof. Levine, so I did a Google search trying to find a youtube excerpt of his appearance on the Johnny Carson show. I was not successful in this endeavor, but I did find a panel discussion from 2004 in which he and Marcus Raskin discussed the GOP the future of the two-party system. Even back then, Prof. Levine was predicting the ultimate death of the GOP, stating, “The party of the lesser evil requires the specter of a greater evil still.”

Below is a link to the panel discussion:

David Palmeter said...

I think that there is an implied essence when the word "racist" is used in the institutional context, and that's why people get so upset about it. When someone does not intend to be racist does something that has an adverse impact on a particular race, the terminology must differ so that it is not confused with a KKK usage. I don't know of a single term that would the job, but some explanation to the effect that, for example, if the exam questions someone has prepared are unfair to minorities (race, class, whatever) that should be pointed out as a factual matter, without implying a racist intent. Intent matters. That's why the law provides for different degrees of murder or manslaughter, or why some crimes are "hate" crimes. An unfair racial impact is not necessarily the result of a racist intent.

If I understand CRT correctly (and I'm not sure that I do)it holds that even racially innocent actions can have an adverse impact on particular races, and that this can be embedded in institutions that were created with no racist intent whatsoever. That's very different from KKK racism.

Howard said...

The law is a theory that is taken as real at pain of punishment- nothing more or nothing less- it is a collective fiction

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