Summary of and Comments on K. A. Appiah, "Racisms"

in Larry May et al., eds.,
Applied Ethics: A Multicultural Approach (Prentice-Hall)

by Dr. Jan Garrett

This page was last updated November 7, 2001.

The numbering embedded in the text reflects the pages and columns in the third edition of the May et al. anthology.

According to Kwame Anthony Appiah, reasonable people should give up a doctrine which cannot be rationally reconstructed. (472.2) By "rationally reconstruct a doctrine," Appiah means to express it in statements that are intelligible. To be intelligible a statement must make sense grammatically, it must not be self-contradictory, and there must be some conceivable universe in which it could be true.

Some doctrines that go by the name of racism can be rationally reconstructed. Appiah thinks that the best philosophical tactic for opposing racism is to refute it rationally in the form in which it stands the best chance of meeting objections. This is standard philosophical practice: to refute a view, it is not enough to refute its weakest and least plausible version; one must challenge its most plausible one. The wrestling analogy holds: you're not a champ if you can whip a 90 pound weakling. (472.2)

Appiah uses the term racialism to designate one view often called racism. Racialism holds that inherited characteristics possessed by human beings permit us to divide them into a small number of races so that members of these races share characteristics with each other that they do not share with members of any other race. (472-473)

In the nineteenth century some anthropologists and biologists tried to develop a science of racial difference that reflected the view Appiah calls racialism. (473.1) Today, the overwhelming majority of scientists working in these areas reject racialism--its factual claims are not supported by the evidence.

From a logical point of view, Appiah says, racialism does not have to be a moral problem. A person might conceivably accept racialism and yet believe that positive moral characteristics are evenly distributed across the races. (473.1) But what is logically possible and what usually occurs are two different things.

The chief view that Appiah says is morally problematic is what he calls extrinsic racism. Extrinsic racism makes the factual claim associated with racialism, and then it makes an additional claim. In other words, one might be a racialist and not an extrinsic racist, but one cannot be an extrinsic racist without also being a racialist.

Appiah defines extrinsic racism as follows: an extrinsic racist believes that the racial essence, whose existence is affirmed by racialism, implies morally relevant differences between the races. In other words, an extrinsic racist believes that races are biological realities (as racialists do) and that some races are more intelligent, more honest, more courageous, more industrious, etc. than others. (473.1-2)

Extrinsic racists will either listen to reason or they won't. For those who will listen to reason it should be possible to persuade them not to be racists. We can provide them with with empirical evidence that refutes their beliefs about racial essences. If they allege that blacks are inherently less intelligent than another group, we can show evidence that there are plenty of blacks more intelligent than at least some members of that other group. (473.1)

Apart from extrinsic racism, Appiah also recognizes what he calls "intrinsic racism." An intrinsic racist distinguishes morally between different races because they hold that each race has a different moral status, apart from the moral[ly relevant, he should have added] characteristics included in its racial essence.

Suppose x belongs to race R. Let A be a great moral, intellectual or cultural achievement. x is an intrinsic racist just in case no amount of evidence that y, who belongs to a race other than R, is capable of A, which, in members of R, would make y admirable, offers any ground for x's treating y as x would treat similar members of x's own race. (473.2)

Sometimes the charge that a person or group is racist gains its force by referring to cognitive incapacity or irrationality in the racist. There is a pattern makes these incapacities especially troubling. Many people find it hard to give up beliefs that help justify the advantages they gain from social arrangements. People with privileged social positions want to believe that they have these positions rightly, given their own positive characteristics. (474.2)

False consciousness or ideology is a set of ideas that prevents us from acknowledging facts that would threaten our position of privilege. This is often a problem with racism. (474.2) Appiah thinks it a "plain fact" that our species is prone morally and intellectually to distortions of justice that reflect partiality (475.2). Yet we are not powerless to resist the tendency. "There is no subject matter about which most sane people cannot, in the end, be persuaded to avoid partiality in judgment." (475.2).

Appiah gives us a definition of racial prejudice: The deformation of rationality in judgment that characterize persons whose racism is not merely a theoretical attachment to certain propositions about race. (476.1)

It is an interesting result of these definitions that it is possible to be an extrinsic racist without being racially prejudiced. If an extrinsic racist could be rationally persuaded to give up his racism, then even before he was persuaded to give it up, he would not be racially prejudiced in Appiah's sense. However, we probably couldn't determine whether he is prejudiced until we had really made a serious attempt to rationally persuade him out of his racist views.

Are racially prejudiced people bad, according to Appiah? Yes. (476.2) Their racial prejudice leads them to treat others unfairly. They cannot claim the excuse that their actions follow from beliefs based on a sober assessment of the facts.

Appiah is not sure that they are responsible for being bad. His reasoning is that prejudice diminishes our autonomy. (Autonomy is our freedom and ability to do otherwise, without which we are not responsible for our actions). (476.2) In the case of limited autonomy, what people need is therapy or training, not logical arguments.

Appiah notes a distinction between the racism of South African whites and the racial ideas of the Black Nationalists of the 1960's (477-78). The first led to systematic oppression and exploitation while the second did not, in general, lead to proposals to use race as a basis for inflicting harm. (479.1) Appiah notes that the racism of S. A. whites was usually expressed in extrinsically racist terms, while Black Nationalism typically adopted the vocabulary of intrinsic racism. (478.2)

Appiah says that intrinsic racism seem less objectionable than extrinsic racism, because it bases racial solidarity on something like family feeling, promoting mutual help within a race whereas extrinsic racism often takes the form of racial hatred. (478.2) Yet the "family model" ultimately fails as a justification for intrinsic racism. The family is the unit through which we live what is most intimate; it is the center of private life. The importance of family lies not in biological kinship but social relatedness, i.e. the shared experiences, attitudes, knowledge and belief, and the mutual investments of time in each other, that normally occurs in a family. Racial groups, Appiah says, are far too large and the shared experiences too diffuse for these groups to be considered on the model of the family. (480-82)

Appiah introduces Kantian ideas here. Immanuel Kant stresses that, "from the perspective of morality, we are to assess others and be assessed as rational agents simpliciter." (480.2) By "rational agents" Appiah means conscious beings capable of understanding a situation and choosing among a range of alternate actions. Simpliciter means "without further qualification," which is to say, that things like race, eye color, the number of letters in your name, etc. are not relevant.

The idea that we have special obligations to our fellow family members does seem to provide an exception to this Kantian principle. If intrinsic racism can be justified, it too would have to be an exception to the Kantian principle. But the conditions that make the family model plausible in the case of the family are absent in the case of racial groups.