Roderick Long on “Reverse Racism”

For obvious reasons, racism and reverse racism are very much on everyone’s minds nowadays. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to blog on those topics right now (or blog on Ferguson); I’m too much in the thick of end-of-semester grading and the like. But Roderick Long has an interesting post on the topic at his blog, to which I’ve offered a bunch of typo-laden comments.

Having thought about the issue over the past few days, I really do disagree with Roderick in some fundamental ways. I don’t think “reverse racism” is a useful or even entirely coherent concept, and don’t think his thought-experiments prove what he takes them to prove. In fact, I don’t think thought-experiments are a particularly helpful way to think about racism in the first place: in my view, something about the subject demands an “ecological” or “in vivo” rather than thought-experimental approach. In other words, the topic demands engagement with the living, breathing complexity of real-live experiences of racism, not with thought-experiments that abstract away from them. I also think that if the topic is racism, as it should be, Roderick’s focus on black-white relations in the U.S. is overly narrow, and problematically distortive of our thinking. It doesn’t even capture race relations in the U.S., much less race relations beyond American borders.

In particular, Roderick’s discussion ignores anti-Semitism altogether, a topic on my mind because I’m at work on a review of Neil Kressel’s “Sons of Pigs and Apes”: Muslim Antisemitism and the Conspiracy of Silence (forthcoming in Reason Papers, February 2015). I agree with parts, and disagree with other parts, of Kressel’s argument, but I think his book does a good job of exposing the defects of what he calls “antisemitism minimization strategies.” Unfortunately, though he doesn’t explicitly discuss antisemitism (because he doesn’t discuss it) I think Roderick’s minimizations of the moral wrongness of “reverse racism” amount, whether wittingly or not, to something like the minimization strategies that Kressel criticizes. Insofar as Roderick can be read as disagreeing with Kressel, I agree with Kressel.

But this all pretty telegraphic, I realize. Blame my day job for that. Back to grading some intensely mediocre papers on aesthetics.

2 thoughts on “Roderick Long on “Reverse Racism”

  1. I have a suspicion that the terms “racist” and “reverse-racist” have a specifically political dimension that is not easily captured with the usual “truth-conditions” approach. To call someone a racist is to attempt to de-ligitimize them in some way. I do NOT mean to say that this is somehow wrong or bad to do. Some people should be de-ligitimized in exactly this way. But I think that this political dimension of the term is extremely important, at least in part because the term “reverse-racist” is being used in exactly the same way — to attempt to de-legitimize someone, at least in some respect. That is why these terms are almost always used in a context that is politically charged — fraught with conflict. I’m not sure what other implications this idea would have for the issues that Long raises. I’ll have to think about it more.


    • I agree with that, at least in part: the terms have a de-legitimizing function, and the truth-conditions aren’t easily identified (though not impossible to identify; in other words, I don’t take the complexity to require the rejection of the need to identify them).

      But I find “reverse racism” a pointlessly equivocal and confusing concept. I assume that it’s meant to apply to cases in which a black person engages in a racist act against a white person, where the act either takes place in a white-majority society (e.g., the US) or a society in which whites, though a minority, have been dominant (e.g., South Africa). But if that’s what it means, it’s more clarifying to spell that out in just the way that I did. Once you do, two things become obvious: (1) there are many, many more forms of racism than the specified ones, even in societies where “reverse racism” has application, and (2) there are very few informative comparative moral claims we can make about the two categories as a whole. It surely is not the case that racism is always worse than reverse racism. Compare a relatively trivial act of micro-aggression (white against black) vs. a serious racially motivated crime (black against white). If the latter is a genuine crime, and not a justifiable or excusable act, its turpitude is not even remotely comparable to that of a stray, unintended passive-aggressive racially motivated insult.

      I would add that it is not entirely clear where “reverse racism” has application. I have been on the receiving (or observing) end of many, many racist speech acts and actions in my day. What strikes me is how startlingly diverse they are. If a white guy calls me a “nigger,” that’s obviously “racism.” But if a black-owned barbershop acts on a policy of “blacks get their hair cut first here, regardless of the order in which customers come in,” and then unapologetically makes me wait 90 minutes to get my hair cut despite my being the first in line, I guess that’s “reverse racism.” If a white Jewish guy thinks I’m an Arab and says, “Arabs like you are attracted to ignorance like flies to shit,” that’s racism. But if a Palestinian lets me in on his anti-Semitic ranting (because he thinks I’m on the Palestinian “team”), that’s… I don’t know what it is. Does it matter if the conversation is taking place in New Jersey or in Jerusalem? Does it matter if he’s a Palestinian from Palestine or a Palestinian-American? I have no idea. But then, if I go to Pakistan, and a well-heeled Pakistani-American lets loose with an anti-Semitic tirade because he feels that, well, everyone at this table agrees that the Jews are vile, and anyway, what’s said among friends in Lahore stays in Lahore, I’m not sure what that is, either.

      Last case, not directly from my experience, but still indirectly so: my ex-wife (Carrie-Ann) was forewoman of a jury in a case of armed robbery in which a pair of black men specifically targeted Latin American immigrants for robberies, on the grounds that being immigrants, they would be less likely to report the crime and more likely to be carrying cash (since illegal immigrants are typically paid in cash for work). How to characterize that? Whatever it is, one can’t dismiss it as “not a big deal.” It makes no sense to describe anti-immigrant attitudes by whites as “racist,” and then claim that anti-immigrant robberies by black robbers are not a big deal. But that robbery wasn’t an isolated case. It involves a generally adopted strategy, and I’ve met more than one victim of it.

      My problem with Long’s account is that it ignores all of this complexity. But those are all real incidents from my life, and they’re the tip of the iceberg. I’m one guy. My experiences may be unusual, but they’re not bizarre or completely out there. If the racism/reverse racism distinction can’t easily handle four ordinary cases of racism from my life, I doubt it captures much beyond very simple, almost stereotypical cases of what it supposedly describes.

      My own approach would be: adopt a single definition of “racism,” then acknowledge that it operates in complex, politically charged contexts, and tailor its de-legitimizing function to that context. Maybe there’s some legitimate explanation for why a black barber would put me at the back of the line. Maybe there’s some excuse for Palestinian or Pakistani anti-Semitism. But maybe there isn’t. Maybe the black-robbers-of-Guatemalan-illegals have some mitigating factor to cite in their favor. But maybe they don’t. What we should not do is assume that if an assailant is of color, and the victim is lighter, prima facie, the assault is of less moral significance than it would have been if things had been the other way around.

      But it seems to me that that is what Long’s analysis presupposes or entails. It seems to me to flout facts and to hand a blank check to some very unsavory people, simply because their skin color allows them to assert that people “like them” inherit a heritage of oppression that gets them off the hook for their behavior. That’s a recipe for allowing the least conscientious members of any group to exploit the history of race oppression for their own narrowly self-serving ends. In the extreme and ridiculous case, you get white supremacists starting to boo-hoo about not having a room of their own. Almost anyone would regard that as laughable, but it’s just a few paces away from Jews who exploit the memory of the Holocaust (“My grandmother was at Auschwitz”*), Palestinians who exploit the memory of Zionist atrocities (“They took everything we had”–asserted by people who were never there*), black people who will play the race card on the least provocation, and a post-colonialist discourse that does the same thing. Precisely because things are fraught and complex, it pays just to make everything explicit rather than rely on a concept as murky as “reverse racism.”

      *(Added later) Just to be clear: I mean the quoted phrases to be attempts by the speaker to confer a borrowed moral stature upon themselves by citing the predicament of ancestors who were victims of racial oppression, but whose predicament is basically irrelevant to the situation of the speaker. Here’s a well-known example. I don’t particularly like the language of “checking one’s privilege,” but Fortgang’s attempt to dispute that phrase by citing the experiences of his grandparents is gratuitous and illegitimate. The same thing is true, mutatis mutandis, of the Palestinian activist born in the US after 1980, who cites the events of 1947-48 (the “nakba“) as though he or she had directly experienced some loss by them.


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