Thursday, 22 October 2009

Honestly, Some Of My Best Friends Are Black

Poor old Nick Griffin eh? Not only has he got that wonky eye, but also everybody hates him. Actually, that’s not true. Quite a lot of people like him. Several million in fact. But that doesn’t stop him being regularly pilloried by every left-wing reactionary who can force their bleating, half-formed opinions into print, not to mention his parliamentary colleagues who seem, in a fit of pique, to have regressed to an infantile state. ‘Eeerrr, I’m not sitting next to him, miss. He smells/is a racist.’

That’s right: a racist. Probably the worst thing in the world it’s possible to be. Now before you vomit all over your Guardian in sheer disgust – don’t panic. I’m not here to defend Mr. Griffin. The man, in all probability, is a monumental bell-end. But is he a racist? Does anyone have any idea what that word means any more? I suspect not, and furthermore I’m going to prove it. Just you watch.

Now I’m not going to quote the dictionary, because that is a risible way to begin any argument, but I think we’d all agree that the definition of racism is something along the lines of: To discriminate against someone purely on grounds of their ethnic background. Now then, consider the following example.

A manager has two candidates applying for a job. One is white and one is black. The manager chooses the white candidate, despite the fact that he is clearly the less qualified of the two. When asked to justify his decision, he replies ‘Black people are lazy.’

You can’t get much more clear-cut racist than that. Or can you? Let’s look back at the definition. This time I have italicized the crucial word, because you, dear reader, are not clever enough to spot it on your own: To discriminate against someone purely on grounds of their ethnic background. In our example, has the manager used the candidate’s race as the sole negative factor in making his choice? Has he ignored the man’s qualifications and skills, and made a decision based on ethnic prejudice? If so, we can justifiably cast him as racist.

His reason for not employing the man was ‘Black people are lazy.’ Now, what was the defining factor that led him to favour the white candidate? Surely it was the laziness. Laziness, it must be admitted, is not a desirable quality in any kind of employment, and any employer would be entitled to look unfavourably on a lazy interview candidate. How did the manager know the candidate would be lazy? Because in his opinion, black people generally are.

It might sound like I’m splitting racist hairs here, but let’s stay with this, because it’s important. The manager did not reject the black candidate simply because he was black. It was because he suspected the candidate would be lazy, and he suspected this because of the candidate’s ethnic background. Can we draw any meaningful separation here? Let’s have a go.

(This is a small interlude to reassure any pea-brains reading that I am not condoning the behavior of my imaginary protagonist – merely using his views to illustrate what I think is a valuable semantic distinction. If you can’t understand that, there’s little point in reading any more.)

So then: is the statement ‘Black people are generally lazy’ a racist one? Well, for a start, it’s a statement regarding fact, that is either true or false (all right, all right, it’s probably false. Get off my back, pea-brains.) It’s quite hard to understand how a factual statement could be racist, unless the fabric of logic and causation is intrinsically racist. Good luck imagining that. Compare the statement ‘I don’t like black people.’ Technically a statement of fact (either you do or you don’t), but also an opinion based purely on race, and therefore, by our definition, racist.

This doesn’t quite work, though. You might argue that, in the real world, there is nobody who dislikes black people simply because they are black. It is because, due to the skin colour, they assume other things about the person’s lifestyle or attitude. Now I could argue that everybody makes judgements based on the appearance of others, many of which are entirely justified, but that would be to take a rather large stride towards Griffinland, so let’s keep it philosophical.

Let’s admit, then, that in the technical sense we’ve been using so far, racism doesn’t actually exist. What we mean when we say someone is racist, is that he assumes certain facts about other people based upon their racial origin. This still sounds bad, and indeed it is. It’s lazy, callous and patronising. But it seems to occupy a lower order of unpleasantness than the entirely illogical racism we’ve been discussing up to now. In this, somewhat more woolly, sense, irrational prejudice is replaced by vague stereotyping, in which race is an ostensible indication of hidden undesirable traits, rather than the basis for discrimination itself.

What conclusions can we draw from this, then? Hopefully some, since this has taken me, like, an hour to write. How about this: racism is not about discrimination so much as it is about assumption. It is not entirely illogical, even if it might be entirely objectionable. And philosophically speaking , it is not so much an outright category error as it is a cognitive methodology sitting somewhere on the sliding scale from the rational to the irrational.

That doesn’t make it sound too bad, does it? Honestly, though, some of my best friends are black.

1 comment:

  1. Rather a lot I could say about this. Will write a short amount for now; might be back later.

    So, first thing. Why do baseless prejudices (let's assume, as a helpful generalisation, that they are baseless) exist? Surely you have it the wrong way around: the traits ascribed to non-white racial groups are surely a product of an unthinking reaction to racial difference. Of course, over time, they have been refined or altered according to the spirit of the age, but the fact remains that a negative reaction to racial difference is, at bottom, a response to the colour of a person's skin.