You may have encountered people in universities or on social media endeavoring to redefine the meaning of the word “racism” to include terms such as “power” or “institutional power” as the criteria used to determine who can be racist and cannot be racist. The idea originated in American academia in the 1970s and is generally stated as the equation “racism = prejudice + power” with the implication that only those who belong to the race which holds power are capable of being racist, therefore since white people occupy the majority of leadership roles in public institutions, only white people can be racist.
The purpose of this article is to philosophically dismantle this concept and hopefully play a part in discarding it to the realm of failed ideas where it belongs. Using some basic critical thinking techniques, I will be attacking it from various angles to show how it does not stand up to scrutiny in principle or in practice. These will include arguments from semantics, pointing out logical fallacies and contradictions as well as using thought experiments and real world examples to show how it results in absurd consequences.
Semantics, Definitions, Circularity
The attempt to redefine racism to prejudice plus power (hereby referred to as P+P) and its consequent (only white people can be racist and you cannot be racist towards white people) seemed comical to me when I first heard it. After all, there is no shortage of examples in the public sphere of racist attitudes and remarks coming from people of all races, sometimes towards other races and sometimes towards white people. Anecdotally I have seen racism in one form or another exhibited by people from various races after having lived in an ethnically diverse city and travelled to other countries. Also the P+P definition does not resemble the meaning of the word as used in common parlance and is not the actual definition of racism according to mainstream dictionaries. I looked up the meaning in several dictionaries and not one of them listed this alternative definition. They all presented some variant of the definition of racism being hatred, intolerance, prejudice or discrimination toward another race or the belief that one’s own race is superior to others.
One would think that this is as far as one needs to go to show that the P+P definition and its consequent are wrong and that’s the end of the debate on the meaning of racism. Unfortunately proponents of the P+P argument will generally justify rejecting the mainstream definition of racism through some sociological sleight of hand which claims that racial minorities can only be racially prejudiced but not racist since they do not have the institutional power to enforce their racial prejudices or oppress other races. Here they are attempting to conflate the word racism with a phenomenon which we already have several perfectly good phrases to describe: “institutional racism,” or “race based oppression.” They also downgrade the racism of non-whites to “prejudice” which as shown in the dictionary definition is only one aspect of racism. None of these moves are necessary and only serve to confuse our language. We already have the terminology to describe racism at the institutional level, and since the dictionary definition is neutral regarding who can be racist or who can be the victim of racism, it is perfectly capable of accounting for all varieties of interpersonal racism. The word prejudice is not synonymous with interpersonal racism and not sufficient for accounting for things we would normally want to label as racist.
— HuffPost (@HuffPost) August 27, 2015
Since the P+P proponents have re-assigned the word racism strictly to the realm of power/institutions/social structures at large, we are left with “prejudice” to describe the racist beliefs and behavior of individuals. The problem is that prejudice doesn’t even necessarily imply race. One can be prejudice towards followers of a religion, people of a certain sexual orientation, people who have opposing political views, people who partake in a certain lifestyle (smokers, drug users) people who choose a certain fashion or culture (hipsters, ravers, hippies) and so on. Also, calling somebody prejudiced does not express the strong contempt for racial bigotry that we would want to convey by calling somebody a racist. Words such as chink, nigger, kike, wetback, wog, towelhead, cracker, etc., are not words which only white people or people with power use. They are used in a malevolent way by racial minorities towards other racial minorities and towards whites, and in cases where that happens it would be apt to call that person a racist rather than prejudiced. Calling them prejudiced is simply not the right tool for the job.
I’ve described how the dictionary definition has more explanatory power than the P+P alternative when it comes to accounting for interpersonal racism and how it is not necessary even for describing institutional racism since we already have the terminology for that. I argue that for anyone wishing to alter the commonly used official meaning of racism, the burden of proof should be on them to justify why it should be altered, or why their definition should be adopted instead. I have sought out as many arguments as I could find attempting to justify why racism should be conceived of solely as a power dynamic. Every single one of the justifications available result in a circular argument in which it is taken for granted that power (specifically institutional power) is required for racism. As a result it often happens that discussions on racism turn into discussions about the meaning of the word, with people disagreeing on terms and talking past each other. The phrase “reverse racism” is a perfect example and the following paragraph is an archetypal exchange.
Person A calls out person B for being racist against white people.
Person B responds with “No I’m not, reverse racism is not real.” (Notice how this reply is already smuggling in the assumption that it’s not possible to be racist to white people).
Person A replies “indeed there is no such thing as reverse racism, it’s just plain racism, anybody is capable of being racist and what you said is in fact an example of you being racist.”
Person B responds with “but what I said cannot be racist… you cannot be racist towards white people because R = P+P.”
Person A informs them “this is not the definition of racism, look up the meaning in the dictionary and show me where it mentions prejudice plus power.”
Person B will then assert that the dictionary is wrong because only people with institutional power can enforce their racism (again assuming enforceability/power is the determining factor).
At each point of the exchange person B is using the conclusion of their argument as the premise. This is a textbook circular argument (also known as circular reasoning or begging the question), a type of informal logical fallacy.
The arbitrariness of “power” in P+P
Before moving on to a reductio ad absurdum argument against R=P+P, I would like to note that even if it were the case that relative power determined who can and cannot be a racist, the type of power identified is arbitrarily selected amongst all variants of power. There are different forms or power and different levels of scope of power. By forms I mean things such as state power (presidents, senators, police, judges, military), economic power (corporations, lobbyists, wealthy individuals), power over opinion (media, academia, social activists, religious leaders, educators), naked power (gangsters, militias, drug cartels, terrorist organisations). By scope of power I mean things such as local, national, global, personal.
People who make the R=P+P argument identify the power aspect of the equation as the power to enforce their prejudice on a society wide level via institutions. In doing so they have arbitrarily identified both the form and scope of power they think matters in exclusion of all other types/levels of power. This arbitrary drawing of boundaries would itself need some justification in my opinion but for the sake of argument let’s just assume that the only way people can enforce their racial prejudices is via institutional power. Even if it were true, all that deductively follows from this is that the people who hold positions of power within these institutions have the capacity to be racist towards people with no power. However in order to get to the further conclusion that all members of one race can be racist whilst all members of the other race cannot, several additional premises need to be implicitly assumed.
The first assumption is that positions at all levels of the power structure are held exclusively by a single racial group. The second is that there are no constitutional or legal boundaries to prevent those in power enacting racist policies in their favour and that they are willing to use their power to do so. The third is that any ordinary citizen who happens to share the race of the people in power, is able to somehow enforce their own racist prejudices just by virtue of being a member of that race. This last assumption is absolutely crucial since if this is not the case, it follows that people who are not a member of an institution wielding power at a societal level cannot be a racist even if the first and second assumptions hold. So with all this in mind can we justify the conclusion that only white people can be racist? If we look at all countries in the world then the answer is obviously no, but since this claim is usually made from an Anglocentric viewpoint let’s examine it in the context of the USA, where the idea originated. The first assumption is demonstrably false since there are members of non-white races occupying positions of power across various institutions at the federal, state and local level. At the time of writing this the leader of the country is a black person. The second assumption may have once been true but is no longer true due to anti-discrimination and equal rights legislation. The third assumption is false since prejudiced white people who are not in positions of power or members of institutions have no more ability to enforce their political beliefs over the rest of the population than any other ordinary citizen.
Consequences and absurdities
The fact that the R=P+P argument leads to such ridiculous terms as “reverse racism” is indicative of a mistake in reasoning. Such a concept would break down as soon as you applied it to other moral transgressions. Let’s take murder as an example and apply the same one-directional culpability based on supposed power. I doubt that people who make the R=P+P argument would be comfortable with altering the language to say that if a white person kills a racial minority it is called murder, but if a racial minority kills a white person it is not murder. If the latter occurred would it make any sense for someone to claim it is “reverse murder”? Likewise if a poor person were to assault a rich and powerful person it would be no less considered assault than if the powerful person assaulted a poor person. The crime is still the same despite the power imbalance in each case. In a court of law if the poor person’s defence was to say “your honour what I did is not assault it is only reverse assault and it’s not wrong because he has more power than me,” such a claim would be laughed out of court and rightly so. Being a racist is not against the law but it is still considered to be immoral.
If we consider racism to be morally wrong then it should be regarded as wrong for everyone in society regardless of their race and social status (if you think racism is ok for some people then you might be a racist). The only exceptions usually made to moral or legal rules are for people we would normally consider to lack or have diminished agency such as children, insane people and some mentally disabled people. Therefore if only white people can be racist due to P+P theory, it is giving all other races an exemption to a moral standard which is not only unfair but also insinuates that people of other races are less responsible for their actions than whites. An inconsistent application of moral responsibility based on race is inherently racist since it implies these people have less agency to act morally. This is often referred to as the bigotry of low expectations.
This above video is a good example of how the R=P+P narrative can warp peoples thinking and allow them to excuse themselves or others for racist actions. Notice how the Asian girl recounts an incident of racism committed against her by black men and the black lady immediately tries to silence her whilst another person in the crowd yells out “but R=P+P.” There is also the controversy regarding Bahar Mustafa, a student union leader at Goldsmiths university in the UK, who requested that white people not attend a university event and used the hashtag #killallwhitemen. When responding to accusations of being a racist and incitement to violence her defence was as follows: “I, as an ethnic minority woman, cannot be racist or sexist towards white men, because racism and sexism describe structures of privilege based on race and gender.”
I mentioned earlier that the R=P+P assertion is Anglocentric in origin and application. I have not heard any of its proponents apply the principle to countries in which white people are a minority population and do not have institutional power. If they did so they would have to accept the opposite of the conclusion that only white people can be racist, at least in that context. It would mean that white people living in Asian, African or middle eastern countries cannot be racist since they are a minority in countries where the institutional power is held by the native ethnic populations. This would be the case even if they held racist views. So if some neo Nazis or KKK members decided to emigrate from the USA and move to Zimbabwe they would cease to be considered racist as soon as they are living under Robert Mugabe’s oppressive regime, even though their mindset and hatred of blacks and jews has not changed.
This is a logical consequence of equating racism with the ability to enforce prejudice via institutional power. Similarly when a power shift takes place such as when the ANC took over as the ruling party in South Africa, would the R=P+P proponents have us believe that any white South Africans who were racists during the apartheid era are suddenly unable to be racist towards the majority black population now that the state institutions are run mostly by blacks? If it was eventually the case that the demographics of the USA shifted and a vast majority of institutions were controlled by Hispanics, they would have to conclude that only Hispanics can be racist and that members of white supremacist groups cannot be racist but only prejudiced, since they are not in power and neither are members of their race. Also what happens if the power is equally shared? If there was an exactly equal representation of white and black people holding institutional power and a white person made a racial slur towards a black person, would it only be half as racist as it was in the past when whites had a greater share of the power? Similarly, if white people were in power would an individual who is half white and half black be considered more racist than somebody who is 100% black even if they both had the same racial prejudices against Mexicans or Indians?
These are some of the absurdities which arise from collectivist thinking of the type which gives rise to the P+P definition. The collectivist thinking that would have you believe that a homeless white veteran with PTSD has more power and privilege than Barack Obama, or that white people living in poverty in trailer parks have more power and privilege than the children of wealthy black, Asian or Latino parents who are Studying at Yale or Harvard. Those who hold this view require us to believe that it would not be racism if a gang of young men from an ethnic minority decide to go out and beat up a white person for no other motivation than their hatred and resentment of white people. Even if you pointed out that this act is itself an exercise of power and that they were using their overwhelming power in the situation to act on their racial prejudice, the answer would be that this is not the power which matters. All these confusing logical consequences, absurd conclusions, contradictions and ridiculous phrases such as “reverse racism” disappear if we reject the P+P definition and continue to use the actual definition of racism. It is not only more parsimonious and useful, but in it its neutrality it is also less racist.