Racism as Stupidity
By Alec Rawls © 1996/1998 (1150 words) Published in The Stanford Review, 10/7/96

Racism is a kind of stupidity. It is a logical error, a failure to distinguish discoveries about group tendencies from discoveries about individuals.

The requirements of straight thinking are straightforward. An unknown member of a group is a random variable. Expectations about him can only be based on the evidence one has about the distribution of attributes among members of his group. But as soon as evidence about an individual reveals his actual attributes, the distribution of group attributes becomes irrelevant as a source of expectations about him. The more informed information dominates the less informed information.

The racist is a person who can't keep this straight. His discoveries about an individual's actual attributes do not keep him from basing his expectations on what he believes about group tendencies. An expectation of criminal tendencies, for instance, might persist, even after a person has shown himself to be an enemy of crime. Similarly, intelligence may still be suspect, even when evidence of ability indicates a realized level of intelligence well up in the combined distribution of humanity.

Ironically, political correctness has become a fundamental source of failure to think straight about the distinction between individuals and groups. On the one hand, it lines up behind every faction of the "multi-cultural" and victim status movements, all of which insistently get the priority between individual identity and group identity exactly backwards. "Multi-culturalism" for instance, does not think that individual contributions should be judged on merit but that equal time should be afforded on the basis of race or cultural identity. Similarly, the victim status movements all insist on a never ending priority for group identity.

Even worse is the other side of the P.C. coin. At the same time as group identity in itself is treated as merit, P.C. enjoins any allusion to actual group tendencies. "Stereotyping,","generalizing," or, heaven forbid, actually forming intelligent insight into any racially or sexually associated subculture, is the chief bogey-man of politically correct residential education programs at universities across the country.

P.C. is premised on the idea that analysis of and insight into group tendencies is the problem. If only we never looked at group tendencies, we wouldn't be racist. But they have completely mis-identified the racist/sexist error, which is not the formation of expectations about groups, but the failure to properly distinguish between groups and individuals. By placing any reference to group tendencies beyond the pale, political correctness has removed from the realm of civilized discussion the very distinctions that people need to learn to think straight about.

Liberals are not the only ones who are confused about racism. Conservative author Dinesh D'Souza, in his book The End of Racism, defines racism as a belief that one race is inferior to another, and few people would disagree with this at first, but it is completely wrong when the subject is group tendencies. As soon as we acknowledge differences in the distribution of assets among groups there will be reasons to regard each divergence as superior or inferior for different purposes. To follow the evidence of group differences, and to judge the merits of these differences as best we can, is simply a correct operation of intelligence.

What "racism" refers to -- and what earns "racism" its pejorative sense -- is its failure to properly analyze value. There is absolutely nothing wrong with thinking straight about the distribution of attributes among groups. That is why people find P.C. so annoying. They instinctively know that the free play of intelligence is moral and that immorality comes only from people's failures to be fully intelligent and appreciative of what is at stake in choices they make. The taboo on alluding to group tendencies is our nation's broadest politically correct error, spanning the political spectrum from left to right. I believe it is a major reason why our nation remains so backwards on race. We think things are racism that are not, and out of this misguidance, we shun attention of the very distinctions we need to make to eliminate actual racism.

If people all started correctly distinguishing between individuals and groups, difficulties based on race would not simply disappera. There are serious difficulties that arise from group differences. Even if everyone deploys their information correctly, negative group attributes will continue to impose undeserved costs on group members who do not share those negative attributes. So long as blacks have high rates of criminal behavior, then unknown blacks will be followed in stores and will be more likely than whites to get pulled over for fitting the description of suspects in recent area crimes. So long as latinos have a group tendency to drop out of high school, employers will continue to look at unknown latinos as fodder for menial labor.

But these costs can be minimized. Group criminal tendencies can be countered by more effective crime control. It is right now within our grasp to completely eliminate crime with much lower costs than at present and with much lower risks to the innocent (see How to Safely Decimate Crime). Once all the criminals are either deterred or in jail there will be no significant racial differences in criminality for those who are not in jail and undeserved costs imposed by thinking straight about groups will disappear.

Similarly with employment, costs can be minimized by making it as inexpensive as possible for firms to find out about individual attributes. That means allowing completely "at will" contracts between employers and employees, where either party is free to terminate the relationship for any reason at any time. As soon as there is government oversight of "cause", firms must be very careful who they give a chance to in the first place. Emphasis shifts from giving people chances to prove their individual capacity towards making final choices of the basis of preliminary information, where expectations about groups are going to be most prominent. Allowing "at will" contracts minimizes reliance on group association.

The other route is to pursue racial oversight. After forcing firms to focus cautiously on preliminary information where group expectations are prominent, oversight then has to move over and plug up this crack in the dam by trying to counter the racial bias created with an opposing racial bias, treating race as merit. Each place where rational accounting of information moves to evade the government attempt to dictate racial decision-making the government has to move in and try to clamp down anew, by stiffening the legal tests for racism (by shifting the burden of proof onto employers, assuming that they are racist), and increasing penalties. The result is more and more racial categorization and heavier and heavier burdens on economic activity, destroying our prosperity in a doomed effort to criminalize the correct accounting of value.

We can either move towards a society that recognizes the morality of the intelligent use of full information, or we can keep moving in the direction of a society that regards all kinds of information as taboo and, in trying to control the use of information, becomes a monstrous engine for perverting the proper priority of individual characteristics over group tendencies.


Next article in the Non-ideal Theory volume of Moral Science: A Tenable Grounds for Affirmative Action

Rawls for Sheriff Home Page | Rawls for Sheriff | Moral Science | Checklist/Contents | Rate this Page | Submit Reply

Top of Page

Date Last Modified: 8/27/99
Copyright Alec Rawls © 1998