Digest of terms
Use of race as a basis for negative treatment of one group of individuals as over against another. This is a recurrent feature in the history of civilisations, where hierarchies are created, often based on skin colour (especially in Africa and India, even before European colonial presence). It is expressly abjured in Christianity and Islam from their earliest years, on the basis of the belief that all humankind are children of God; however, this has not prevented its historical appearance in both religious traditions, not least in slavery carried out by their followers. International Declarations of Human Rights, as well as the constitutions of all individual nations in membership of the UN are unanimous in proscribing racism. The persistence of racist attitudes is well documented throughout the world. It therefore remains a high priority for challenge in any programme of moral education. The associated complexities deserve elaboration:
Racism involves the favouring or disfavouring of some over others based on race. Racial identity may be personally ascribed or socially assigned, and the favouring or disfavouring may operate through individual decisions and actions (individual racism) or the operations of social groups or institutions (institutional racism).
Typically and perhaps universally, the automatic human tendency, especially when feeling threatened, is to distinguish “us” from “them” and to favour “us.” In that sense, racism is normal and to be expected in societies divided along racial lines, in which race is taken to be an important marker of social identity and difference.
There is no consensus about whether the favouring and disfavouring involved in racism must be overt and explicit as opposed to implicit and unintentional. For instance, results from the Implicit Association Test (see Project Implicit: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit) show consistently that even members of “socially stigmatised” groups exhibit an implicit bias in favour of the majority or non-stigmatised group, though the bias is not as strong as that exhibited by members of majority or non-stigmatised groups. Is implicit bias that is consciously over-ridden and not exhibited in choices and actions still racism? Well-informed, thoughtful people do not agree.
There is also no consensus on whether favouring or insisting on intra-racial marriage (marrying within one’s racial group) and intra-racial child adoption and child-rearing (adopting within one’s racial group) are racist.
An implicit bias against one’s own group is related to “internalised racism” or “internalised oppression,” the tendency to demean oneself along the lines of the racist standards of one’s society. For instance, preferences in favour of lighter complexions, straighter and lighter hair, narrower noses, etc., are found within some communities of “people of colour,” along with negative self-criticism along those lines and even self-loathing.
“Institutional racism” exists when the outcomes of the normal operations of social groups and institutions in fact disfavour some based on their race, even though no specific actions or choices can be identified as designed to disfavour based on race. For instance, economic systems and employment practices, educational systems, and criminal justice systems that operate so that racial minorities are disadvantaged based on their racial identity are racist, even if there are no overtly and consciously racist choices or actions involved. For instance, if people always prefer the company of those they are more comfortable with, say, in hiring/employment, the unintended result may be institutional racism. The critical question is whether the outcomes are based on race or on other factors contingently associated with race. Some argue, for instance, that what appear to be effects of institutional racism in education and criminal justice are actually effects of poverty and distressed families and communities. In such cases the empirical question becomes whether those variables account for the variance and explain the apparently racist outcomes better than race.
“White privilege” refers to the advantages persons considered white receive in virtue of being white, such as ready availability of (i) teachers and care-givers of the same race, (ii) bosses and supervisors of the same race, (iii) products like children’s dolls and cosmetics designed for persons of one’s race, etc. Enjoying and taking advantage of white privilege does not entail intentional racism, but it may involve complicity in the disadvantages and burdens endured by those not enjoying the same privileges.
The question whether “affirmative action” entails “reverse racism” depends on how one construes and practises affirmative action. If racial diversity in membership is a genuine benefit to an organisation or institution, then acting to ensure diversity may in some circumstances require favouring members of minority or disadvantaged communities over others. In such a case, the emphasis is on selecting an entire membership with certain characteristics as a whole, not on selecting specific individuals. But if the benefits of racial diversity are not demonstrable or are outweighed by other benefits, the case for affirmative action—that is does not constitute reverse racism—is less strong.
Finally, because racism may be normal in societies in which race is taken to be an important marker of social identity and difference, moral education should address the role and advantages of racial diversity in the common life of the societies involved. That is, societies divided along racial lines should make conscious efforts to cultivate social identity and common purpose across racial lines in the ways they raise and educate children and youth.