In epistemology, the problem of other minds is the challenge of proving that I know other beings have thoughts and feelings analogous to my own. One practical variation on this problem is knowing when someone is being honest: how do I know that their words match what they really believe? But the version I am concerned with here is the problem of racist minds. That is, how do I know when someone is a racist? Racism, like dishonesty, comes in degrees. Just as everyone is a bit dishonest, everyone is a bit racist. But a person should not be labeled a liar unless they are dishonest to a significant and meaningful degree. Likewise, for being a racist. A person should not be labeled as a racist unless their racism is significant and meaningful. There is, of course, no exact boundary line that precisely defines when a person should be considered a liar or a racist. Fortunately, we can get by with imprecise standards and accept that there will be grey areas. To demand a precise line would, of course, fall into the classic line drawing fallacy.
It is important to be able to distinguish racists from people who merely seem racist. One reason is that an accusation of racism can have serious consequences and such claims should not be made lightly. Another reason is that racists should be exposed for what they are—a masquerading racist can be an effective recruiter and agent for racism. I am, of course, assuming that racism is bad. As such, what is needed are reliable tests for sorting out racists from non-racists.
The same need for a test arises in the classic problem of other minds. Descartes proposed a language-based test for other minds. Roughly put, if something uses true language, then it has a mind and thinks. Turing created his own variation on this test, one that is more famous than Descartes’ original test. In the case of testing for racism, it is assumed that people have minds—so that problem is bypassed (or ignored) for practical reasons.
It might be wondered why tests are needed. After all, many people assume that the only true racists are those who are blatantly racist: they burn crosses, have Swastika tattoos, and openly use language that is clearly racist. So, one might think, they are easy to spot. While these racists are easy to spot, there are racists who are far more subtle. In fact, coded racism has been a conscious strategy in the United States for decades. Lee Atwater presented this strategy in a famous interview:
You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”
This clearly presents the challenge of determining whether a person is racist or not: there are coded words and phrases used by racists that are not openly racist in their normal meaning. These code words have many uses. First, they allow a racist plausible deniability: they can claim to be using the word or phrase with its surface meaning. Second, it allows racists to recruit non-racists. People who are, for example, sincerely concerned about welfare fraud can be drawn into racism through that gateway. Third, it allows racists to signal each other while making the “normies” think the critics are crazy. As an illustration, when I have tried to explain various code phrases used by racists to “normies” they often think I am either making it all up or I am embracing a wacky conspiracy theory. So how does one pierce the veil and solve the problem of racist minds? While a complete guide would be project suitable for a book, here are two useful guides.
As noted above, there are numerous code words and phrases used by racists that have normal surface meanings. A recent example is the use of “China virus” by Trump and his fellows. On the face of it, this seems non-racist: they are just referencing where the virus comes from. As I have argued in earlier essays, this use of “China virus” by Trump is racist. It makes use of the well-worn racist trope of foreigners bringing disease and his followers certainly got the message: anti-Asian violence increased dramatically. But one might say, surely there are many people who use such words and phrases without racist intent. That is true and is exactly what helps give the racists cover. So how does one know when a person is using such words and phrases in a racist manner and when they are not? One easy test is to see how they react to being informed of the racist connotation of the word or phrase. For example, if someone is using “China virus” and it seems it might be racist, then one can inform them that it has racist implications and is used by racists against Asians. If the person persists in using the phrase or word despite being aware of its implications, then it is reasonable to consider that they are being racist. It might be objected that a non-racist might want to persist in using the term to “own the libs” or because they refuse to be “politically correct.” While this is a possible reply, it does reveal a lot about the person who makes that response.
To use an analogy, imagine someone who likes setting off fireworks in their backyard. They then learn that their neighbor has PTSD because they lost an arm, an eye, and friends to IEDs in Iraq and that the fireworks really bother her. If they persist in setting of the fireworks despite this knowledge, it would be reasonable to believe they are an ass. After all, a decent person would not do that—even if they believed they had the right to set off fireworks. Likewise, a person who persists in using words and phrases that are racist code in contexts where the code is racist would provide evidence they are a racist. Or an ass.
As the Atwater quote also notes, racism is often coded into policies and their justifications. Migration provides a good example of this sort of coding. Only the most blatant racists would openly say that they want to keep non-whites out of the United States because they are white supremacists. As such, racists have adopted the approach of arguing for restrictions that focus on non-whites using reasons that are not openly racist. The stock reasons given are that migrants are coming here to commit crimes, that migrants are coming here to steal jobs, that migrants are coming here to steal social services and that migrants are bringing diseases. On the face of it, these are not racist reasons: the person making the argument for restricting immigration is advancing economic and safety concerns. It just happens that these restrictions target non-white migrants. So how does one distinguish between racists and non-racists who advance such arguments? After all, racists have worked hard to recruit non-racists into using their arguments and they can have considerable appeal. A sensible person would, after all, be concerned if migrants were committing crimes and stealing jobs.
In most cases where the racists advance coded arguments, they are also making untrue or misleading claims. These cases allow for an effective test. Using the migration example, the claims that migrants are stealing jobs, committing crimes and so on are either false or presented in a misleading manner. If a person is a non-racist and supports, for example, restrictions on migration because they believe these claims, then proving that these claims are false would change their mind. So, if Sally supports restrictions on migration because of her concerns that migrants are doing all those terrible things she is told they do but she learns that these claims are not true or greatly exaggerated, then her position should change. If Sally is a racist, then these are not her real reasons—so she will not change her mind and will persist in lying and exaggerating. As such, a good general test is to find cases where a person claims to believe something that is also coded racism and is also not supported by the truth. If the person is not a racist, they would be amendable to changing their views when the reasons they profess for accepting their views are disproven.
One counter is to point out that people can become very invested in beliefs and double-down in the face of disproof. Might there not be cases in which a non-racist simply refuses to accept disprove about, for example, claims about migrants? This is certainly possible, but one must wonder why they would be so committed to holding to a disproven view—it makes sense for a racist to do this since their belief is based on racism. But a non-racist would be irrational to do this—something that is, I admit, possible. As such, the test would not be able to reliably distinguish between racists and people with an irrational commitment to such views.
But, going back to the fireworks analogy, this would seem to be like a person who insists they are not an ass, they just refuse to believe that their neighbor is bothered by the fireworks—despite all the overwhelming evidence. This is logically possible, but the better explanation would be that they are, in fact, an ass.
Anne W LaBossiere says
I found this to be very readable and informative and have recommended it to others to read.
Michael LaBossiere says