Also Known As: You’re the Racist!
The Accusation of Racism is a rhetorical tactic in which a critic of bigotry is accused of being the real bigot. In most cases, the bigotry is racism and the rhetorical response to criticism is an accusation that the critic is the real racist. When this mere accusation of bigotry is taken as evidence for a conclusion, then a fallacy of reasoning has occurred. It has the following general form:
Premise 1: Person A makes criticism C about bigotry or an (alleged) bigot.
Conclusion: Person A is a bigot because of C.
This is fallacious reasoning because it does not follow that a person is a bigot merely because they have criticized bigotry or an (alleged) bigot. This error can be illustrated by using an analogy to corruption:
Premise 1: Person A makes criticism C about an aspect of corruption or an (allegedly) corrupt person.
Conclusion: Person A is a corrupt person because of criticism C.
Being critical of corruption or a corrupt person does not make you corrupt. While a corrupt person could be critical of corruption or another corrupt person, their criticism is not evidence of corruption. Likewise, being critical of bigotry or an (alleged) bigot does not prove that the critic is a bigot.
A variant of this fallacy is aimed at fallaciously refuting the criticism through an accusation that the critic is the real bigot. It has the following form:
Premise 1: Person A makes criticism C about bigotry or an alleged bigot.
Premise 2: Person A is a racist because of C.
Conclusion: Criticism C is false.
This is essentially a version of an Ad Hominem attack: even if A is a bigot, this has no bearing on the truth of C. Another analogy to corruption shows the error in this reasoning.
Premise 1: Person A makes criticism C about an aspect of corruption or corrupt person R.
Premise: Person A is a corrupt person because of C.
Conclusion: Criticism C is false.
This is bad logic. If it were not, anyone who criticized corruption would always be wrong and this would be an absurd result.
A third variant of this fallacy is used to argue that an (alleged) bigot is not a bigot:
Premise 1: Person A makes criticism C about (alleged) bigot B
Premise 2: Person A is a bigot because of C.
Conclusion: B is not bigot.
This is bad reasoning because even if person A were a racist, it would not follow that B is not. Once again, consider an analogy with corruption:
Premise 1: Person A makes criticism C about corrupt person B.
Conclusion: Person A is a corrupt person because of C.
Conclusion: Person B is not corrupt.
Again, the badness of this reasoning is evident: if it were good logic, any accusation of corruption would be automatically false. Despite the fallaciousness of this sort of reasoning, the tactic is commonly used and is often appealing to some people. Given that it has no logical force, it must gain all its influence from psychological force. I will offer a brief explanation of this using the specific context of racism.
In the United States criticisms of racism and allegations of racism most commonly involve white Americans. For example, criticisms of white supremacy obviously are aimed at white Americans. As another example, criticism of historical racism in America usually focuses on slavery and the mistreatment of the indigenous people. Since American slavery was almost exclusively white Americans owning Black Americans, these criticisms will tend to be aimed at white Americans. In the case of the mistreatment of indigenous people, this was mostly inflicted by white Americans. Today, most criticisms of racism focus on racism on the part of white Americans because this is the most common form of racism. As you might have noticed, the pattern is that most criticisms of racism and alleged racists in the United States will be aimed at white Americans. While this is obviously because in the United States most acts of racism are done by white Americans and most racists are white, this can also be exploited to fuel this fallacy. I will use the example of teaching about slavery to illustrate how this fallacy is often used.
As noted above, American slavery was predominantly a system in which white Americans owned Black people. As such, criticisms of slavery will focus primarily on the white slave owners. Operating in bad faith, a person can claim that such criticism is racist because it is criticism focused on white people. That is, it is falsely claimed that white people are being attacked simply because they are white. The fallacy is then used by attacking the critic as being “the real racist” and the criticism is rejected, etc. However, criticizing white slave owners is not criticizing them because they are white, it is criticizing them because they owned and abused slaves. That this is not racist can be shown with, as you probably guessed, a look at corruption.
Like most Americans, I learned about various infamous scandals and corruption cases, such as the Teapot Dome Scandal in grade school. My teachers were, I recall, generally critical of the corrupt behavior. But it would be absurd to say that this proved that the teachers were corrupt and that their criticisms were incorrect. The matter of corruption can also be used to directly illustrate how criticism of white people is, obviously enough, not automatically racist.
These historic scandals and corruption cases mostly involved white Americans for two obvious reasons. The first is that white Americans were the majority. The second is that white Americans dominated government and business positions in which they could engage in such scandals and corruption cases. As such, criticisms of these past corruption cases would predominantly criticize white Americans. But it would be absurd to infer that such criticisms must be racist, and that the critic is “the real racist.” This is because the criticism for this corruption is not because those involved were white, but because they engaged in corrupt behavior. Likewise, when someone is critical of a racist for being racist, this does not entail that the critic is a racist. It also does not entail that the critic is not a racist, but evidence for that would be needed.
This fallacy does sometimes get a psychological boost from the way the criticism is expressed and in some cases the criticism can sound bigoted. For example, if a critic of white supremacy seems to be casting all white Americans as white supremacists, then this can create the impression that the critic is bigoted. And this impression might be true. But, as noted above, even if a critic is a bigot, it does not follow that their criticism is not true. I certainly do not deny that any human can be bigoted.
As another example, criticism might be so harsh and confrontational that people can feel that they are being attacked simply for being in a group, even though this is not the case. As a final example, people belonging to the same group as those being criticized can also feel that they are being attacked, even if the critic is careful to differentiate between bigots and non-bigots and is careful to use neutral language. These feelings are usually encouraged by those using this fallacy.
This fallacy can be used to start a Red Herring by switching the issue from the original criticism to the new issue of whether the critic is a bigot.
Defense: The main defense against this fallacy is like the defense against any Ad Hominem: even if the critic is a bigot, it does not disprove their criticism. When this fallacy is used in bad faith, which is usually the case, it can also be useful to expose this bad faith usage. While arguing in bad faith does not prove that a person’s claim is false or that their argument is bad, exposing bad faith can help undermine the psychological force of a fallacy. But since this fallacy is often used as Red Herring to switch to the issue of whether the critic is a bigot, you also need to be on guard against that tactic.
Teacher: “The practice of slavery in the United States was characterized by predominant white ownership of Black enslaved persons. In general, this practice was brutal and…”
Student: “Were there any Black slave owners?”
Teacher: “Yes. The best known is probably William Ellison.”
Student: “If there were Black slave owners, why are you being so critical of white people?”
Teacher: “I am being critical of slavery. But, as I said, most slave owners were white and the enslaved people were Black. Ellison didn’t own white people.”
Student: “Well, I’d say that you are the real racist.”
Student: “Because you are attacking white people.”
Teacher: “I’m being critical of slavery. I think Ellison was also wrong to own people.”
Student: “That is just what a racist would say when accused of racism. I’m going to tell my parents you hate white people.”
Teacher: “I don’t get paid enough for this.”
Ted: “White Americans are the worst. I mean slavery…”
Karen: “Hey, I never owned slaves!”
Ted: “I know, but you benefit from the legacy of slavery. Also, you benefit from white privilege.”
Karen: “Hey, I worked for my degree, and I work hard at my job.”
Ted: “I’m not denying that, although the fact that your dad is the CEO of the company where you work probably didn’t hurt. And that company has quite the history of racism.”
Karen: “Well, I think you are the real racist! Attacking me for being white!”
Ted: “What about my criticisms?”
Karen: “Like I said, you are the real racist. I am the victim here.”
Tucker: “These so-called feminists are attacking men for their alleged toxic masculinity. This is just attacking men for being men. So, who are the real sexists? The women. So much for all their toxic masculinity talk. Also, you should tan your testicles.”
Paul David Van Pelt says
I guess I find this tiring. The hypothetical exchange on racism is most self-defeating. Both statements and retorts are mutually exclusive, unless both executors hold complementary positions. This does not occur with the hypothetical exchange. There was a luminous comparison today on Republican vs. Democrat ideologies, in another post. Briefly, the comment entailed power vs. doing right. My even more cryptic comment there supported the comment, if superficially: there is Us. And, there are THEM. I hope that commenter recognizes my compliment…pretty sure Foucault would have done so.