Since the colonial days, America has been a land of stark economic inequality with a relatively stable class structure. The institution of slavery and its enduring effects are the most striking examples. While the economic benefits of slavery were concentrated (as some like to point out, not all whites owned slaves), these benefits generated wealth that has been inherited and built upon. In contrast, the poverty of the victims of slavery was also inherited, providing little or nothing for people to build upon. As such, to grasp one aspect of white privilege (or white advantage) all a person needs are the most basic knowledge of American history and a minimal grasp of how inheritance works. While exceptions should be considered when thinking about generalizations, one needs to be on guard against the fallacies of hasty generalization (drawing a general conclusion based on a sample that is too small) and anecdotal evidence (rejecting statistical data based on an anecdote that is an exception). So, while examples like Obama and Oprah are relevant to discussing race in America, they are but two examples among millions. White poverty has been and is real, but this does not disprove the generality of white advantage. After all, the claim that white privilege or advantage exists is not the claim that every white person is doing well and that everyone else is doing terribly. Rather, it is a claim based on statistical analysis of the entire population.

While part of the American myth is that hard working Americans made themselves into successes by their own hard work, the reality is that there are many notable cases of public resources being used to benefit certain broad segments of the population. These segments have consistently consisted of white Americans while largely excluding others. These have also served to build white advantage. Some examples are as follows.

In 1830 the Indian Removal Act resulted in native people being forced from their lands, which opened the ground for the 1862 Homestead Act which overwhelmingly benefited white settlers.

In 1934 the Federal Housing Administration was created to address the housing shortage in America. It was also intended to segregate housing. It succeeded in both goals, providing many white Americans with the opportunity to own houses while pushing blacks and other minorities into urban housing projects. Home ownership was also subsidized with public money through the mortgage interest deduction. And so home ownership became the engine of American inequality.

 While Social Security is considered a general benefit today, when the Social Security Act of 1935 was passed, it intentionally excluded agricultural and domestic workers, who were mostly Black, Hispanic and Asian. The Wagner Act was also passed in 1935 and it gave unions the ability to engage in collective bargaining and set out consequences for unfair work practices. While unionization helped improve the situations of white workers, non-whites were largely excluded from these benefits. Fortunately, unions have become more diverse and “white union members have lower racial resentment and greater support for policies that benefit African Americans.” These are no doubt additional reasons for the right to try to destroy unions.

After WWII, the G.I. Education Bill, Veteran Administration Housing Authority, and Health Care System provided members of the military and veterans with public support for higher education, housing, and health care. While not the only factor, this public support is seen as the foundation upon which the prosperous American middle class was built. Wealth was redistributed to good effect for those who received it. While not all veterans were white (the United States operated segregated Asian and Black units during the war), most benefits were limited to white veterans and a million black WWII veterans were largely denied these benefits. The federal government and states also invested heavily in public higher education and for a while college was relatively affordable.

When the above examples are brought up in discussions of white privilege, some people counter with three true claims. The first is these lie in the past, the second is that things have changed, and the third is that many white people are not doing well.

While these do lie in the past and things have changed, there is still that fact that the effects of the harms and benefits linger. As noted above in talking about slavery, to understand that white advantage is real one just needs a basic knowledge of American history and a minimal grasp of how inheritance works. For example, grandparents who went to college and got a house from the GI Bill were generally able to pass on that wealth to their children, who then passed on benefits to their children. In contrast, the black veterans who got nothing from the bill had exactly that extra to pass on to their families. There will, of course, be stories of white veterans who ended up with nothing to pass on and examples of black veterans who did very well and were able to pass on wealth; but these are the exceptions. But is true that many white people are not doing well. White Americans are obviously not exempt from the economic woes of today, including low wages, grotesque income inequality, lack of affordable health care, food insecurity, high housing costs and so on.

The average white American can look at these past benefits and point out, correctly, that they are not getting the same benefits. As examples, college and housing are extremely expensive and the state is doing little, if anything, to help the average white person. That is, the entitlements of the past are gone or shifted to benefiting the wealthiest, including politicians. While there are many reasons for this, one is racism, and this can be illustrated by the parable of the pools.

Heather McGhee’s The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together includes the history of the closing of public pools in America because of a racist response to integration. The paradigm pool is the 1919 Fairground Park pool in St. Louis, Missouri, which was believed to be large enough for 10,000 swimmers. In 1949 the city integrated the pool, resulting in the Fairground Park Riot in which whites attacked every black person they saw in the area. The pool was segregated again, then desegregated by a NAACP lawsuit. Visits to the pool declined dramatically and the city closed and drained the pool. While this was one example, the closing of public pools to avoid integration led to a case that reached the Supreme Court. The court ruled, in the 1971 Palmer v. Thompson, that closing a pool rather than integrating it was constitutional. Roughly put, closing a pool hurt everyone and hence was not based on racism. While swimming remained (and remains) popular, public pools largely declined in favor of backyard pools and segregated swim clubs. This ended up hurting everyone and set the stage for the harm that followed.

That many white people would accept losing a benefit rather than allowing it to be shared and that denying a benefit to everyone was constitutional did not go unnoticed. In the years to follow, public benefits were subject to cuts for everyone and the propaganda campaigns against them typically included racist elements. Under Ronald Reagan, the United States saw racism employed to get white Americans to accept cuts in entitlements, social programs, and other public expenditures that once  benefited Americans broadly. Bill Clinton kept Reaganomics going and with few exceptions American economic and political policy (and law) has been focused on ensuring that wealth is consistently distributed from the lower classes to the wealthiest classes. When there are attempts to change this siphoning of wealth, these are countered with the usual arguments and rhetoric, including appeals to racism.

Ironically, racism was and is used to get white Americans to agree to policies and laws that hurt everyone (but the rich) including themselves. This is still consistent with white privilege, since whites still enjoy other privileges and the benefits accrued by past generations have not been completely eroded. But the young white people who are trying to pay rent, go to college, or even meet basic expenses are realizing that the system is harming them, and this can lead to the bizarre situation where some people argue that there is no racism or white privilege because white people are suffering. But part of their suffering is due to racism and its role in destroying so many public goods. The money is, of course, still there—it just gets funneled upwards and helps explain why we have so many millionaires and billionaires today.

As the wealth acquired by whites in the past is eroded by the need to use those resources, I wonder what impact this will have. While the right has been exploiting white economic worries, they are also committed to racism. As such, even if they wanted to restore public benefits (which they do not) they would have to give up their racism. The establishment Democrats are also largely committed to the status quo, although they are more willing to allow public funds to benefit the public.  It will be interesting, and probably terrifying, to see the outcome of this—although history does over some suggestions.


When accused of racism, Republicans often claim that the Democrats are the real racists. To back this up, it is sometimes claimed that the Democrats are “the party of the Ku Klux Klan.” While I don’t think that Ted Cruz invented this tactic, he did push it into the spotlight back when he defended Jeff Sessions against accusations of racism.  Cruz went beyond merely claiming that Democrats formed the Klan; he also claimed the Democrats were responsible for segregation and Jim Crow laws. As Cruz saw it, the Democrats’ tactic is to “…just accuse anyone they disagree with of being racist.”

Ted Cruz is right about the history of the Democratic party. After the Civil War, the southern Democratic Party explicitly identified itself as the “white man’s party” and accused the Republican party of being “negro dominated.” Some Southern Democrats did support Jim Crow and joined the KKK. So, these accusations are true. But do they prove that the modern Democrats are the real party of Racists? The easy and obvious answer is that they do not.

Despite the racism in its past, the Democrats became the party associated with civil rights while the Republicans engaged in what has become known as the “southern strategy.” In this strategic political move,  Republicans appealed to racism against blacks to gain political power in the south. Though ironic given the history of the two parties, this strategy was effective and many southern Democrats switched parties to become southern Republicans. This was like exchanging the wine in two bottles while leaving the labels the same. As such, while Ted and others are right about the history, they are criticizing the label rather than the wine.

Using this history of the Democratic party to attack the party of today also involves the genetic fallacy. The fact that the Democrats of the past backed Jim Crow and segregation is irrelevant to the merit of claims made by current Democrats or whether they are racist now. What is needed is evidence of current racism. When the logic is laid bare, the fallacy is quite evident:


Premise 1: Over a century ago, some Southern Democrats once joined the KKK.

Premise 2: Over a century ago, some Southern Democrats backed segregation and Jim Crow Laws.

Conclusion: The current Democrats are racists (or their claims about racism are false).


As should be evident, the premises have no logical connection to the conclusion. However, this fallacy can have considerable rhetorical force.

As noted above, it is also common for Republicans to accuse Democrats if relying on accusations of racism as a political tactic. It is true that a mere accusation of racism does not prove a person is racist. If it is an unsupported attack, then it proves nothing. Both ethics and critical thought require that one properly review the evidence for such accusations and not simply accept them. As such, if the Democrats are merely launching empty ad hominem attacks, then these attacks should be dismissed.  But if the accusations have merit, then this merit should be given the consideration they deserve.

When people make this attack on Democrats, they seem to accept that racism is a bad thing. After all, such as condemnation of current Democrats requires condemning past Democrats for their support of racism, segregation and Jim Crow laws. As such, the critic purports to agree with the current Democrats’ professed view that racism is bad. But the critic condemns the Democrats for making what are alleged to be false charges of racism. This, then, is the relevant concern: which claims, if any, made by the Democrats about racism true? The history of the Democratic party is not relevant to the answer, nor is the empty accusation that the Democrats are the real racists for being concerned about racism.

In the previous essays in this series, I looked at the invention of race and addressed the general topic of what to do about racist philosophers of the Modern Era. This essay ends the series with a discussion of my assessment of the philosophers I include in my class. In engaging in this assessment, I sought out the most critical of credible assessments of the philosophers.

I start the class with Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). His Leviathan was published in 1651, long before Linnaeus’ book and twenty-five years before Bacon’s Rebellion. This means that Hobbes was unlikely to have been aware of the  developed modern conception of race. Barbara Hall undertook an extensive analysis of Hobbes’ writings in search of evidence of possible racism. Hall finds no obvious inconsistencies between his philosophical views and his life that would reveal him as a racist and a hypocrite. Hall also finds little in his writings for or against slave trade and the European expansion in the New World. In defining racism, Hall presents the notion that a person can be considered a racist for “failing to confront racist institutions or policies and practices as surely as if they had positively acted to enforce them.” Even if this broad definition of racism is accepted, a critic should take care to note what version of racism a person is being accused of. There is, after all, an important moral distinction between being actively engaged in wrongdoing and simply failing to confront such wrongdoing.

Based on the available evidence, Hall seems to be right that Hobbes did not confront racism in his time. But there is the question of whether his failure to act (even in writing) makes him a racist. This falls under the broader moral debate about whether failing to act against an evil makes one morally accountable for that evil. While Hobbes could be justly accused of allowing evil to occur, there is no evidence that he assisted in the evils of racism or that he held what could be considered racist views. As such, Hobbes can be, at worst, only weakly condemned as a passive racist for failing to act against a system now recognized as racist.

Hall also infers that Hobbes would likely have sanctioned the slave trade and would have likely justified the conquest of the New World. But, as Hall admits, there seems to be nothing in Hobbes writing that explicitly does either. I would argue that this speculation is not sufficient to convict Hobbes. While not an Appeal to Ignorance, the inference is extremely weak. After all, a person should not be convicted based on speculation about what they might have done. When I teach Hobbes, I do note that he do not condemn the slave trade while also noting that there seems to be no racist content in his work.

After Hobbes, the class moves on on Rene Descartes and Princess Elisabeth. While there might be some undiscovered letters or writings by Descartes, his philosophical works and correspondence reveal that he “names race never and slavery twice.” There is no evidence that he condemned racism or the slave trade, so it could be argued, as Timoty Reiss does,  that he was complicit in both. There are also those who contend that his ideas, such as dualism, were used to advance racist ends and that this serves as evidence of his racism.

While the issue of whether his ideas were used for racist ends can be debated, there is the question of whether this use would prove a philosopher is racist. On the face of it, if the ideas presented by the philosopher do not seem racist and there is no evidence that they intended them to be used to advance or defend racism, then it would seem absurd to hold them accountable for how their ideas were used by others. To use an analogy, the Wright brothers hoped that their airplane would make war practically impossible. To claim that they are accountable for the use of airplanes in war or other acts of violence would thus be a mistake. As an extreme example, claiming that the Wright Brothers were terrorists because the 9/11 attackers used an airplane would obviously be absurd. As such, unless one can show the racism in Descartes own writings, what others used his ideas for is irrelevant to whether he was a racist or whether his ideas are racist in and of themselves.

I include in my class the correspondence between Descartes and Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia. Elisabeth’s correspondence does not seem to indicate racism on her part, but she does not seem to strongly condemn the slave trade or racism in general. As such, some would contend that she was complicit in both for failing to do so. I do note that she did not address these matters, but her philosophical works don’t have any racism to address. Somewhat ironically, she does seem to make a sexist claim about how being a woman would have a negative impact on her reasoning, something Descartes immediately rejects. This make sense as Descartes is a metaphysical dualist and regards the incorporeal substance as the substance that thinks.

After Descartes and Elisabeth, I turn to the Ethiopian philosopher Zera Yacob. When Yacob was alive, slavery was widely practiced in Ethiopia. Yacob condemned the religious argument used to justify slavery, advancing an argument based on the principle that all men were created equal by God. As such, while he lived in a society that accepted slavery, his condemnation of it and his principle of equality show that he was not a racist.

Bennedict Spinoza, perhaps because he is less well known, has not often been accused of being a racist. Michael Rosenthal does note that Spinoza wrote of a dream about a “black, scabby Brazilian” and considers that this might be “a sign of the incipient struggle against prejudice.” There does not seem to be any written evidence that Spinoza specifically condemned the slave trade or racism. He does write about human bondage in his philosophical works, but this is not about slavery in the usual sense. Rather, he focused on how people are chained by their emotions and their lack of believing Spinoza’s philosophy.  Spinoza does argue for pantheism (that everything is God and God is everything) and what impact this might have on the possibility of racism would be an interesting topic (could God be racist towards Himself?).

 Gottfried Leibniz does face some accusations of racism. He read Jesuit accounts of Chinese philosophy and noted the apparent correspondence between binary arithmetic and the I Ching, or Book of Changes. The I Ching uses broken and unbroken lines as symbols, which intrigued him. What usually gets him accused of racism is that he claimed the West had the advantage of Christian revelation and was superior to China in the natural sciences. But he said of the Chinese that “certainly they surpass us (though it is almost shameful to confess this) in practical philosophy, that is, in the precepts of ethics and politics adapted to the present life and the use of morals.” Based on such remarks,  John Harfouch argues that Leibniz was a founding figure of the racism known as “orientalism.” Leibniz’ defenders note that he seems to be expressing a religious and cultural bias rather than engaging in racism in the current sense of the term.

It is almost certain that Leibniz met Amo (also known as Anton Wilhelm). Amo was kidnapped from Africa but became a German philosopher. There does not appear to be any evidence that Leibniz expressed racist views towards Amo and there is evidence of Leibniz’ influence on Amo’s philosophy. Julia Jorati argues that Leibniz condemned slavery on the grounds that it violates natural law and is thus morally impermissible.  While I do note Leibniz’s remarks about China, there is currently nothing else to say about him in the context of racism.

The English philosopher John Locke is often accused of racism on three counts. The first is that white supremacy has Lockean roots. This raises the usual questions of whether it is true and whether a philosopher is accountable for how others use (or misuse) their views. Locke’s political philosophy seems to oppose racism. For example, Locke argues that God created everyone equal and that attempts to enslave people justify killing the would-be slaver. While some current white supremacists might profess to have Lockean views, they would need to ignore key parts of his philosophical writings.

The second is that Locke is claimed to be the author of The Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina in 1669. This document supports both hereditary nobility and slavery. Locke’s defenders point out that Locke merely drafted the documents as a lawyer and that he explicitly condemns both hereditary nobility and slavery in his philosophical writing.

The third is that Locke owned stock in the The Royal African Company which ran the African slave trade for England. Locke was the secretary of Shaftsbury, who Charles II put in charge of the Council of Foreign Plantations. This made Locke the Council’s official clerk and Locke was paid in Royal African Company stock.  But both Locke and Shaftsbury soon opposed Charles II and both sold their stock in the company. Thus, while Locke did profit from slavery, he ended up divesting from the company that ran the English slave trade. And, as noted above, he argued that an attempt to enslave a person warrants responding with lethal force.

In the case of George Berkeley, there is no debate about his racism.  On October 4, 1730 Berkeley purchased “a negro man named Philip aged 14 years or thereabout” and somewhat later, he purchased “a negro man named Edward aged 20 years or thereabouts. “In 1731 “Dean Berkeley baptized three of his negroes, ‘Philip, Anthony, and Agnes Berkeley.” Berkeley justified slavery as a path for conversion to Christianity. While, as noted above, some people defend historical figures by asserting that they were just products of their time, Berkeley’s contemporary, Francis Hutcheson,  explicitly argued against slavery. Berkeley also wrote disparagingly of Irish peasants, showing that he also embraced classism. Since Berkeley is an important philosopher, I keep him in my class. I do note his ownership of slaves, but these views do not appear to have influenced his metaphysics and epistemology. That is, his metaphysical idealism (that all that exists is mental in nature) does not seem racist.

While the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft has been praised for her feminism, she has been condemned as a racist.  Claire Hynes criticizes Wollstonecraft for comparing women to objectified slaves and Moira Ferguson argues Wollstonecraft fought for the enfranchisement of white women but did so while dehumanizing black women and men. That they ignore (or are even hostile to) people of color is a charge made against some white feminists today. There are those, such as Rachel Elizabeth Cargle, who contend that sometimes feminism can be white supremacy in heels. When discussing Wollstonecraft I take the opportunity to discuss the complicated nature of feminism. The charge against her also links the discussion to current concerns and this helps show the students the relevance of dead philosophers to issues of today.

I had long thought of David Hume as being a basically decent fellow, but he has proved to be a disappointment. Felix Waldman argues that David Hume was a racist involved in the slave trade. As evidence for Hume’s involvement in slavery, Waldman points to a letter that was unknown to scholars until 2014. In this 1766 letter Hume urged his patron Lord Hertford to buy a slave plantation in Grenada. Hume facilitated the purchase by writing the French governor of Martinique in 1766 and Hume lent £400 to one of the principal investors. Hume did, however, denounce slavery. In ancient Rome.

Hume’s philosophy of racism is proven by his essay Of National Characters:


I Am apt to suspect the negroes to be naturally inferior to the whites. There scarcely ever was a civilized nation of that complexion, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation. No ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences. On the other hand, the most rude and barbarous of the whites, such as the ancient Germans, the present Tartars, have still something eminent about them, in their valour, form of government, or some other particular. Such a uniform and constant difference could not happen, in so many countries and ages, if nature had not made an original distinction between these breeds of men. Not to mention our colonies, there are Negroe slaves dispersed all over Europe, of whom none ever discovered any symptoms of ingenuity; though low people, without education, will start up amongst us, and distinguish themselves in every profession. In Jamaica, indeed, they talk of one negroe as a man of parts and learning; but it is likely he is admired for slender accomplishments, like a parrot, who speaks a few words plainly.


  In 1770 James Beattie of Aberdeen ably criticized Hume’s racist views. Hume seems to have been unmoved by this criticism and the last authorized edition of the essay, in 1777, is essentially unchanged. Beattie’s detailed refutation of Hume’s racist claims serves as evidence that philosophers of this time could (and did) reject racism and that other philosophers would have been aware of such arguments. This helps undercut the defense that the racism of philosophers can be excused because of ignorance or that they are products of their time.  Because of the importance of Hume’s philosophical works, I do keep him in my class while also noting his explicitly racist claims. While Hume is a clear-cut case, Immanuel Kant is more complicated.

Pauline Kleinfeld presents a reasonable case that Kant held both sexist and racist views. Kant did write, for example, that blacks have “by nature no feeling that rises above the ridiculous.” He also wrote that the native American population is “incapable of all culture.” In addition to his own alleged racism, Kant has been accused of helping lay the theoretical foundations of European racism: he writes explicitly about race and about classifying people into different races.

Daniel-Pascal Zorn offers a defense of Kant.  While Zorn agrees that Kant expresses himself in a discriminatory manner, Zoren argues that the racist premises are more likely those of his interlocutors (Hume and Forster). Kant, Zorn claims, argues against these premises in favor of the unity of humanity.  Kant’s ethical theory also seems inconsistent with racism, since that would involve treating people as means rather than ends. While Kant certainly seems to have held some discriminatory views, his philosophical importance means that he retains a place in my class.


In the previous essays in this series, I looked at the invention of race and some defenses offered against charges of racism directed at Modern era philosophers. In this essay, I’ll discuss the subject of what to do when a Modern era philosopher has been proven to be a racist. This would also apply, in some cases, to philosophers of other eras, including today.

One extreme option is to purge works by racist philosophers and racist works from academic philosophy. In practical terms, this would mean these philosophers would not be mentioned in institutes of learning, and their works would not be taught. A moderate option is to keep these works in the academic curriculum but address the racism or racist content honestly and directly. In my Modern Philosophy class (and others) I have opted for the second approach.

First, I need to distinguish between the non-racist ideas of a philosopher and their racist ideas or personal racism. Even major philosophers of the Modern era who were racists or who wrote racist content had considerable bodies of work devoid of racism. Hume, for example, has some explicitly racist content and appears to have been a racist. But he also wrote extensively on subjects such as metaphysics and epistemology without racist content. As a specific example, his famous analysis of causation is obviously not a racist doctrine.  

 If someone were to reject the philosophical claims and arguments of a philosopher because of their alleged racism would be to fall for the ad hominem fallacy (concluding that a claim is false because of an alleged defect in the person making the claim). To reject all philosophy by white Europeans from the Modern era on the grounds that their work originated in a racist time and place would be to fall for the genetic fallacy (concluding that something must defective simply because of its genesis). If their works have merit, then this merit exists independent of their racism and thus such works can be worth studying. Going back to Hume, his philosophical arguments have considerable merit and importance, and these warrant their inclusion in a class on Modern philosophy. But this merit should not excuse racism or racist conte. So, the racist elements should not be hidden away and should be subject to due criticism.

Second, these major philosophical figures are historically important, and their ideas shaped the world today (for good or bad). Engaging with these ideas is essential if people are going to criticize them and the world views they shaped. Ironically, if a philosopher’s views are racist and helped form the basis of white supremacy, then it would be even more important to know their works to get to the conceptual roots of racism. Care should, of course, be taken when teaching such figures to avoid indoctrination. After all, just as we would not want to brainwash students into being vegan Marxists, we would also want to avoid brainwashing them into becoming meat loving white supremacists.

Third, while inclusion in the canon might be seen as honoring these philosophers they are included not because they are right or we agree with them, but because of their importance and influence. To use an extreme example, when one studies Hitler or Stalin one is not endorsing their views. I hope.  Philosophy is, in part, about criticizing ideas and to study a philosophical view is not to praise it or honor the philosopher who created it.

But there are reasonable concerns about why thinkers are seen as important enough to include or unimportant enough to exclude. For example, many Modern philosophy classes focus entirely on the usual dead white guys and exclude women and people of color, perhaps only mentioning them in passing.  One can justly make the criticism that by including a racist in a modern philosophy class, one is excluding a non-racist who should be included. That is a reasonable point and the matter of who should be included and who should be excluded from the course content is a matter that should be discussed and re-assessed on a regular basis. This is something I have done, resulting in changes to my class. In my final essay in this series, I’ll discuss how I decided on the content for my Modern Philosophy class


In the previous essay I discussed the invention of the concept of race in the context of Modern era philosophers. In this essay, I’ll take a brief look at defending Modern era philosophers against the charge of racism. While some might assume all Modern era white European philosophers were racists simply because they were white, this would be a mistake. To assume that a white person must be racist simply because they are white would be both unreasonable and prejudiced. This holds true during our time as well as the Modern era.

 If a philosopher is to be justly accused of racism, there must be evidence to back this claim up. To infer a philosopher (or anyone) must be racist because there is no evidence they were not racist would be to fall victim to the fallacy of Appeal to Ignorance (a variant of the Burden of Proof fallacy). This fallacy occurs when it is inferred that the absence of evidence against a claim serves as evidence that the claim is true. One example of this is when someone infers that psychic powers exist because no one has been able to conclusively prove that no one has such powers. While someone might have psychic powers and a philosopher might be a racist, without positive evidence for these qualities there would be no justification for accepting such claims. As with settling guilt or innocence in the context of crime, what is needed is evidence of that crime and not evidence of innocence. As an accusation of racism can bring negative consequences, it is reasonable to accept that a person is innocent of racism until proven guilty. But even if a philosopher is shown to be racist, there are those who would defend them.

A common defense used when an historical figure is accused of racism is to argue that while they were racist, they are to be excused because racism was seen as morally and socially acceptable (perhaps even laudable) at that time. This is usually presented in terms of how the racist was shaped by their time and that it would unreasonable to expect them to have questioned the values of their time.

But, while people are influenced by their time and it can be difficult to question the values of one’s time, this is a especially weak defense for philosophers who seem to have been racists. Philosophical arguments against slavery and prejudice existed long before the Modern era, philosophers routinely question the dominant values of their time, and there was moral opposition to racism and slavery during the Modern era. As such, this is not much of an excuse or defense for philosophers, especially those who were concerned with ethics. That said, if we think about how we might be condemned and criticized by future generations, we might feel some sympathy towards historical figures who were not too terrible.

While this is anecdotal evidence from my own experience, I have seen the dominant values change significantly over the course of my life. Behavior and language that was acceptable in my youth are condemned today. I recall, with embarrassment, some of what I did and said in my youth. These were well within the social norms of the time and usually things that I had been taught as being correct behavior.  Fortunately, I did not do anything that would be considered awful even by today’s standards, but they would certainly be justly criticized today. As such, I do understand how people can be shaped by their times and how challenging it is to question the values one is raised and enmeshed in. I also now understand how values can change over time so that what was once acceptable becomes condemned. Living and reflecting provides an excellent lesson in how social values shift. This experience has also made it clear to me that we are likely to be criticized and condemned by future generations for behavior we now consider acceptable.

For example, imagine that future humans broadly embrace the ethics of Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation and reject the exploitation of animals. They look back on the 21st century with disgust, condemning the widely accepted practices of eating meat, wearing leather, testing products and drugs on animals, and other misdeeds against animals. Arguments against exploiting animals are well known today and anyone reading this cannot claim ignorance of the existence of such arguments. If you are now a meat eater, you probably think this is morally acceptable. But, in this hypothetical future, most people would see this behavior as monstrous and wicked.

We can also imagine future generations who look at our treatment of the environment, our economic systems, and our opolitical systems as wicked and worthy only of condemnation. Even those who were not actively involved in these activities could, of course, be condemned as complicit. For example, (unless you are Jeff Bezos) you did not create the working conditions under which Amazon employees had to urinate in bottles. But if you have not been fighting against this abusive situation, then you might be considered complicit. Also, there are a vast number of evils in the world that you and I do not actively fight because we cannot: we do not have enough time or resources to fight or condemn every evil or wrong. The same was certainly true of people in the past.

Among the many people who might be condemned by future generations would be philosophers, including myself. As such, a future professor might need to research me and assess whether I should be condemned as a meat-eater, an owner of leather shoes and belts, and someone who not only purchased on Amazon but sold books through the company. This leads to the question of what should be done about Modern era philosophers who prove to have been racists (or otherwise morally defective, such as being sexists). This should, perhaps, be tempered by thoughts about what future generations should do about us should they find us morally problematic. In my next essay, I will endeavor to address this challenge

Historically, the modern era is usually defined as the time between 1500 and 1900. In addition to being an age of enlightenment and a time when science and philosophy flourished, it also saw the invention of racism. Most philosophy departments, including mine, have a Modern Philosophy class that covers philosophers such as Hobbes, Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza, Hume, and Kant. When I was a student, the focus was on the ideas of the philosophers and little, if anything, was said about them as people. For the most part, we’d learn when they died and where they lived.  In recent years, there has been more concern about philosophers as people. Whether a philosopher was racist, or sexist is now a matter of concern for professional philosophers, students, and even the public.  Addressing this concern requires both a definition of the concept of racism and determining when racism was invented.

While the dictionary provides a simple enough definition of “racism”, the philosophical concept is more complicated. For example, one must distinguish between passive and active racism. Active racism involves acting in ways to perpetuate and spread racism as well as engaging in racist activities. There are various degrees of active racism. A politician who encourages their base to embrace racism and who works to pass racist laws would be engaged in active racism, but so would someone who limited their activities to posting racist memes on social media. Passive racism also comes in degrees. A person might benefit from racism but do nothing significant to support it. Some even claim that failing to actively oppose racism would be a form of passive racism.

One must also sort out individual, systematic institutional and structural racism.  As a final example, there is even the matter of distinguishing between sincere racism and opportunistic racism. A sincere racist believes in racism while an opportunistic racist merely uses racism to their advantage without believing in the racism they exploit. Knowing what is in a person’s mind is difficult (see the problem of other minds) and thus distinguishing between a true believer and an opportunist can be difficult. In practical terms, the difference matters very little (if at all). After all, if your business was being robbed, you would not be overly concerned with whether the robbers were true believers in robbery as a way of life or engaged in robbery for purely pragmatic reasons.

As with any good definition, a definition of racism should not be too narrow (exclude things that should be included) or too broad (include things that should be excluded). It should also match our intuitions (although these can differ considerably). As you would expect, there is considerable debate over defining this concept, even among people who are debating in good faith.

One challenge particular to discussing racism during the Modern era is sorting out when the notions of race and racism were invented. While humans have obviously had cultural, regional, religious, and other prejudices since the dawn of humanity, what we today would recognize as a concept of race is a relatively recent creation.  Determining when racism was invented is relevant to sorting out whether a philosopher could be a racist in today’s sense of the term. After all, a philosopher could express biases and prejudices that resemble racism, but unless they did so after the invention of racism, then they would not be a racist in the current sense of the term. They could, of course, still be criticized for their prejudices and biases.

Some point to the Systema Naturae (1735) by the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus as the first academic use of this term. Linnaeus proposed the existence of four distinct human races. Since academic publications  are often behind the times, people were no doubt using this concept well before it appeared in an academic text. What might be the earliest application of “white” as a word referring to race in English law occurred as a response to Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676. In the American colonies, long standing Common Law precedents were overturned to distinguish white population from everyone else. This is also  key part of the backstory of white supremacy in the United States.

 In the 1500s, terms such as “white”, “race”, and “slave” were used by Europeans, but there is debate about whether these terms indicated racism in the current sense. One must be careful to avoid assigning current meanings to terms that had different meanings in the past. For example, the term “gay” has undergone radical changes in meaning since its origin in the 12th century when it meant “joyful” or “carefree.” If you read a passage about a “gay woman” in the 1600s, this might mean that she is (or was alleged to be) a prostitute. To say a man was gay during that time might be an accusation that they were a womanizer as opposed to noting their homosexuality. As such, if a Modern philosopher said something critical about a “gay man” in the 1600s, they would be criticizing his womanizing and not his sexual orientation.

That said, it is reasonable to believe the conceptual foundations of racism were growing in that time, even if the current language and concepts were not in place. After all, racism did not spring forth fully developed one awful day. While it might seem reasonable to point to the start of the Atlantic slave trade as the beginning of racism, it should be remembered that slavery is an ancient practice. While racism became a key part of the justification of slavery in the modern era, racism and slavery are distinct as a matter of historical fact. To illustrate, Aristotle contended that slavery was both expedient and necessary but did so in a context in which slavery was not based on race.  Aristotle can be justly criticized for defending slavery, but it would be anachronistic to accuse him of racism on these grounds.  So, it cannot simply be assumed that the current notion of racism was created at the start of the Atlantic Slave Trade. But one can certainly argue that it did.

Based on the above discussion, a European philosopher could certainly be a racist after 1676 and probably even earlier. But, again, we need to be careful when attributing racism to someone based on the words they use; we must consider what the words meant or implied at the time they were used. In the next essay I will at the subject of discerning racism.

MEWF BarbieIn my last essay I discussed TERFs (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists), with a focus on the seemingly odd alliance between TERFs (or “gender critical” feminists) and the far right. J.K. Rowling is, sadly, the most famous example of what her critics see as a TERF allied with the far right. While a TERF need not be a racist, there is a category of feminism that often is, the MEWF (Minority Excluding White Feminist). While a TERF (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist) excludes trans-women because they claim they are not women, a MEWF does not claim that minority women are not women. As such, their exclusion is not based on gender but on race. In some cases, this exclusion arises from ignorance rather than malice.

While we Americans like to claim that “all men are equal”, the United States is deeply segregated by race and economic class. For those who might doubt this, it is easy to acquire what is admittedly anecdotal evidence: walk around your neighborhood and see who lives around you. Then consider the diversity (or lack thereof) of your friends. If you have kids in school (or are a kid in school), look at their classmates. While you might be an interesting exception, you will most likely find that your neighbors and friends are similar in race and economic class. If you have kids, they probably attend a school where most other students are the same race and economic class as you.

This segregation entails that people will often be ignorant about people outside of their race and class. Thus, a typical white feminist (especially if they are in the upper class) will know little about the challenges faced by women of color (and women of lower economic classes). It is easy for such white feminists to be MEWFs out of innocent ignorance—they are simply unaware of problems that women of color might face as people of color. An obvious example is racism—while a white feminist has heard about racism, it is not something they experience in the way they experience sexism. One can criticize white feminists for such ignorance and argue that they have a moral obligation to correct their ignorance, but one should be sympathetic when it comes to the ignorance of others, since we are all ignorant in many ways. This is, of course, not to forgive willful ignorance. But there are other factors than ignorance that can make a person a MEWF, such as a difference in priorities.

A white feminist can be aware of the circumstances faced by women of color but be focused on their own concerns, making them a priority. It can be argued that it is rational for people to give priority to their problems, given the limited resources most of us have. As an analogy, if someone can barely afford to buy food, it would be unreasonable to criticize them for not feeding others.  One might also look at in terms of an airplane analogy: you should get your own mask on before helping others. This would certainly apply in analogous emergency situations in which not helping yourself first would make you unable to help others. An analogy could also be drawn to specialists—an oncologist should not be condemned for not being a general practitioner. After all, the oncologist is kept quite busy with cancer cases.

As such, perhaps it makes sense for white feminists to focus on matters that impact (or interest) them and ignore those that do not. This can easily result in their excluding women of color and of different economic classes. A feminist executive, such as Sheryl Sandberg, would tend to prioritize the problems of female executives and be less concerned with those faced by the women who work in the companies run by these executives. But there might be grounds for condemning such exclusion as selfish or too self-focused.

Rachel Cargle offers an interesting criticism of toxic white feminism, focusing on what she dubs “white supremacy in heels.” Cargle notes that white feminists can often be guilty of tone policing, spiritual bypassing (the notion that racism can be eradicated by “love and light”), the white savior complex, and centering (making it all about them). Other authors, such as Rafia Zakaria and Kyla Schuller, are also critical of white feminism. It must be noted that these criticisms are not attacks on white feminists for being white, but a criticism of the ideology of white feminism. This sort of distinction is often willfully ignored by those who make bad faith arguments that critics of racism are racists. This is on par with saying that a critic of corruption must be corrupt because they are criticizing corruption. Despite this discussion, some might find the idea of white supremacist MEWFs to be absurd. After all, feminism is often cast as “woke” and white supremacy is usually seen as inextricably linked to misogyny. But a look at American history shows how well white supremacy and white feminism can mix.

One often unknown fact of the women’s suffrage movement in the United States is that some of its members were members of Women of the Ku Klux Klan (WKKK). While pushing for the right of women to vote, their push was for white women and they wished to exclude Black women. A reason for this was that the votes of white women could be used to counter the votes of Black men. As might be guessed, the KKK tended to be in favor of this—resulting in unexpected consequences.

The women in the suffrage movement, including the white supremacists, developed political skills and networks that could be employed for other purposes—be they for progressive causes or to advance racism. Interestingly, a split developed between the male KKK and the female WKK: while both held anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic, and racist views, the WKKK embraced the idea of women’s rights and argued for what would seem to be some progressive positions, such as pay for housewives. But these rights and entitlements would only be for white, native-born Protestant women. One could say they have a good claim to being the original MEWFs. While this might all be dismissed as “ancient” history (the early 1900s), this form of MEWF is alive and well. As an illustration, consider Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene.

While it might sound odd, Boebert and Greene should be considered feminists (there are many versions of feminism). They both obviously believe that women have the right to vote, serve in political offices, and hold power. Boebert also believes in the right of a woman to divorce her husband. They also clearly think that women have the right to harshly criticize powerful men (such as Joe Biden), as opposed to being demure and polite ladies who defer to the patriarchy. Not long ago, these views and their behavior would have been seen as shockingly radical by the right—they would have been savagely condemned and criticized. Now they are mainstream feminists about these views, but feminists, nonetheless. After all, Boebert and Greene obviously disagree with most of the misogynistic views expressed by the right—they are not going to go back to the kitchen to make sandwiches for men. But their behavior and words make it clear that they are MEWFs. Greene seems to embrace white nationalism and Boebert seems to have a bond with white supremacy. Thus, the tradition started by the WKKK continues to this day. Rush Limbo, with his talk of Feminazis, was almost not wrong.