According to the Oxford English Dictionary, racism is “the unfair treatment of people who belong to a different race; violent behaviour towards them”. At face value this definition is wholly unobjectionable and bears no trace of intersectional bias. Yet closer inspection demonstrates that this definition is ambiguous. The ambiguity revolves around the qualifying adjective “unfair”.
The fairness of an institution or individual’s actions largely depends on whether they act or are being acted upon. A young African-African male with a spotless criminal record legitimately feels subject to unfair treatment if he is followed by shop-owners in Manhattan whenever he wears a hood and baggy pants. The average shop-owner, however, has fair grounds to view customers with this sociological profile as posing a higher security and property threat.
Likewise, suitors are entitled to feel victims of racism if their race or ethnicity plays a role in them being rejected as romantic partners. Nevertheless, there are many individuals who for different aesthetic and psychological reasons are more strongly attracted to members of a given race or ethnic group. Is it right to label individuals as racist for preferring brunettes over blondes or black partners over white partners?
The question is not entirely academic. Given the social consensus that racism is morally opprobrious it is urgent to define racism in a way that does not include reasonable and rational actions. Otherwise, righteous individuals will be tarnished as “racists” in ways that do not serve justice and that undermine society’s goal of delegitimizing racism.
A definition of racism that satisfies this goal is the following: "Discrimination of individuals of another race or ethnicity for characteristics not relevant to their performance and/or actions."
According to the Oxford English Dictionary definition, the relative scarcity of Mexican-American players in the NBA draft could be impugned as “unfair” and thus, as racist. According to the definition offered above it is not racist for an ethnic group whose average physical stature is below average to be underrepresented in the NBA.
Likewise, feeling physically or romantically more attracted to members of a given race or ethnicity is not racist whenever the ability of one’s partners to provide erotic and emotional satisfaction is a function of their race and ethnicity.
In the example involving the Manhattan shop-owner, the behavior of the latter would not be considered racist since baggy pants and hoods are disproportionately popular among juvenile lawbreakers.
At this point, it is important to clarify what race-based discrimination does amount to racism according to this definition. The shop-owner mentioned above gets a pass from the charge of racism for following black customers wearing baggy pants and hoods. Nevertheless, if the shop-owner follows black customers regardless of their attire and age, the behavior involved is clearly racist. Likewise, if the shop-owner doesn’t follow white males wearing hoods and baggy pants, the behavior involved is unequivocally racist.
Accepting this definition would help society to grapple more intelligently with the phenomenon of disproportionate police violence against young black males. The average police officer does not shoot at random. Split-second decisions to pull out revolvers and fire reflect the nature of police officers’ professional experience. For most police officers on patrol, potential threats are disproportionately posed by young inner-city African-American males. This clarification is crucial, since it highlights that race is just one of four demographic variables triggering police violence. Since elderly suburban black women are entirely spared by police violence, it is hard to argue that police officers target their victims on racial grounds.
As long as American inner-city economic & family structures and schools draw a disproportionate number of its young males to lives of crime and violence, police officers will have rational grounds to engage in profiling - and would do so regardless of the race of inner-city residents.
A rational redefinition of racism matters. Unless the bounds of racism are soundly delimited, society will be tempted to end racism via moralizing lectures and racial quotas rather than by changing the underlying social, cultural and educational dynamics that perpetuate differences and inequalities among races.
Rafael Castro is an Italian-Colombian graduate of Yale and Hebrew University who teaches English and Civic Education in a German public high-school. He can be reached at [email protected]