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My perception of discussions of racism is that they tend to suffer from equivocation errors.  Racism is a politically charged term that has many different meanings, and too often conservations reach this awkward point.  I’m going to attempt to break apart three separate types of racism, which are related but independent.  I don’t mean this analysis to be exhaustive; it’s merely one way of framing the discussion.

  • Intention Racism means either hatred towards, or bias against, members of a particular race or races.  Intentions are related to thoughts and feelings more so than actions, making it difficult to gauge.  Furthermore, intention racism is highly taboo in most public spheres, making it unlikely for intention racists to admit their true feelings.
  • Consequence Racism means acting in a way that hurts members of a particular race or races more than non-members of the races or races.  The action does not need to be specifically designed to hurt members of a race, and since race correlates with other demographic variables, almost every public policy is consequence racist in some form.  Making the tax code more regressive is consequence racist towards African Americans; making the tax code more progressive is consequence racist towards White Americans.  While intention racists are likely to be consequence racists, one does not imply the other.  People may favor consequence racist public policies for reasons other than their differential effect on races.  Less likely, intention racists may take actions that are meant to have racist consequences but in fact do not.  Actions that are highly consequence racist have a strong negative effect towards a particular race or races, and few other effects; the racist consequences of the action are the driving consequence of the action.
  • Racial Insensitivity means taking actions or making statements that members of a particular race or races find offensive.  The actions or statements need intend to offend.  So while intention racists are more likely to exhibit racial insensitivity, one does not imply the other.  Furthermore, taking offense depends both on an actor and an observer; racial insensitivity can be either unintentional or the result of misinterpretation.  Racial insensitivity and consequence racism generally overlap–to offend someone is to harm them in some sense.  However, consequence racism requires a differential level of hurt and racial insensitivity does not; thus, someone who is equally insensitive to all races is not consequence racist.  And someone can easily act in ways that are consequence racist while being highly sensitive towards all races.

I hope to use this framework to analyze specific examples of racism.  Right now, my feeling is that current discussions of race focus more than they need to on the first and third classifications, when the second is by far the most important.  Having said that, all three forms of racism are really bad.


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