How to Think About “Institutional” Racism

Monday, 08-16-2021


Not everyone who uses the term “institutional racism” is a fan of Critical Race Theory.  But almost everyone who uses the term is careless.  The term is highly effective for invective and for virtue signaling, but not very useful for analysis.

What’s “institutional” about institutional racism?  How is it different from ordinary racism?  One way people use the term makes sense; some make some sense; most are misleading.  We can discuss racism, but let us be more precise.

Meaning one.  Our institutions are racist because a lot of people in them are racist.

Certainly a lot of people are racist; certainly a lot of people aren’t.  Even if they all were, this way of speaking would commit the fallacy of composition, which is failing to distinguish individual from collective properties.  It’s like saying that the floor is square because a lot of its tiles are square, and so it still doesn’t answer our question:  What’s institutional about institutional racism?

Meaning two.  Some institutions are racist because they are all about the mistreatment of certain races.  For example, there might be an institution of enslaving or segregating black people.

Yes, this sort of thing can properly be called institutional racism.  But we no longer have slavery or Jim Crow, and it is difficult to come up with contemporary examples of such institutions.

Meaning three.  Some institutions are racist because even though they are not all about the mistreatment of certain races, at a given point in time they pursue policies and practices that might be described in that way.  For example, the worst teachers may be routinely assigned to the schools where black people live, or police may routinely stop and search black people just because they are black.

Certainly such policies and practices exist in some places.  However, it’s misleading to say in such cases that the institutions themselves are racist; the problem lies with the policies and practices.  After all, the cure for racism in teaching assignments isn’t to abolish the institution of schooling, but to abolish the practice of sending the worst teachers to disfavored neighborhoods.  And the cure for racism in stops and searches isn’t to abolish the institution of police, but to train police to stop and search only for cause.

Meaning four.  Some institutions are racist because they pursue policies and practices that have a different effect on different races even though they don’t target any of them deliberately.

As before, if there is a problem here it lies with the policies and practices, not with the institutions per se.  But is there a problem here?  That depends on what is meant by having a different effect.  Consider two cases.  Although I wouldn’t call a policy "racist" that for purely actuarial reasons denied health insurance coverage for sickle cell anemia, it would certainly be racially calloused, and ought to be reformed because it would defeat the social purpose of health insurance.  On the other hand, although black youths are statistically more likely to commit certain kinds of crimes, in this case the problem lies with behavior.  We don’t need to stop arresting people who commit crimes, although we ought to use the same standards for every race.

Meaning five.  Our institutions as a whole are racist just because the races are differently represented in the various social classes. 

Surely people are not to blame for being born poor, but it doesn’t follow that someone else is to blame for it.  The sheer fact of racial and class differences is not racist in itself.  The question is whether those with higher status use their advantages to prevent others from improving their lot, for example not paying poor black people (or for that matter poor white people) their just wages – and people should not be punished just because they have the same color of skin as certain other people who did bad things long ago.  The underlying principle is giving to each what is due to him, which is the definition of justice.  But shouldn’t we try to help people?  Sure.  Practicing a constant will to the true good of others, which is the definition of charity or love, is another underlying principle.  But make sure you don’t help in ways that really hurt, and make sure you don’t use “helping” as an excuse for injustice.

See also last Monday’s post:  Why Everything Is Racist Now


The Scientific Basis of Transgenderism

Thursday, 08-12-2021


Here is the evidence that trans women are really women, and that trans men are really men:  They say they are.  This has been confirmed in study after study.  So stop opposing Science, bigots.


Why Everything Is Racist Now

Monday, 08-09-2021


Some things, of course, are racist.  However, the Left’s claim that everything under the sun is racist is sheer delusion.

I don’t mean that the claim isn’t motivated.  Delusion is usually highly motivated.  Calling everything racist provides a convenient cover for the racially callous policies of the Left itself.  There are many such policies, such as trapping black kids in inferior public schools without opportunities to opt out.  But by far the most egregious example of racism on the Left is the promotion of abortion among blacks, on a genocidal scale, beginning with the eugenicist Margaret Sanger and continuing right into the present.

Besides serving as cover, claiming that everything is racist also serves as compensation, since guilt does funny things to people.  One of its effects is a raging compulsion to appear virtuous: “You racist!” cries the Left-wing racist.  Of course providing cover and providing compensation aren’t mutually exclusive, for the claim may do both of these things.  It may have other motivations too.  What it can’t be is a sane contribution to discussion.  You have to be willfully crazy to think everything is racist -- and at least willfully oblivious not to notice that one of the things that really is racist is today’s so-called antiracism.

We will always have a Left.  I am pretty sure, though, that we won't have a sane, non-delusional Left until progressives give up their love affair with making children disappear, especially the children of the dark-skinned and the poor.

In the meantime, whenever you see a guilty Leftist, do as you would do with a stage magician:  Don't look where he's pointing, but where he isn't.

Coming soon:

How to Think About “Institutional” Racism

Vice Is Unnatural

Monday, 08-02-2021


The nature of a creature is what it is for -- what fulfills its inbuilt purposes.  It is in the nature of a cyclops to have one eye, but in the nature of Odysseus to have two eyes.  If one of Odysseus’ eyes were put out, it wouldn’t give him the nature of a cyclops, because he wouldn’t be a cyclops, but an injured human.  Not even a defect in the genes that code for two eyes would change his nature, for otherwise we wouldn’t call it a defect.  Thinking that a defect implies a difference in essence is like thinking that a sick horse is a different species of horse.

Maybe that’s obvious, but when we have excuses to make, we tend to speak differently.  I am thinking of the adulterous man who says “Sure I have sex with women who aren’t my wife, but it’s just my nature.”  By his “nature” he means merely his desires.  All he is really saying is that he wants to have sex with women who aren’t his wife.  Adulterousness isn’t a nature, it’s a vice.

So what is his nature?  He is a rational animal of the sex that has the inbuilt potentiality for fatherhood.  Adulterous desires are unnatural, not in the sense that they are uncommon, but in the sense that they undermine this potentiality.  They weaken his children’s chances of being raised in the love of their mom and dad.  You can’t be good to your kids if you aren’t good to their mother.

My argument applies to all sorts of vices and disorders, not just the sexual kind that we are expected to applaud these days.  Sometimes we speak as though our defects give us a different nature.  Don’t blame me for getting drunk -- I can’t help how I’m made.  And sometimes we speak as though our defects are shared nature.  Sure I cheat people when I can get away with it -- it’s only natural.  No, and no.  To behave dishonestly toward other people, to let Whisky River take your mind – these are distortions of our nature, because ours is a rational nature.  That is what is meant in calling them vices.

Granted, every vice is more difficult for some people than others to avoid.  Maybe all your relatives were crooks; you would have found it more difficult to learn honesty.  Maybe your folks screamed and fought all the time; that would have discouraged learning patience.  Maybe you inherited predisposing genes for alcoholism; that would make drunkenness very tempting for you.  Even so, these things aren’t your nature -- they are misfortunes.  Misfortunes you should fight to offset.

To discourage you from making the effort would be callous and cruel.  Even in the name of diversity.  Even in the name of toleration.  Even in the name of self-esteem.


The Elephant in the Judicial Chambers

Monday, 07-26-2021


Popular writing about the Supreme Court focuses on the content of the complex rules that the Court fashions for deciding cases.  Conservatives criticize them for favoring the left, liberals for not doing so enough.  Far too few citizens notice the most conspicuous feature of the situation, which is not which way these intricately complex rules lean, but the sheer fact of their intricate complexity.

A few distinctions aid precision, but a thousand distinctions destroy precision.  Suppose, for example, the Court says that the constitutionality of a law depends on whether it correctly balances the interests of the plaintiffs against community standards, whether the burden on the plaintiffs is constitutionally significant, or whether the state interests advanced by the law are compelling.  As the late Justice Scalia remarked, interests, burdens, and standards of this sort are not mentioned in the Constitution, and needless to say, the document does not contain criteria for weighting significance or compellingness.  What then do these factors mean, and what is the correct way to balance or apply them?

Not even the members of the Court know the answer to that question.  Everything depends on their respective moods at the time each case is decided.  Not only does this inevitably politicize the Court, but it also encourages disputants to litigate everything, continually returning to the Court to see what they can get away with (or what they can keep other people from getting away with) this time around.

In this way, the law of the land comes to depend less and less on legislative judgment, and more and more on judicial whims.

Admittedly, legislatures encourage this sort of thing through imprecise legislation – which amounts to passing the buck.  But few had expected, when the Constitution was new, that it would be so easy for judges to magnify their importance.


Greater Than Ourselves?

Monday, 07-19-2021


It is commonly said that although devotion to a wicked cause is bad, at least it is good that the devotee is giving himself to “something greater than himself."

I have no interest in defending narcissism.  Closely examined, though, most of the things that are supposed to be greater than the self turn out to be either things less than the self, or else disguises for something about the self.

In the former category, for instance, some people feel small in the face of the Cosmos or the All, and so they worship that.  But although the totality of everything is bigger than the self, it is not greater.  In fact, it is less, for it does not even rise to the level of being a person.  Every single person in the created universe is a higher entity than the universe as a whole.  The mere agglomeration of life and death, animals and stars, harmonicas and pneumonia, pop concerts and yogurt smoothies, love, malice, lies, truths, pimples, illusions, and everything else is not the sort of thing that can love, know, or deliberate.  It doesn’t have hopes, aspirations, or disappointments.  It will never learn your name.  It can’t answer when you speak to it.  It’s not a who, but only a whopping big what.

As to the latter category, there are lots of examples.  How amazing that in adoration of our own reflections, we immolate not only others but ourselves.  The Nation may be merely a many-times-multiplied idol of myself; pleasure, an idol of my senses; fertility, of my animal powers; knowledge, of my intellectual powers; money, of my power; and power, of my will.  A friend has famously been called “another self,” but for this very reason, another person can also be an idol of the self.  Now any of these things may be good in themselves.  Some are very good; it is wonderful to have a friend.  But they are not good when turned into idols.

Needless to say, a good deal of what passes for the worship of God is really idolatry too.  Yet if only He is pursued properly, God may be the only thing truly greater than ourselves that we ever do worship.



Monday, 07-12-2021


One day in class, I commented to my students that scientists and other intellectuals fall into groupthink at least as readily as other people do, and I offered examples.

The hypothesis of continental drift is now generally accepted, but during the first half of the twentieth century, most geologists considered it ridiculous.  The natural historian David Attenborough tells a story of one of his college lecturers calling it “moonshine” and sneering at him just for asking about the idea.

Or take the hypothesis of global warming.  When I was young, I was taught that we are in danger of freezing in glaciers because the planet is cooling.  Now the young are taught with equal conviction that we are in danger of drowning in melted ice because the planet is warming.  Climatology is a notoriously inexact science, much more so than geology, and it is especially difficult to tell what is really going on with global temperatures because anyone expressing less than absolute certainty is squashed.

I suggested to my students that the great thing is not to follow the majority wherever it leads, but to follow the evidence wherever it leads.  Attacking those who present reasons to draw different conclusions is deadly.

Apparently the lesson didn’t take.  At the end of the same semester, one of the students wrote in his course survey that although I was a good teacher, he was giving me a poor teaching evaluation because I was a “climate denier.”