The Roots of Racism

What makes racism possible?

Posted Sep 10, 2012

In a few days, I’m going to be flying to Cleveland to accept the 2012 Anisfield-Wolf award for non-fiction for my book Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others (St. Martins Press, 2012). Formerly nicknamed the Black Pulitzer Prize, the Anisfield-Wolf award was established in 1935 by Edith Anisfield Wolf to “recognize books that have made important contributions to our understanding of racism and our appreciation of the rich diversity of human cultures” (for anyone who’s interested, the ceremony starts at 6PM on September 13th, and will be streamed live at

Apropos of this occasion, I’m taking a break from my series of postings on the problem of free will, to discuss the phenomenon of racism (drawing on some themes that are developed in much greater detail in Less Than Human).

It’s obvious that a person can’t have racist attitudes unless he or she believes that there are such things as races. So, to understand racism, you need to understand the concept of race.

There are two notions of race: a biological conception and a folk-conception.  The present-day biological notion of race has nothing to do with the so-called “scientific” racism of the past. Nowadays, biologists use the term “race” to describe populations with a high level of genetic similarity. Races in this sense are likely to be small, isolated, highly inbred, populations (for example, the Amish people).  Because this notion of race is based on genetic similarity, and similarity comes in degrees, it follows there are no sharp dividing lines between races.  In fact, the biological (more specifically, genomic) idea of race is best seen as a rough-and-ready shorthand for talking about gene frequencies rather than a taxonomic scheme describing kinds of people.   

However, when people talk about race they almost always have the folk-conception in mind (although both scientists and the general public often conflate it with the biological conception).  The vernacular meaning of “race” is quite different from its biological meaning. In the vernacular, when one person describes another as being a member of a certain race, they are not pretending to be making a claim about that person’s genetic make-up. 

So, what are they talking about? 

Ask people, and they’ll often say something like this: “When I say that two people are members of the same race, I mean that they look like one another.”  The idea that members of the same race resemble one another is very widespread and intuitively compelling.  The only problem with it is that it’s dead wrong. 

Consider the fact that any two people resemble one another in all sorts of ways.  They might have similar body mass, height, eye-color, complexion, hair color and texture, tone of voice, and so on.  In light of this, it’s vacuous to say that members of the same race resemble one another.  I think that what people who say that members of a race are similar to one another really have in mind is something like this: “Members of the same race resemble one another in more ways than members of different races do.” But this doesn’t work either.  Michelle Obama and the late Barry White are ostensibly members of the same race, but does Michelle really look more like Barry than she looks like, say, Ann Romney? 

If your knee-jerk response is, “Of course she does!” I urge you to think again, because your response suggests that you are in the grip of a powerful illusion. Did you evaluate all of the observable features of Michelle, Barry, and Ann before you came to your conclusion?  Of course you didn’t. You considered only very few traits—primarily skin color.  If you think this through you’ll realize that if it’s true that overall visual similarity is the basis for assigning people to racial categories, it might turn out that Michelle Obama is a member of the same race as Ann Romney, but not a member of the same race than Barry White!

There’s also another reason why equating race with a certain sort of appearance just can’t be right.  It’s known as “passing.” The Nazis were horrified by the fact that many Jews looked just like Aryans, and poured exorbitant amounts of money into research seeking to identify a biological marker (assumed to be in the blood) that is unique to Jews.  And racists in the US were (and, sadly, still are) alarmed by the fact that there are African Americans who are physically indistinguishable from European Americans. So, even virulent racists tacitly admit that a person’s race isn’t determined by how they look.  In the folk-conception, appearance is diagnostic of race, but it’s not identical to it.

In the end, both Nazis and North American racists looked to a person’s ancestry to determine their race.  This strategy was based on the bizarre idea that race is carried by something that is found in bodily fluids--especially blood--and thereby transmitted down the “bloodline” of descent.  The Nazis enjoined Aryans to “keep their blood pure” by avoiding intermarriage with Jews and members of other ostensibly inferior races. And the notorious “one drop rule” in the American south stipulated that having a single black ancestor (i.e., a single drop of “black” blood coursing through one’s body) was sufficient to render one black.  Earlier, in 15th century Spain, “purity of blood” laws were enacted to exclude Jews from public life.

These notions reveal something very important about the folk-conception of race—the idea that it’s what you are on the “inside” that makes you a member of a certain race. On this view, even if a person were to radically alter his or her appearance by undergoing cosmetic surgery, modifying their hair, and darkening or lightening the color of their skin, they would remain the same race as they were before.

This way of thinking reflects a deeply entrenched  feature of human psychology. Over the last few decades, psychological research has demonstrated that human beings are natural born essentialists. We carve the natural world up into kinds of things (philosophers call these “natural kinds”) and imagine that what makes something a member of a natural kind is a hidden essence, a mysterious inner something that’s shared by all and only members of the kind and which makes them members of the kind.

Racial thinking proceeds in exactly the same way. We are inclined to conceive of races as populations that are defined by the possession of a shared essence that all on only members of the population share. Being black, say, isn’t primarily a matter of how a person looks—it’s a matter of what a person is

Of course, this is all a baseless fantasy.  Neither species nor races have hidden essences that make them what they are. In the case of racial thinking, it’s not only baseless—it’s also dangerous, because it lays the foundation for racism.

So far, the idea that races are essentially different from one another hasn’t involved any evaluative component. The idea that all black people have something in common that no white person shares, and that all white people have something in common that no black person shares doesn’t entail anything of moral significance about either group. However, the idea that another group of people are not of our kind situates them as what social psychologists call an “out-group.”  When this happens, powerful psychological biases are likely to come into play. We develop an “us and them” mentality that leads us to consider these others as a homogeneous mass rather than a group of individuals, and to think them as our moral inferiors.

The combination of essentialist thinking with outgroup bias makes for a particularly nasty cocktail, for we not only think of the outgroup as having morally despicable characteristics, we also think of these characteristics as essential to them. This explains why racist beliefs are so difficult to dislodge. Even if a person’s behavior doesn’t conform to a negative racial stereotype, there is a tendency to assume that these dispicable traits are somehow latent in them, just waiting to be realized.

These considerations suggest that if we are serious about combatting racism we should not be celebrating racial diversity. Instead, we should be concentrating our efforts at undermining the very idea of race.  It is probably true that a tendency towards psychological essentialism is part of our nature, but natural tendencies can often be modified. 

Let’s all give it a shot!