Prejudice is not Inequality

One of the most common arguments I’ve seen that there is no racism in a country is that marginalized minorities are as racist as the majority. Usually it’s cast in terms of legal ramifications: in the US blacks hate whites to the same degree that whites hate blacks, so there can’t really be any racial inequality in the US, and in particular any effort to reduce racial inequality is just anti-white racism.

The evidence I’ve seen that’s relevant to this idea bears this out. Every ethnic group has bigots who think members who marry someone of another group are race traitors. Most marginalized minorities engage in some sort of ethnic terrorism; African-Americans are a big exception to the rule for reasons I don’t want to get into. If I were into lit crit, I’d talk about how in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, both fathers are aghast at the interracial marriage, but I’m not because for example it could be that very few black Americans had problems with interracial marriage even in 1968 but the media thought many did.

But obviously, there is racial inequality. In the US, blacks’ and Hispanics’ poverty rate isn’t three times this of whites because they’re lazy or intellectually inferior. It’s not even just the legacy of past racism, since 63% of blacks born in the bottom quartile stay there compared with 32% of whites.

The traditional antiracist explanation is privilege: the majority group is privileged over the minority group, so its racism carries more power. This is good at describing how majority racism from above is more powerful than minority racism from below (see here for what “from above” and “from below” mean). But the explanation boils down to “there’s inequality because there’s inequality.”

A better way to go would be to compare the situation to segregation. Technically, under segregation, whites and blacks were equal. But segregation served to preserve and even magnify existing inequalities, which were in favor of whites. In a situation where there is rough equality, racism doesn’t create any inequality, as long as it doesn’t become genocidal. The same can be said about segregation, identity politics, the old boy network, local school funding, and protectionism (EU farm subsidies starve Nigerians to death, not Americans).

It’s true that even without active enforcement of equal rights and active combating of racism, racial inequality would eventually disappear. So what? Given enough time, natural selection would make all humans immune to AIDS; the only people who seriously suggest eliminating AIDS research are HIV-AIDS link deniers (see e.g. Tara and Orac). Much of the point of having modern governments is having a pace of social and technological progress faster than this of 10th century Europe.

The origins of inequality are not in racism, nationalism, or militarism, but in being better at them. Books like Guns, Germs, and Steel cover the historical origins of inequality. Racism helps perpetuate it, as do economic systems that reward privilege over merit, but trying to say that the existence of minority racism invalidates the existence of inequality or that the existing of inequality invalidates this of minority racism makes little sense.

2 Responses to Prejudice is not Inequality

  1. C. Schuyler says:

    “One of the most common arguments I’ve seen that there is no racism in a country is that marginalized minorities are as racist as the majority. Usually it’s cast in terms of legal ramifications: in the US blacks hate whites to the same degree that whites hate blacks, so there can’t really be any racial inequality in the US, and in particular any effort to reduce racial inequality is just anti-white racism.”

    Is this is a common argument? Usually the right of center argument I run into is just that white racism has dwindled so much in importance that it is no longer all that important. This has a certain plausibility on first glance, b/c racism pretty clearly has lessened in America since, say, the 50s (the Critical Race Studies movement to the contrary).

    But then there’s Katrina, and the nasty anti-Ford ad, and a host of other data to remind us that racism retains a good bit of its poison. So that argument seems to me to leap from a reasonable premise to an unfortunately mistaken conclusion.

    I agree with the rest of your post: of course, racial bigotry is anything but unique to whites, but it still matters more coming from whites, given their greater avg. power.

  2. C. Schuyler says:

    I meant to write: “has dwindled so much in importance that it is no longer all that harmful.” My mind isn’t quite as tautological as some of my hasty scribblings might suggest.

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