Racism Clarification

Stentor clarifies what he meant when he said racism is objective. In light of the clarification, his argument becomes far more robust. He explains that what he meant is that “One important source of information about those effects is the testimony of purported victims.” That’s of course true: it matters what members of the possibly oppressed group say; for example, continuing with my example of Jews, when a conservative Jew says that criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic, it deserves a serious response at least initially.

Stentor says, and I completely concur, that instances when the effect on the minority group is subjective, subjective impressions are all there is.

Levy’s interpretation of my argument comes close to being accurate with respect to the particular example I used in my post — Native American mascots — due to the nature of the alleged benefits weighing in favor of keeping the mascot. Defenders of Chief Illiniwek claim that the Chief honors Native Americans. Honoring, though, is an act whose success can only be judged by its subjective impact on the intended honoree — that is, does the honoree feel honored or not. So the honest testimony of Native Americans is the only evidence we have to go on for this particular issue.

The main available defense against racism charges is not applicable here, so asking native Americans if they’re offended is the only recourse.

In many circumstances, one can show non-discrimination, or insufficient evidence of discrimination. An employer who’s called a racist or a sexist can ask for proof of differential treatment, or alternatively produce positive proof of equal treatment. “In the last three years, 12% of my hires have been black against a 12% black talent pool, and a black employee makes on average the same as an equally experienced white employee” tends to be a trump card.

In the case of native mascots, it’s impossible to make a good argument like that. Some people analogize native mascots to Viking mascots, but a) the Vikings are an extinct civilization, and b) the descendants of the Vikings are widely known to be normal human beings with modern rather than Viking moral codes. The employment discrimination analogy to the Viking analogy isn’t the example I gave above, but “I don’t give men or women any pregnancy leave, so I’m not a sexist.”

Alternatively, returning to the example of Jews, one can try impeaching the testimony of the members of the minority group. It usually involves a double prong: first, noting that e.g. criticism of Israel is acceptable in light of Israeli actions, and second, showing that Jews tend to analyze anti-Semitism irrationally (for example, most American Jews live in areas without local anti-Semitism, so they underplay domestic anti-Semitism and instead totalize Israel). The first is often sufficient on its own, but sometimes the second is necessary to reinforce it.

And again, in the case of mascots, or for that matter other examples of public mockery, this doesn’t really apply. Showing that native mascots are legitimate free speech isn’t enough; the response to that should be, “You’re also free to vote Republican, just as I’m free to try convincing you not to.” One has to show that the mascots represent the chosen tribe, or even all native Americans – the two tend to get conflated – accurately. And, again, they don’t, at least not according to what people who know something about native Americans seem to be saying.

4 Responses to Racism Clarification

  1. Phil Thrift says:

    When you get down to it, the whole idea of mascots is pretty stupid.

    In high school I was a Spartan; in college, a (Brown) Bear. I don’t know what living Spartans ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sparta#Modern_Sparta ) would think of someone not related to them in any way taking their name, but I don’t worry too much about what bears would think. (Maybe I should.)

    Animal mascots probably will remain OK since animals don’t complain about someone taking their identity. If dophins are really the smartest animals, then the (Miami) Dolphins might have some worries. Perhaps animal mascotting is like a throwback to when paleolithic peoples put on the skins of animals for magical purposes.

    Taking the identity of a people class is tricky. You used to be able to take the name of a tribe.


    A problem is that many of these schools/teams chose a name of a tribe that were not themselves. What is the percentage of Choctaws at Mississippi College, for example? Could this be a case of looking at Choctaws as somewhat subhuman (like animals)? Not looking at them in a bad way of course, but in a good way, like Bears, Tigers, etc.

    The (Fighting) Irish (Notre Dame) is an interesting counterexample: the people who started the school actually were Irish. Why did they promote themselves by doing that? (I have thought in that case it might be due to an inferiority complex.)

  2. SLC says:

    The argument over team nicknames is particularly apropos in this area relative to the local beloved professional football team, the Washington Redskins (perhaps more appropriately known as the Deadskins). This is obviously offensive to Native Americans but their objections have been given short shrift by the previous and current owners of the team, and of course fascist columnists like Bob Novak.

  3. Blair says:

    Along with the nicknames, we should abolish the reservation system, which keeps tribal members on reservations without casinos mired in poverty and perpetuate the 19th century notion that American Indians are somehow incapable of integration into modern society.

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