Originally published by Capital on July 10, 2020.
Author: Dimitrina Petrova
The best textbook on anti-racism is the lived experience in a society that condemns racial or ethnic prejudice.
The concept of racism is broad and polysemous (with many meanings). There are many attempts to define it in the social sciences, philosophy and psychology. It encompasses beliefs, views, attitudes, even whole ideologies (i.e., all sorts of mental states of individuals or groups), but also individual and group behaviours, social practices, institutional policies, etc. The common denominator of the many meanings of racism is the recognition that groups of people belonging to a “race” or a similar fictitious entity are inferior compared to the group in which one belongs.
Nowadays, biological racism, such as Nazism, is rare. More common is so-called cultural, social, or everyday racism that ascribes to the member of the allegedly inferior group a different psychology or culture, rather than a different biology. Furthermore, as I wrote two decades ago in my widely cited work, “The Denial of Racism” (2000), in our times the main manifestations of racism consist in a set of justificatory rhetorics (of which I have analysed about 15 patterns).
The reason for this is the success of antiracist movements after World War Two, which means that outright explicit racism has been condemned, made socially unacceptable, and pushed down, below the surface of self-conscious beliefs. Moreover, most of us sincerely believe to be free from racist prejudice, whereas white supremacist movements, at least for now, remain on the periphery of social life.
From the point of view of human rights law, however, “racism” is not a valid term at all, being such a broad, vague, insufficiently defined concept, unlike the strictly defined legal term “racial discrimination” (defined in Article 1 of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination), or the terms “direct and indirect discrimination on racial or ethnic grounds.” Without going into explanations of these complex legal terms, I will only note that they refer to certain conducts (less favourable treatment on account of race/ethnicity, in the case of direct discrimination); or certain policies, rules, measures, or practices having a disproportionately negative effect on people from the respective race/ethnicity, in the case of indirect discrimination. Notably, the law does not distinguish between “racial” and “ethnic” as protected characteristics. This difference may still be valid, albeit decreasingly, in the field of anthropology.
The distinction between “racism” and “discrimination based on race or ethnicity” is important because racism, insofar as it encompasses mental phenomena (views, beliefs, opinions, etc.), is not punishable, thankfully. We have freedom of thought. Whereas discrimination, which is the manifestation in action of such views, is prohibited and punishable. In the last decades, I have often explained, for example in respect to police racism towards the Roma, that we, human rights defenders, are effectively fighting for the police to become hypocritical. It would be great if police officers had a deep-seated belief that Roma are equal and that their lives matter as much as their own. But people’s minds, including police officers’ minds, change rather slowly; until minds change, the Roma will be beaten and insulted. Therefore, we cannot have Roma rights depend upon the thoughts of police officers. We outlaw and make punishable here and now certain behaviours, not certain thoughts. For the time being, let police officers think whatever they want about the Roma, but let them behave, hypocritically, as if they believed the Roma were their equals in dignity and rights. Let them, therefore, be so kind as to refrain from violence or other abuse targeting Roma people, and, anyway, let them behave properly at all times, regardless of whether a person is Roma or not.
Needless to say, let us do our best, in the meantime, to evolve our minds in the direction of the idea that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights, as enshrined in Article 1 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Let the education system make its contribution, so that at least the next generations are a little less infected by racist and ethno-nationalist prejudice. But for a child, the best textbook on anti-racism is the lived experience in a society that does not tolerate racist behaviour and condemns racial or ethnic prejudice. It is for this reason that, although I often taught in universities or trained people in seminars, most of my efforts since 1989 were not about enlightenment, but about creating and enforcing legal norms fighting racism and similar kinds of prejudice (sexism, misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, ageism, religious intolerance, etc.) with the means of anti-discrimination law.
“Institutional racism” is one of many concepts attempting to reflect the set of more or less unconscious attitudes and corresponding policies and practices that are so deeply ingrained in the organizational culture of an institution that they are “simply” its modus operandi. The most influential definition is that of Sir William McPherson, from his 1999 report on the investigation into the death of Stephen Lawrence, a young black man killed by London police. Institutional racism, according to McPherson, is “the collective failure of an organization to provide an appropriate and professional services to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin.” This type of racism manifests itself in “processes, attitudes and behaviour that amount to discrimination prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness, and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.” In this connection, let me recall that in anti-discrimination the law, the finding that discrimination occurred does not depend on the motivation of the perpetrator; this related to both direct and indirect discrimination, and regardless of whether the discrimination is based on race, sex, sexual orientation, or other prohibited ground. When a judge finds discrimination, they do not look for anything at all in the mind of the perpetrator (in contrast to what they would do in criminal law); they only look at the outcomes of the action – whether people with a protected characteristic have been put at a disadvantage compared to people without that same characteristic.
The misconception that racism is a predominantly American phenomenon is still widespread in the post-communist world. This is an echo of official communist propaganda, according to which racism was seen in narrowly biological or, at most, anthropological terms, and the reference was exclusively to blacks in America and South Africa. Of course, outside the communist world, racism and racial discrimination were always perceived as global phenomena, as evidenced by the 1965 UN International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. In the 1990s, when we in Eastern Europe began to talk about racial discrimination against the Roma, the authorities were genuinely shocked and explained to us that since the Roma were also of the white Indo-European race, there could be no racism in this case. I recall this simply as a historical curiosity; this view – that different human “races” really exist – is so ridiculous that it does not merit any further comment. With more success, we can perhaps look for “races” in paleo-history, before the final victory of Homo Sapiens.
And so, racism is widespread, exists in all countries, and manifests itself in relation to different ethnic or tribal groups specific to each society. By the way, darker skin colour is not always a sign of belonging to a disadvantaged group. Everything is relative. In Kenya, for example, Somalis who have lighter skin are subject to racist attitudes. Not to mention albino people, who are extremely vulnerable in many African countries, to the point of being ritually killed. In Malaysia, too, officially discriminated Chinese can have lighter skin colour than the constitutionally privileged Malays. And in America, “black” has long been more of political self-determination, because there is a vast continuum between darker and lighter skin tones, not boundaries. This makes possible the so-called passing. Philip Roth’s character in the novel The Human Spot is a rather fair-skinned Negro who, however, successfully passes for a Jew and becomes a prominent academic. When he is about to marry a female Jewish academic, he ends all communication with his much darker mother, but still tells her that on the last Sunday of each quarter (or something like that, I don’t remember exactly) she is allowed to go and sit on a certain bench at the central station, and if any children are born to him, he would walk them by, on condition that she never shows any sign of knowing him.
Although racism has been and still is present in all societies to date, the content of racist beliefs and attitudes is not enough to explain their persistence in the last few centuries, despite the very deep cognitive preconditions of prejudice in the very evolutionary structure of the human mind. We are conditioned by natural selection to divide into groups, us vs. them, to ascribe “essences” to these groups, and to consider ourselves and our group superior. Today’s evolutionary psychology, along with brain science, offers vast amounts of experimental evidence for this. But the question, from a sociological point of view, is why it is that exactly blacks in America and Roma in Europe are the ones subjected to racism and racial discrimination, and not, for example, white Europeans.
Reflecting on this question would lead us to understand that the modern geography of stronger and weaker ethnonational groups is quite closely mapped onto the history of advanced capitalism. Historically, there has been a more or less distinct overlap of racial and ethnic characteristics with economically weaker positions. For this reason, the racial and ethnic stereotype is usually a blend of character descriptions and specific economic descriptions; blacks, respectively Roma, do not work hard, do not want to study, are not interested in a successful life, do not know how to save money, and the like. In Bulgaria, with regard to the Roma, even total absurdities are claimed, by supposedly learned people, for example, that for Roma, children are not such a super-value as they are for Bulgarians, hence Roma parents are not interested in how their children perform in school, resulting in poor prospects in their work life in future. However, any serious researcher of Roma culture will confirm that for Roma, children are the supreme value in their lives, and that this attitude is stronger than among the surrounding majority.
It is important to emphasize that the phenomenology of modern racism consists mainly of forms of denying one’s own racist prejudice and accusing ideological opponents of absurd extremes. Nowadays, people strongly prejudiced against disadvantaged ethnic groups, such as many Trump voters in the United States, are often impressed by attacks on so-called “political correctness”. By this latter term, critics of equality usually mean the real or imagined extremes of equality advocates. They present “political correctness” as a great social evil, as self-censorship and the suffocation of freedom. They are tormented for being unable to openly express offensive or contemptuous opinions about people from disadvantaged groups. They worry that someone may throw out of the teaching curricula the white men Shakespeare, Milton and Chaucer and replace them with Afro-rap and hip-hop. We, who want real equality, are not concerned about such phantasmagorias; we are concerned that, despite the supposedly victorious “political correctness”, people of different skin colour or ethnic origin continue to be disproportionately abused, oppressed, exploited, and killed. Until these real facts persist, let everyone think whatever they want, but let them treat all people as equals. Long live hypocrisy!