Why "Racism = Prejudice + Power" Is The Wrong Way to Approach the Problems of Racism
Critical Race Theory is a popular pass-time among my comrades on the radical left who ascribe to various positions within the broad political ideology of identity politics. Since I'm a Marxist, or at least a Marxian, it's largely been something I've ignored. This is because for the most part it has appeared, looking in from outside the social circles where this particular family of ideas have currency, to be little more than a self-serving rhetorical tactic of petit-bourgeois academics seeking, out of narcissism, to claim for themselves and certain of their peers some of the political capital owed to the working class and won by them through hard graft during the civil rights movements of the fifties and sixties. The basic tactic as I see it is that Theorist A looks on the problems of some segment of the proletariat to whom he is peripherally related via an essentialized category established by historical capitalist precedent and Theorist A claims that rather than the disadvantages owing to oppressive economic structures, the actual oppressive structure is something else which is specifically in place to target whatever group Theorist A can make a case for his or her own membership of. This move is then co-opted by non-members of the cohort as a further disenfranchisement of the proper class consciousness, and all turned on its head as a condescending way to tell working class folks that they're really the oppressors in society, rather than the victims of the Capital that has been so kind to the afforementioned theorists in their cozy endowed fellowships and well funded "activist" groups, funded primarily by the tax breaks given to capital so that it can spend more of itself extracting surplus labor from the workforce. No One Is Innocent. But I digress.
Out of this argument falls various alleged systems, the most commonly referenced being "The Patriarchy" and "Institutional Racism." These systems are then used as watch words whereby the theorist gains attention for his or her segment of the proletariat and by association co-opts a little of their plight for him or herself. It's bourgeois narcissm, and As I said, I largely ignore such ideas because their influence in the world is largely limited to academia.
The rhetoric of these folks has no real tactical impact on the world because this narcissism more or less limits their grasp of the world to their own slice of it, and their slice being universities and activist circles among the more incoherent left, their opinions don't shape much policy-wise beyond the rather childish realm of academic micropolitics. In other words, unless someone is interested in playing the academic politics game, this particular political claim doesn't matter at all because it never comes into play in the larger economic world. There is, however, one bit of leakage from this world into the larger political sphere that does cause me a bit of consternation and it's that cross contamination that I'm going to address here.
I'm speaking, of cours,e about the bizarre stipulation by Critical Race Theorists and self described "Anti-racists" that Racism is the confluence of Racial Prejudice and Institutional Power. Or, to put it in the more pithy slogan form that is mostly favored by the people who use this definition "Racism = Prejudice + Power." This is an idea that appears to be reaching a sort of critical mass among the non-academic left and is endanger of derailing a good portion of radical activism and being extremely divisive among groups that ought to be united against the common enemy of global capital. I will argue that in fact this definition is counterproductive politically and unsound philosophically and as such ought to be eliminated from discourse by the left.
First, though, a bit of history.
As near as I can tell, the formulation "Racism = Prejudice + Power" originated in a book by Pat Bidol in 1970. Titled "Developing New Perspectives on Race," in it Bidol explicitly makes the formulation as stated and then uses this definition as the basis for an argument that in the United States Blacks cannot be racist against whites, they can only be racially prejudiced against them. This makes an important connection that matters as far as this particular nonsense is concerned, which is that this stipulated definition exists as an excuse to defend members of racial minorities against accusations of racism and it has always existed for this reason. The definition was largely popularized by Judy Katz, who referenced Bidol explicitly, in her 1978 book "White Awareness" which presented a course of counter-racist training for organizations. The book was highly influential and through it the formulation, for those who were searching for such a tool with which to deflect accusations of racism, gained popularity.
Which brings us to the present day, more or less, where the slogan has achieved a sort of quasi legitimacy by virtue of having been repeated so often. Of course, it's of absolutely no use to anyone for anything except what the slogan was intended for initially, and even then it's a very poor tool. Nevertheless, when reading over the tossed out thoughts on race by the left wing of the technocracy in particular, it remains as a sort of gospel despite the fact that as far as I can tell, the arguments for it are either very thin or even non-existent. In the Katz book, for example, it is purely stipulated and the only argument given for it is that without the component of power, any definition of racism looks exactly like prejudice. Why the formulation "racism = racial prejudice," which is much more consistent with the general usage of the term, is problematic is left unexplored by Katz and by all the theorists I have found who have adopted the definition.
As for why it's a problem to take this stipulated definition as gospel, well that requires a little unpacking. To begin with, it's clear that the victims of racism, by and large, are members of racial minorities and those cases where racism has a material negative impact on whites are extremely rare. The case might be made that even if the definition is wrong then who cares? I think there are problems on multiple fronts. In brief, 1.) The sloppiness of the definition and the arguments in their favor give ammunition to the right to attack leftist criticisms of racism; 2.) It excuses racism between racial minorities; 3.) It is divisive between working class whites and working class racial minorities because it creates the false impression that their disadvantages are something other than economic and saying to working class whites that combatting inequality is not something that benefits them and therefore disenfranchises them as a group; 4.) It obfuscates the locus of power attributing to race what can only be attributed to class regardless of race.
I will address each of these problems in turn, but in order to see that these aren't just problems that we have to live with in order to understand the nature of race in American politics and the global economic system, it's first necessary to show why the definition is wrong. To begin with we have to ask what it is that gives a word it's meaning.
Semantics and Semiotics in Brief
A word is a sign. Exactly how a sign acquires meaning is studied in the field of semiotics and in particular in the discipline of semantics by philosophers, linguists and semioticians. There are many different theories about how semiosis, or the process by which a sign becomes meaningful, takes place but on one thing most modern theories of semantics are in agreement and that is that the connection between word and meaning is conventional and arbitrary. There is no ultimate reason why the word "racism" as it is said or written means what it does. Put another way, its meaning is what it is solely because that's what the group of people who use the word understand it to mean. Or, as Ludwig Wittgenstein said, "...the meaning of a word is its use in a language-game." Descriptive lexicographers have been using this approach to discover and define the particular meaning of English words since Samuel Johnson published his dictionary in the 18th century and supported each definition with quotes culled from the corpus of English literature where the words had been used.
Taken a step further, it's important to also note that meanings are not fixed, nor are they monolithic. Language occurs as part of what Wittgenstein referred to as the human "form of life." The Marxist linguist Valentin Voloshinov argued, as did Antonio Gramsci later, that meaning is as much a part of class and class struggle and the social formations inherent to them as it is to the wider group of language users. Which is to say that while a dictionary definition is certainly a good guide to meaning of a word, it must also be seen within the context of the social, economic, and political class of its user at any given time.
What this means for the slogan that "Racism = Prejudice + Power" is that it can't possibly be correct because the very idea that a meaning of a complex topic can be reduced to such a simple formula is completely misguided linguistically, and in particular for words so semantically loaded with complexity and political nuance as racism, prejudice, and power.
The complex of meaning
So what does "racism" mean? Wittgenstein would counsel that the right thing to do would be to look at how the word is used, to construct cases. Several pertinent ones follow:
1.) "That guy is a racist because he only hires whites."
2.) "That guy is a racist because he only hires blacks."
3.) "The killer was a racist who believed that whites are superior to blacks, and that his white superiority justified his killing of a black man."
4.) "Saying that all white people are racist is racist."
5.) "The Nation of Yahweh promotes racism."
6.) "The Ku Klux Klan are a bunch of racists."
The argument here is that all of the above uses of the word racist are meaningful and that most speakers of English have no trouble understanding what these sentences mean and would agree that they are accurate uses of the word. The reason that "Racism = Prejudice + Power" is an incorrect definition is that if it were true, only sentences 1, 3, and 6 are correct and that the other sentences are incorrect uses of the term. This argument can then become circular as it falls back on the stipulated definition to make its case. Enter the failure of the liberal arts colleges of the world to force undergrads to learn practical reasoning skills, and voila, you have immediate nonsense taken as gospel by far too many people who have it within their power to know better.
Of course one might argue that this is an educational matter and that in the face of the fact that most people have a broader definition of racism is akin to the widespread incorrect use of many words. The problem with that argument is that it assumes that there is a prescriptive element to language that can be deployed in a non-political way. However, the use of prescriptive language has a long history as a tool of political oppression. In particular it is a weapon of the upper classes to identify and marginalize lower social classes. As such no such argument can be value neutral. It is instead an example of political maneuvering and as such collapses in its attempt to defend the indefensible marginalization of some groups in favor of others because of race. As such, the argument itself is racist. Which is another correct use of the term.
Problems of Race and Power
Which brings me to the point of all this, which is that the formulation "Racism = Prejudice + Power" is counterproductive and even vaguely racist in and of itself and it is in this that problems listed above arise.
Again, the problems with the Racism Formula are as follows:
1.) It gives ammunition to enemies of racial reform
If you go to Google and search for the Racism formula and criticism, while you will find a few leftist critiques, by and large you'll find a great deal of mention among critics of things like affirmative action and other anti-racist legislative programs. Given that the argument's only real use is to defend such programs, that its patent ridiculousness is so obvious is clearly counterproductive. If a conservative like Melvyn Fein can reach for it in defense of an ultimately racist position such as the ones he takes in his book Race and Morality, then clearly the "Racism "Formula is not the help anyone on our side thinks it is, and it should therefore be jettisoned as unhelpful along with the primary problem that it's just bad thinking.
2.) It excuses or hides racism between racial minorities;
Clearly there are blacks who don't like latinos, asians who don't like blacks, latinos who don't like asians, and all kinds of different folks with a low opinion of indians. The fact that none of those groups have widespread access to institutional power does not make the racist attitudes of any of their members any less racist. Power is of course fluid, but even in the absence of it, it is clear that the problems between blacks and asian immigrants in many american cities are motivated by racist attitudes on both sides. To call them something else simply out of a desire to preserve the Racism Formula is patently ridiculous.
3.) It is divisive between working class whites and working class racial minorities
This is probably the biggest problem with the formula in that it takes groups that are natural political allies and pits them against each other. On the one hand, working class whites are resentful of the suggestion that they have some invisible power that is benefitting them all the time when from their perspective it seems like they're always struggling to stay ahead of the poverty curve. On the other hand it makes working class blacks suspicious of white folks, and while this suspicion has good reason, it would be much better for all involved if the real enemy (the bourgeoisie who employ both groups at oppressive wages) could be identified and pursued with the combined resources of organized labor.
Indeed, racism historically has been a tool used by capital to oppress the working class by dividing them. One only has to look at the history of the Irish in America to see it in action. Working class Irish immigrants, themselves victims of xenophobia and prejudice were given the tool of racism by the political establishment in the lead up and aftermath of the civil war, and they used it in order to get a leg up in American society. The result was an entrenched racism in working class Irish communities of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and persisting in a real sense up to the present, that further hurt the chances of blacks as slavery ended and still keeps the sons and daughters of many Irish immigrants firmly in the working classes when, had the two groups worked together, their numbers gave them a good chance at upsetting the established economic order. Instead the status quo was preserved, the bourgeoisie got to keep it's wealth, and the proletariat continued to suffer.
4.) It obfuscates the locus of power by attributing to race what can only be accumulated by class regardless of race.
Most importantly, the problem with the Racism Formula is that it misconstrues the nature of power. All power is ultimately economic. Political power, institutional power, police power, military power, all of these are a function of the underlying economic structure that supports it. Its uses and the extent to which an entity possesses power in a capitalist system is inextricably linked to its ability to manipulate and accumulate capital. The notion of power that the Racism Formula uses is somewhat different. It asserts power as being a sort of social mechanism that the dominant social group, in this case whites, wield exclusively. Put another way, the Racism Formula assumes that if one is not white one has no access to power because power is monolithic. This is a necessary corollary to the definition's sole purpose for existing, ie, to excuse racist actions and attitudes among racial minorities.
That power is not exclusively social and is not monolithic is demonstrated quite easily. In a fair fight between two equally matched men each man has a fifty fifty chance of victory assuming a stalemate is impossible. Give one man a weapon and he has more power over the other man because all else being equal, the advantage of the weapon assures the victory of the armed man. The unarmend man must do as the armed man says or die. Call this the fundamental principle of power and it is a model of how all power works. In a capitalist economy, all power therefore becomes capital because any one with sufficient capital, meaning the members of the bourgeoisie, can leverage their economic resources to give them the advantage in any such contest, and as a result assure their victory.
It would seem then that this bears out the Racism Formula since whites, as a group, have greater access to capital than all other minority groups combined. The problem is of course that people rarely act as a group, particularly where the accumulation of capital is concerned, and in the vast majority of real world power contests, it is individual pitted against individual not group against group. As such, there are circumstances where an individual member of a minority group does in fact have much more power than a member of another group, or even many such members. Oprah Winfrey, for example, is the wealthiest black woman in America She wields a tremendous amount of power as a result. In most contests, were Oprah Winfrey to be confronted with an overtly racist organization such as the Christian Identity Church, Oprah Winfrey would mop the floor with those scumbags because she's more powerful than they are. This mismatch of power doesn't make the Christian Identity Church any less racist than they are, nor does it make Oprah Winfrey racist herself. It simply shows that power is much more fluid and individualized than the racism formula acknowledges.
Another example, assume a white man hates black men and thinks they should be murdered if they have intercourse with a white woman. If he acts on those feelings, hunts and kills a black man because he believes that the man slept with a white woman, that is a racist act. In the exact opposite situation, it is ridiculous to say that a black man doing the same thing for the same reasons is not a racist just because the black man has less access to institutional power.
Power simply is not that static or monolithic. Nor is race. And prejudice is simply a motivating force. Putting them together accomplishes no real goal except the pernicious one of excusing bad behavior, and it does real harm to the cause it supposedly is in service of. For that reason it needs scrapping, and the next time someone uses it in your hearing, point them to this article. It's not going anywhere any time soon.