What is racism and Why the Tea Party is Not

The other day, I wrote a series of comments on a friend's blog about the nature of racism - as I was having a serious problem with his notion that the Tea Party movement is racist.  His comments helped me to think through the issue and better understand our different definitions of racism.  So I'm reposting some of my comments here:
I think we can define racism simply as a type of discrimination based on race. Discrimination is not in and of itself a bad thing. For example, I am very discriminating on who are my friends and who I trust to care for my kids. It is a stupid thing to discriminate based on inessentials, like race. It is an evil thing to promote discrimination of inessentials as law. That's why most racism discussions center on laws and regulations that are designed to negatively impact certain races.
But here's an important differentiation - its not just "negative impact" that defines racism, its legislation that is "designed" to "negatively impact" other races. There must be intent. Without intent, you merely have a law. Perhaps a bad law for other reasons, but not a racist law. So the poll tax and Jim Crow laws can be considered racist because history shows us that the intention for creating the laws were to keep blacks downtrodden.
If you want to show that the Tea Party is racist, you need to likewise show that their intent is to discriminate based on race.
He disagreed that a label of racism implies intent, so I elaborated:
By my definition of racism as a type of discrimination, I'm not sure I could agree that it is something un/sub conscious. The act of discrimination is conscious in nature. I differentiate that from prejudice, which is a conscious or subconscious bias toward some person, group, or class of things without knowing all the facts. You seem to favor prejudice by race as the definition of racism. I favor discrimination by race as the definition of racism.
The reason I favor the latter definition is that the former seems to overly broad and not all that useful. Certainly people have prejudices and they should be careful to eliminate them the best they can. But with your definition, almost anyone can be called a racist without recourse. I could say (and I don't believe this) "Curtis is racist but he doesn't even realize it". I think it cheapens the concept racist to include honest but real prejudices with insidious racial discrimination. Basically, it tries to lump simple biases that may not be consciously chosen with wicked mob lynchings, classifying all under an "evil" tag of racism. That does an injustice to those who may not even want their bias and an injustice to those who deserve the label of "evil" but have it watered down.
After writing this, I imagined some examples that seem appropriate here.  If racism is merely a bias toward or against another race, than any preference/bias/likes/dislikes of anything related to skin color/nationality/origin could be considered racism; a preference for Cuban music is racist, liking German food is racist, choosing sushi over spaghetti is racist, marrying a white woman is racist, or thinking that the Russian language is harsh is racist.  The whole idea that racism is slippery and insidious would make it applicable to everyone with any preferences.

Curtis asked in turn:
"The act of discrimination is conscious in nature."
How? I think that's an untenable position. We now have data that toddlers choose light skinned dolls over dark skinned dolls regardless of the race of the child. Are you saying that is a conscious decision even though toddlers have no conceptualization of race?
I'm not familiar with this research, but if true could be caused by any number of things.  But I seriously doubt this is a conscious decision and hence not discrimination.  According to OED, the definition of discriminate is "1. To make or constitute a difference in or between; to distinguish, differentiate. 2. To distinguish with the mind or intellect; to perceive, observe, or note the difference in or between."  It is in this sense that I use the word discrimination.  Making, constituting, perceiving, observing, and noting are all conscious processes. So no, I would not consider these children racist (discriminating based on race).  But according to his own conception of racism, they would be, which leads me a little bit confused by his question.

Curtis also asks:
"But with your definition, almost anyone can be called a racist without recourse."
If they're racist, then they should be called racist, no? And what recourse would there be? I don't get that part. It seems you have an idea of trying someone in court to determine if they're racist or not. I might be reading too much into it though.
Without recourse refers to the appeal to innocence.  If someone is labeled racist, how would it be possible to disprove that claim?  When the definition of racism is any prejudice toward a race, the answer is - you can't.  There is no evidence that would prove someone is not prejudice, because, as he describes it, the concept is slippery and insidious.  Even Curtis admits as much in the last paragraph of his post "So is there "evidence" or "proof" that the Tea Party is racist? No." If there is no proof they are racist, then there can also be no proof they are not racist, because you can't disprove a negative.  Once the label of racism is thrown at a person or a group, it is impossible to overcome that label.

That, I contend, is a improper way to define the term.  As I noted above, pretty much anyone can be described as racist according to his definition.  Any preferences toward one race over another, whether intentional or not, then you would be racist.  But if everyone is "racist", then I'm left with a big "So what?"  If everyone has these preferences, then everyone simply exists

The only idea I can fathom that would motivate this definition of racism is the possibility that biases and prejudices left unchecked could lead to discrimination. This certainly has some plausibility, especially given the anti-conceptual nature of much of our culture.  However, I certainly don't buy that certain biases and prejudices necessarily lead to discrimination.  There is a possibility, no more.  Individuals can consciously identify racial discrimination and reject it, even if certain biases led them to prefer one race or tradition over another.  They can prefer the culture of whites (or blacks), yet consciously choose not to discriminate against another race because they know its wrong.  They could judge each person they meet individually, as a man or woman, not a black man or a white woman or an Asian man or a Middle eastern woman or whatever their background may be.  Where would this situation fit in with his definition?  I don't know, but I would like to find out.

Based on all the evidence I've seen, the Tea Party is not racist.  There may be a few racists that support the group, but nearly every instance where racists have shown up to Tea Party events, the organizers have marginalized their voice or kicked them out.  The Tea Party did rise after Obama came into power, but only after he proceeded to push government spending beyond what even Bush was doing.  Most Tea Partiers were mad at Bush and the Republicans for their spending.  That's why the Tea Party refuses to identify with the Republicans.  Obama promised something different.  Instead, he gave us any even bigger debt.  Of the Tea Party supporters I've talked too, not one has mentioned any sort of intent to hurt or dis-impoverish blacks.  Not one has suggested that they dislike Obama because he his black.  They dislike Obama because he had the most liberal voting record in the Senate in 2007.  Maybe, just maybe, people dislike him because of that?  Perhaps the policies they advocate are because they are genuinely worried about our debt, not because they secretly want to hurt some group of people.  Perhaps they think and don't just feel.

I do offer limited approval of the Tea Party.  I believe they are a mixed bag, but mostly good.  They could really improve with a heavy dose of a philosophy respecting individual rights


  1. Just in case people actually follow the link you posted (Thanks!), I'd like them to realize the focus of my argument is how stealthy racism can be. There's a lot in the original post as well as the comments that may actually be more distracting that beneficial -- so identifying the main theme may help.

    Just to make clear: Even Curtis admits as much in the last paragraph of his post "So is there "evidence" or "proof" that the Tea Party is racist? No."

    I then immediately ask "Are there hints?" and reply in the affirmative. Circumstantial evidence shouldn't just be thrown out. :)

    And lastly, "As I noted above, pretty much anyone can be described as racist according to his definition." Yes you're exactly right. Perhaps in making my definition of racism broader, I needed to also point out that that definition would also "de-damnify" the term "racist." In our cultural lexicon, a lot of times being called "racist" can be worse than the Pope calling "anathema." While there are times when that is warranted, there are also many times when labeling something "racist" should be considerable simply adjectival, not damning.

    Perhaps we need a "Racism" that results in pariahs and a "racism" that is used for the majority of (my) cases?

  2. Anonymous3:39 PM

    BTW, show your Leftist friend Rand's definition of racism:


    It is the notion of ascribing moral, social or political significance to a man’s genetic lineage...

    Rand is of course right. Race should have no political significance. That means no anti-discrimination laws and no racial egalitarianism (which is what our welfare state is dominated by).

    Of course your Leftist friend has no problem with the government wielding guns to force people to hire blacks and Hispanics or to support their out-of-marriage babies; ie he has no problem with government wielding force against whites. But the Tea Parties are racists he says. What a joke.

    D. Bandler

  3. Curtis,
    If we are to have labels of racism, then they should be carefully defined. I hope my post helps with that need.

    D. Bandler,
    One of your comments is not showing up on the blog, even though I received an email notification that you did. Since I don't know if you deleted the first comment, I will only address the second. As a matter of respect, you should not put words into people's mouths. While Curtis is liberal, he may not have followed the philosophic principles to their roots. Please do not attribute ideas to people who do not express them or at least qualify what you say by noting that if he follows these ideas to their philosophic roots, this is ultimate conclusion. That being said, I also agree with Rand on the role of race in politics. There should be none.

  4. Anonymous1:32 AM


    Read his blog. He's a religious Leftist. Take a look at his latest post. Its his analysis of the sub-prime meltdown. Its egalitarian, neo-Marxist crap. The guy's main concern is "increasing disparity in income inequality."

    Also, did you catch his comment to you in his original post attributing racism to the Tea Party. One of the reasons for Tea Party racism he gives is because cutting taxes and government programs would have a greater negative effect on black people. That's his main concern. Lovely.

    The guy's whole political philosophy orients around wielding force. And notice something about him, while you are showing him respect in your conversation, he has no compunction calling Tea Party members racists. John, a tip. Leftists tend to be really crappy people. And miserable to boot.

    About my first post. It raised the subject of IQ scores. For that reason, my guess is that you wont post it. Objectivists have this fear of the IQ data for some reason. Blacks score lower. Pointing that out is not racism despite the protestations of the Left. But in the end it won't matter. Your Leftist friend will just cry racism no matter what. He's a racial egalitarian. You couldn't cut through the Rawlsian garbage in his brain with a diamond drill bit.

    But I'll conclude with this, we definitely need better definitions for what racism actually is. For example, is not finding a certain race's facial features attractive an example of racism. I'd bet Curtis would say yes; "subliminal racism" he'd cry, which is all the rage among Leftists.

    The term needs to be nailed down. I think Rand did a good job with it but more can be said especially with the part of "ascribing social significance" to race. In today's context, you can ascribe alot of social significance to race in many circumstances.

    Some Objectivist needs to tackle the subject of race and politics but alas, they are all too afraid to even raise the subject. Its disheartening.

    D. Bandler

  5. Yes, I'm a Christian. Yes, I'm usually pretty liberal.

  6. D. Bandler,
    I am well aware of Curtis's philosophic views and they are pretty clear cut the exact opposite of Objectivism. But I engage with him because he is honest and respectful to me, among other reasons. I ask while on my blog you do the same with respect to him.

    Yes, many (most) of things you say about liberals are true. But when dealing with specific people, I am far more limited in attributing ideas to them that they do not claim themselves.

    Why do you state that Objectivists are afraid of the subject? In general, most Objectivists have no qualms tackling unpopular positions. I would assume they simply have other goals that take their time. And didn't I just tackle this subject?

  7. I didn't even realize it until now, John, but not only did we go to HS together but we went to college together. Maybe together is a bit inaccurate since I don't remember seeing you at all those four years. :)

  8. I was only at SIUE for 2 years. I remember seeing you there once. I believe it was our Senior year at some awards ceremony, but I don't remember the details.

  9. I don't remember a whole lot. And it wasn't due to drugs, but for some reason my undergrad is remembered more as still photos than video type memories.

  10. "Objectivists have this fear of the IQ data for some reason."

    I'm going to call this out as baloney.