Denial of individual humanity
The problem with racism is the collectivism—the tribalism—the treatment of people as mere tokens or representatives of their races. That, as it turns out, is a profoundly appalling and consequential attitude to take. Treating people as mere tokens of their race literally dehumanizes them. Why? Because it ignores, often accompanied by great contempt and hatred, the very feature that make a person human: their unique ability of reason, to think things through, to think for themselves, to direct their own lives.
We humans are defined by our rationality, Aristotle said. He wasn’t wrong. What distinguishes us is our ability to reason, not just in the sense of making a logical inference here or there (lots of animals can do that), but in the sense that we can reflect deeply and at length about important decisions, the direction of our lives (past, present, and future), our assumptions, and our values. Our ability to think things through, to step back and take stock: that is the nature of human rationality. And that is the thing that makes us human, and that is the thing that makes us each unique, and that it is the thing that is dismissed without a thought by actual racists.
Racists, probably without quite realizing it, make some assumptions when they encounter a member of a disdained race: “This person is merely a representative of that race. His uniqueness does not matter. His difference, his thoughts and values, his humanity—none of that matters. He’s fungible, interchangeable, equally worthy of contempt as any other member of his race.”
Our rationality, as I described it, is also—as I maintained at length in an essay on this blog—equivalent to our free will. It is also what gives us each our dignity, that which commands a basic sort of respect, no matter what. The reason a person should never, no matter how terrible his crimes, be discarded like only so much trash, is that we wish to respect that feature shared by all the rest of us. A mass murderer may be as awful a person as you can imagine, but no decent, sober person in the light of day wants to torture him to death; to do so would be to, as it were, discard his dignity, his humanity itself.
So we can say just as well that a racist essentially denies the freedom and dignity of members of hated (or disdained) races.
At this point, I should acknowledge that people can be more and less racist. For example, there are people who generally hate members of other races, but make exceptions for religious or political allies or personal acquaintances. They can also be merely biased, tending to discount any individuality and uniqueness of members of a disdained race, but rarely doing so wholly. A complete racist, by contrast, couldn’t imagine being friends with the disdained or hated race; one might as well be friends with a slug or a rock, or any other thing that is undifferentiated and worthless. The race per se is dehumanized for the thorough racist.
Let’s talk a bit about what “dehumanizing” means, because I think it’s very important to understand, if you want to grasp the awfulness of racism. Perhaps the best way to get a bead on it is to consider some clear examples, of all sorts.
- the slaveowner who cannot tell his slaves apart and thinks the only bad thing about beating a slave to death is the loss of labor.
- the medieval lord who naturally thinks of his serfs as mere animals, like deer or foxes, that are part of the land, and that may be disposed of however he pleases.
- the soldier at war who so thoroughly hates the enemy that he delights in any enemy deaths, no matter how unjustified.
- the 19th-century factory owner who quite literally does not care whether the workers live or die, so long as more are available to keep the operation going.
- the totalitarian leader driving the only expensive vehicle on the city streets, pleasantly regarding of all the people around him as “workers” or the “proletariat” or “das Volk,” making plans for punishment of dissidents and hated groups in concentration camps.
- the KKK member, the new-Nazi, the identitarian, the race purist, the Stormfronter, the troglodyte who utterly and completely hates some race (or several races), who thinks of them as subhuman vermin to be exterminated or, at best, to be avoided at all costs.
- the true zealots, i.e., those who are so committed to a political ideology or religion that people who do not share it are so far beyond redemption that the zealots literally cannot care whether the heretics (or benighted, etc.) live or die.
There are other categories as well. These aren’t the only sorts of people who dehumanize others. Another sort of example would be the criminal sociopath, a genuine misanthrope who lacks a conscience and views all other people as mere tools to be manipulated. Another still would be a truly vicious criminal gang, which views everyone unassociated with the gang to be little more than weak prey.
What all these people have in common is a failure to evaluate others as individuals with a unique mind and the inherent freedom and dignity that go with them. Instead, the dehumanizer regards them as mere instances of some hated, despised, or in any case undifferentiated group: they are mere slaves, mere serfs, mere enemies, mere workers, mere proletarians, mere n‑‑‑‑‑s or Jews, mere heathens, mere [fill in the blank with an epithet for some utterly despised political enemy].
Note that we can have a similar dehumanizing attitude toward groups that it is more popular to hate, such as criminals, pedophiles, and—let’s not forget—racists.
So why is racism wrong?
Let’s recapitulate a few things. Racism begins by regarding people of the despised race as mere members of that race, i.e., lacking any individual identity worthy of consideration. When racists do not consider others’ individual identity, that means they have dehumanized them.
It is the dehumanization aspect of racism that leads racists to do horrible things to others, when they do, things that their victims (unlike, for example, convicted criminals) certainly do not deserve. Notice, this is true of all sorts of dehumanization. We are restrained from particularly brutal, inhumane behavior against people whose shared humanity and equal dignity we acknowledge. If we acknowledge someone’s shared humanity, we are generally (except perhaps under duress and other extraordinary circumstances) incapable of flouting that dignity. We might punch someone we respect in the chin, but we won’t torture him. We might force a disliked employee to work overtime, but we wouldn’t callously put her life in serious danger or consider enslaving her. We might teach or report respected citizens in a biased way, but we wouldn’t literally propagandize them or force their minds. There are some things that we simply do not do to our fellow human beings, if we accord them basic dignity.
The denial of a person’s humanity—which racism implies—has of course enabled all sorts of inhumane treatment, throughout history, as trivial as snubs that indicate “you mean nothing to me” and as profound as genocide. We might also point out that racism is profoundly and unnecessarily unfair, i.e., it singles out people by race—a feature they didn’t choose—for poor treatment. That, I suppose, is so obvious as not to need much further argument. It is, again, that denial of a person’s humanity that makes such poor and unfair treatment possible. And that comes back to collectivism: the racist regards the despised race as mere undifferentiated representatives of their race, their individual minds being unworthy of consideration.
The audience of this little essay is not racists; I wouldn’t expect racists to be persuaded by my arguments. But maybe some of them will read this. I imagine that the obviousness of the considerations of the last two paragraphs are such that any such racists would be unlikely to be moved to reconsider their racism. After all, no doubt most racists have somehow been confronted with the fundamental inhumanity and unfairness of their attitude. But they can’t bring themselves to care.
But I have something else to say to (and about) such people. There’s another sort of reason to think racism is wrong that might, perhaps, give some racists pause: racism is extremely bad for the soul. Here I don’t mean anything religious (although you can apply the notion in that way if you wish). I mean that racism involves denying your shared humanity with other people who very obviously possess every bit as much dignity and freedom as you. When your hate, contempt, or utter indifference to some other people is so profound that you are incapable of crediting their humanity, something surely must have died within yourself. You, the racist, become the sort of person who is instead capable of monstrous, inhumane behavior. Denial of humanity in others can lead you to inhuman acts. That is how your soul is at risk, so to speak.
Moreover, the collectivism or tribalism that lies at the root of your callous attitude toward others of a disdained race can and probably will be turned on other classes of people. Who knows where, for you and those you influence, it will end? Just for example, the KKK did not stop at hating blacks; they also turned their ire toward Jews, Catholics, and Catholic immigrants (maybe especially the Irish). The roster of groups hated by European fascists (beyond merely the Jews) was also large. The ability to regard all members of any one group as an undifferentiated collective of “vermin” opens your soul up to more of the same, compounding the madness. This will not just harm others, if it does; but it will certainly harm you, the racist, deeply.
If that means nothing to racists, there’s nothing that anyone can say to them, surely. But it ought to give them some pause.
I can imagine a committed, acknowledged racist—such people exist—responding that they would never dream of “monstrous, inhumane behavior” toward anyone of the race they hate. They simply want to have nothing to do with them. If you talk to neo-Nazis, some of them do say things like that: the Holocaust (if you can get them to admit that it happened) really was horrible. They just don’t want to live in a society with Jews or blacks in it.
So let me be clear: I’m not saying all racists are like the very worst racists. As I said earlier, I know there are gradations of racism. Also, I am not trying to establish an obvious conclusion (that racism is wrong) cheaply, by assuming (falsely) that everyone who deserves to be called a “racist” is capable of participating in lynchings or genocide, for example.
But that isn’t how my argument works. My argument is that racism does, in its most extreme or pure form, thoroughly dehumanize its targets. It is that dehumanization—that failure, to some degree or other, to acknowledge our shared humanity and equal dignity—that makes it possible for racists to do some truly awful things.
The thing that makes racism so awful is the dehumanization. As I argued, that is a feature it has in common with other of the most brutally destructive forces in human history: slavery, serfdom, dehumanizing the enemy, abusive labor practices, totalitarianism, zealotry, and true extremism. It’s also similar to sociopathy and gangsterism. It’s all about denying others their basic humanity: failing to regard them as having independent, unique minds worthy of basic consideration, minds that give us, all of us humans, the free will that gives us our equal dignity.
I wrote this essay primarily to clarify these issues to myself. I don’t pretend to be a race theorist, but as with many topics in philosophy, I don’t let that stop me from trying to clarify and test my own thinking on a topic. I hope you found this interesting and, whether you think I am right or wrong, I welcome your feedback below.