“Race” doesn’t determine ideas

When I read this morning about a teacher who allegedly declared, “All white people are racist,” I was initially disgusted. Then I thought perhaps his comments were being taken out of context; perhaps he was making an intentionally absurd statement to illustrate logical fallacies, in the style of “All Cretans are liars.” I still don’t know for sure, but a Christian Science Monitor article takes the statement at face value and yet merely says it’s “reigniting discussion about how difficult it is to talk about race in school classrooms.” Normally the CSM is more respectable than that.

Racism is the attribution of superiority or inferiority to one group of humans compared to another, on the basis of allegedly genetic characteristics. Holding that all members of a group hold a despised idea is an example of racism. Claiming that about one’s own group adds logical contortions.

The teacher, named James Coursey, supposedly said: “Am I racist? And I say yeah. I don’t want to be.” That’s not necessarily a self-contradiction. I can believe something which I don’t want to believe (e.g., that someone I admire did something terrible). But it’s an endorsement of racism. Saying “I am a racist” means “I adhere to the idea of racism.” If we take the reports at face value, Coursey explicitly endorsed racism.

Normally you’d expect a teacher to be damned for that with a ferocity normally reserved for violent acts. Yet we’re told that “he could have just worded his argument differently,” that it was just a “rookie error.”

For some people, “racist” is just an insult to throw at others. It has no clear meaning. Perhaps that’s how Coursey was using the term, and he was expressing his hostility toward himself and white people in general. That wouldn’t be an endorsement of racism, but it would be an example of it, and it would be really poor behavior for a teacher in front of a classroom that included members of his target group.

Some people doubtless want Coursey fired for that statement. I’d need to know more before agreeing with them. In itself, that suggests professional incompetence; he doesn’t understand basic logical fallacies. But perhaps he was trying to teach them about fallacies and was too subtle. Perhaps it was an aberration in an otherwise good record. What concerns me is that some people think his words have value as reported.

Race is a biologically invalid idea. There’s more genetic variation within so-called races than between them. People fall on a continuum. Claiming people are honest or dishonest, hard-working or lazy, fair-minded or racist, on the basis of supposed racial membership has no foundation in reality.

All white people are people. That’s the only universally true statement I can think of about them. Claiming that people’s looks determine their ideas is irrational and promotes senseless hostility.

Postscript: Here’s an inspiring story that demolishes the notion that racism is an inborn, unalterable trait. It’s also a reminder that talking to people does a much better job of changing their minds than insulting them.

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