Racialism and racism

Huffington Post, 2015: Racism and Racialism Are Different

Wikipedia, the lede for Racialism:

Racialism is the belief that the human species is naturally divided into races, that are ostensibly distinct biological categories. Most dictionaries define the term racialism as synonymous with racism.[1]

This is fascinating. The meaning of a term, and its synonyms, depend on context. This inspired me to write this page, because I find the statement about “most dictionaries” to be suspect. The reference is to a book by Chester L. Quarles (2004), Christian Identity: The Aryan American Bloodline Religion. McFarland. I have often pointed out that references in the lede is a sign of POV conflict on an article. Whatever is in the lede should clearly be established in the article itself, and no references are needed. But an editor pushing to include something in the lede will cite a reference, and claim that it’s sourced and should not be removed.

What is in the source? The reference does not give a page number. Naughty, naughty! However, it is a search for “racialist synonymous with racist”. The book is mostly talking about “identity groups,” which may be race-based, or based on other factors. One p. 67, after discussing distinctions between racism and racialism, has:

In most dictionaries, the terms “racist” and “racialist” are pretty much synonymous. While racism is described as a discriminatory practice, racialism is described as “a doctrine or teaching without scientific support that claims to find racial differences in character, intelligence, etc., that asserts the superiority of one race over another, or others, and that seeks to maintain the purity of the race, or races.” It is clear, however, that right-wing purists separate these terms in their publications.

To purists, racialism is simply a racial preference and a racialist is merely one who wishes to associate primarily with members of his own race. The racist, on the other hand, is often a hater, with severe prejudices and extreme bias against other racial groups.

Notice how the lede, which should be rigorously neutral, has collapsed “prety much synonymous” with synonymous. Further, the purpose of the author here is not to establish these as synonyms, and he is actually distinguishing the words, but … what he ascribes to “right-wing purists” is arguably racist, and not intrinsic to racialism as it was long understood. Racialism does not necessarily involve a racial preference, but those with a racial preference may certainly be racialist as distinct from racist, as they define the term. It is a term of high opprobrium, and those who might think that race is a biological reality — which is the origin of racialism, not the claims about “racial differences” in themselves — are understandably irate when called “racist,” without the hatred that they associate with the term.

I have an African daughter, and encountered racism in a surprising place, but, in fact, it was a racialist expectation, subtle, and those afflicted with it would have been horrified to be called racist. But they were racist, in that they had different expectations of my daughter than they’d have had if she had been “white,” and the result was discrimination against her.

The collapse of racialism with racism makes it much more difficult to address. Racism is to be disempowered, but the transformative response to racialism is education and exposure to diversity. If people wish to associate with what those believe are “their own kind,” that is properly within their freedom of choice, with limitations as required for fairness. I.e., if one’s job is public service, that trumps the freedom of association rights.

Coercive education will be resisted, prolonging conflict and maintaining polarization. The human spirit insists on freedom.

So what about dictionaries? That was an off-hand comment, not a survey. What is actually in dictionaries?

Merriam-Webster online:

Definition of racialism
a theory that race determines human traits and capacities; also racism

That is, in some contexts, “racialism” might be a synonym for “racism.” But the words are defined differently.

Definition of racism
1 : a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race
2 a : a doctrine or political program based on the assumption of racism and designed to execute its principles
b : a political or social system founded on racism
3 : racial prejudice or discrimination

There is a fascinating note on the history of the word, which, like racialism, apparently was not used before 1900. The note goes on to point out the foolishness of a certain usage of dictionaries, quite like this was used in Wikipedia:

Dictionaries are often treated as the final arbiter in arguments over a word’s meaning, but they are not always well suited for settling disputes. The lexicographer’s role is to explain how words are (or have been) actually used, not how some may feel that they should be used, and they say nothing about the intrinsic nature of the thing named by a word, much less the significance it may have for individuals. When discussing concepts like racism, therefore, it is prudent to recognize that quoting from a dictionary is unlikely to either mollify or persuade the person with whom one is arguing.

The Wikipedia lede, then, focuses on the word, not the thing or concept the word points to. And what that is varies with the speaker or writer.

We need to know what “race” is, as well:

Definition of race
1 : a breeding stock of animals
2 a : a family, tribe, people, or nation belonging to the same stock
b : a class or kind of people unified by shared interests, habits, or characteristics
3 a : an actually or potentially interbreeding group within a species; also : a taxonomic category (such as a subspecies) representing such a group
b : breed
c : a category of humankind that shares certain distinctive physical traits
4 obsolete : inherited temperament or disposition

“Stock” refers to genetic similarity.

Something is obvious to me here. Back to the definition of racialism: “a theory that race determines human traits and capacities.” “Race” refers to genetics, then, “stock.” It is obvious that structures that support, say, intelligence, require genetic provision of the mechanisms. The idea that behavior is primarily determined by genetics is called “hereditarian,” and I suspect that racialists are generically hereditarian. But as an extreme position, it’s preposterous, i.e., the opposite position is “environmentalism,” which, with intelligence, is presented as the idea that environmental conditions (which would include education) . It is obvious that environment also has a strong effect, and so the scientific question would not be A or B, but how much A and how much B.

Back to the Wikipedia racialism article, they quote W.E. DeBois:

In 1903, W. E. B. Du Bois said that racialism is the philosophical position that races existed, and that collective differences existed among such categories, the races.[citation needed] He further stated that racism required advancing the argument that one race is superior to other races of human beings. In In My Father’s House (1992), Kwame Anthony Appiah summarized Du Bois’s philosophical stance that racialism is value-neutral term and that racism is a value-charged term.

Since the word racialism only is found in 1902, it’s clear that W.E.B Du Bois was making a clear distinction. The idea that race is a biological reality is not intrinsically racist. I know of no other word for the relatively value-free meaning, so what I’m seeing may be an example of linguistic facism, the systematic deprivation of some class of people of language that could be used to describe what they think. Instead, it is all collapsed to racism.

Today, some anthropologists and geneticists point to studies that suggest racialist beliefs are both compatible and incompatible with modern population genetics.[clarification needed][2][3][4][5][6][7][8]

First of all, “skeptics” will focus on “beliefs.” Racialism is an idea, a concept, and there can then be racialist beliefs, but it is not, in itself, a belief. The Wikipedia sentence is amazing for an encyclopedia, totally confusing and unclear. What do the sources say? And what is the source for “both compatible and incompatible” or was that synthesis from someone too lazy to actually cover what is in the sources.

As usual, Wikipedia ontology can be astonishingly primitive. In any case, this edit created the unclear language. The prior language was:

Today, some anthropologists and geneticists point to studies that suggest racialist beliefs are incompatible with modern population genetics.[clarification needed][2][3][4][5][6][7][8]

The editor was, in fact, pointing to an alleged case of sources not supporting the article claim. Without researching those sources, this is what happens when editors have a belief. They see it in the sources! The edit summary was:

(Definitions and differences: none of the links say they are incompatible, nor that racial categories or labels for populations are unsupported)

True? Who cares? This is Wikipedia, where reliability is an unfunded mandate, nobody is responsible.

Without putting too fine a point on it, (1) race as a biological determinant of behavior is pretty much dead in the water, scientifically, it has become fringe; “race” is not well-defined except as a social reality, i.e., what people think and how that affects many environmental conditions. It is likely that human genetics are sufficiently similar, overall and on average, that environmental differences loom far larger. (2) there remains debate on the issue, and there is research being done. The sources cited generally supported the original text, but this had been handled very sloppily, it was weasel text, not specific, using a pile of sources to make a point about “beliefs,” which isn’t what most of those sources were about. (3) because identification of “race” depends on visible markers, it seems to have a reality, but studying how much of that is real and how much is mere appearance is difficult.

Judgement on this is, at present, highly political, which is damaging to science. Calling a hereditarian researcher “racist” does not promote the development of scientific knowledge and consensus, it hinders it.

2 thoughts on “Racialism and racism”

  1. Cannot find the DuBios quote this citation is taken from.I checked the texts of both The Souls of Black Folk and “The Talented Tenth”, the only two writings DuBois produced in 1903, to no avail. Wish their was more information.
    However, I can provide this quote from Race and Racism by Tzvetan Todorov (from Theories of Race and Racism, Edited ByLes Back, John Solomos, 2000).

    “I shall adopt the distinction that sometimes obtains between ‘racism,’ a term designating behavior, and ‘racialism,’ a term reserved for doctrines. I must add that the form of racism that is rooted in racialism produces particularly catastrophic results; this is precisely the case of Nazism. Racism is an ancient form of behavior that is probably found worldwide; racialism is a movement of ideas born in Western Europe whose period of flowering extends from the mid-eighteenth century to the mid-twentieth.”

    I think this explains the difference quite nicely.

    1. The meaning of a word is not an absolute, different writers may be expressing different meanings. In practice, for most, racism does refer to behavior, and specifically to emotional response: aversion, hatred, contempt. And yes, to some extent this is likely rooted in a sometimes “natural” xenophobia — which may vary with environment, to be sure. I used to write about “racism” as the belief that race is real, i.e,. a biological reality, indicating some crucial and meaningful difference. But this is more what “racialism” seems to have been coined or adopted recently to represent: ideas of race reality that attempt to avoid hatred and “superiority.”
      I worry about neat “explanations” that may fail to capture human variety. When people deny being racist, they often mean “I don’t hate.” Yet they may still believe that race is a meaningful classification and may draw operational guidance from it, and I saw this in real life with my Ethiopian daughter, who simply looks beautifully African.

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