The Limits of Bigotry 1

What is and is not racism and bigotry?

When future historians write the story of the decline and fall of American society, no doubt there will be many causes cited - one hopes our explanation by way of Confucius might get a mention - but some (hopefully) far-off doctoral student will find ample thesis fodder in what amounts to a political autoimmune disorder: the modern refrain of bogus accusations of racism and bigotry.

Even in these august pages, our Gentle Readers are exhibiting some confusion on the point.  This is only to be expected, considering that the mass media has been suffused with lies on the subject for some decades.

As Rush Limbaugh famously says, "Words mean things," so it's incumbent upon our educational mission to clarify just what exactly we mean, and everyone else ought to mean but often don't, when we use these powerful and destructive words.  This is vitally important if we are to have any sort of sensible discussion: if you and I are using the same word to mean two different things, how can we even understand what each other is saying, much less reach agreement?  What's more, in what ought to be another Undeniable Truth, "Whoever sets the terminology of the debate has the power to set the terms of the debate."

So let's talk about racism, bigotry, and the truth of what they actually mean.

Racism in the Raw

Let's begin with a historical illustration:

They [Negroes] had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.

  - Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, writing the Dred Scott decision

In this era of inveterate political partisanship, can we at least agree on one thing: this statement, and the decision of which it formed an anchor-point, is a textbook example of both naked racism and bigotry?

We would probably also all agree that, while American citizens do have a First Amendment right to hold and even express such views, such a racist bigot has no place on the Federal bench.  There may possibly be a few judges today who feel this way, but there certainly aren't any that voice it out loud, and that's the way it should be.

What makes this statement racist, though?  There are three essential elements:

  1. It judges and categorizes people by race - that is, by an inherent genetic characteristic which they possess from birth to death through no contributing choices of their own.  Justice Taney referred throughout his opinion to Negroes as an entire category of people who were permanently defined by their skin color in those pre-genetic-test days.
  2. It makes a blanket characterization of all members of the race.  Justice Taney ruled that all Negroes were inferior to all white people.  He did not say that some blacks are inferior to some whites, a statement which is manifestly true, as is the opposite.  He simply made a sweeping generalization condemning a whole race to slavery.
  3. It has no basis whatsoever in fact; it is a lie.  Justice Taney doesn't even attempt to prove that blacks are inferior to whites, much less that every last one of them is.  He simply says that this opinion was fixed and universal, which even at the time wasn't so, and wouldn't prove anything even if it was.

Bigotry, Almost As Bad

There are other similar opinions which we'd roundly reject today, yet which have nothing to do with race or racism.

The chief distinction in the intellectual powers of the two sexes is shewn by man's attaining to a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than can woman—whether requiring deep thought, reason, or imagination, or merely the use of the senses and hands. If two lists were made of the most eminent men and women in poetry, painting, sculpture, music (inclusive both of composition and performance), history, science, and philosophy, with half-a-dozen names under each subject, the two lists would not bear comparison. We may also infer, from the law of the deviation from averages, so well illustrated by Mr. Galton, in his work on 'Hereditary Genius,' that if men are capable of a decided pre-eminence over women in many subjects, the average of mental power in man must be above that of woman.

  - Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man

Clearly this isn't racism because there are women in every race, but it sounds bigoted.

So let's examine the definition of "bigot":

Bigot (n): a person who strongly and unfairly dislikes other people, ideas, etc. : a bigoted person; especially : a person who hates or refuses to accept the members of a particular group (such as a racial or religious group) [emphasis added]

 - Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Did Charles Darwin hate or dislike women?  Presumably not: he had a mother, after all, and a wife, and several daughters.

When it comes to "refuse to accept", though, it certainly seems pretty clear that he didn't accept them into the the ranks of the intelligent, and felt strongly about it.  But that's not enough to make him a bigot: this preference also needs to be unfair.

He approaches this problem in a rather more sophisticated way than did Justice Taney: Darwin presents apparently unimpeachable evidence as to the inferiority of women!  Even today, there's no doubt that the most eminent female intellects and artists of history are no match for their male equivalents.  When has there ever been a female Beethoven, a female Einstein, or a female Edison?  The most strident feminist would not dare to put forward any lady as the equal of William Shakespeare.

Yet Darwin's statement is still bigoted as well as false, precisely because Darwin is making such a blanket statement of inferiority.  He is saying that no woman can be the intellectual equal of any man, which is blatantly untrue.

Once again, if he were to say that some women were inferior to some men, that would be no more than a truism which wouldn't be worth writing down.  Even if he said most women were inferior to most men, that wouldn't be quite so awful, and is the sort of thing you can debate and prove or disprove with evidence.

Why does this matter?  Because there's a world of difference between "all," and "almost all."

Consider Justice Taney's opinion of the Negro.  When he sees a black man coming down the street, he doesn't need to give him a moment's thought to instantly and automatically know he's subhuman.  There is nothing the poor fellow can do to prove otherwise.  Merely by virtue of his race, he is less than a man.

But if the Justice were to acknowledge the evidence that was, even then, available to him - the poetic genius of Phillis Wheatley, say, or the rhetorical brilliance of Frederick Douglass - then he would have to admit that there were in fact some - maybe only a few, but still some - black people who were the equal, or possibly even the superior, of any white man.

With that understanding, his entire worldview would have to change.  Any individual black person unknown to him might be a Wheatley or a Douglass and so would be deserving of consideration and respect until proven otherwise.  In other words, black people would be just like anyone else, for both Taney and Darwin were well aware that there were plenty of grossly inferior white men around then as there are now.  The term "white trash" exists for a reason.

Obviously, Justice Taney wasn't prepared to accept such a profound revision to his fundamentally bigoted racist beliefs.  In his defense, the rest of America wasn't ready for another century at least, but that doesn't make his views one whit more acceptable.

Facts and Statistics Aren't Racist

Since the entry of Donald Trump into the presidential race, our national elites and pundits have been continually amazed at his ability to say the most grossly politically-incorrect things and suffer no penalty at the polls.  Naturally, they present this as evidence that the American people as a whole are racist bigots as they've always maintained.  This elitist view is, of course, itself bigoted, although not necessarily racist, as our elites are equal-opportunity degradors: they hold all of the common people in equal contempt regardless of color.

By now, though, the reason for Mr. Trump's thriving should be obvious even to them. It's because Mr. Trump is expressing opinions and stating facts that most ordinary Americans know to be true, yet which are banned from public conversation.

Hardly a day goes by without another sad tale of illegal immigrants committing barbaric acts of violence against innocent American citizens, yet we aren't allowed to make the transparently accurate statement that a disproportionate number of illegal immigrants are violent felons.  Mr. Trump does, the massed media throws tomatoes at him, and ordinary Americans applaud him for stating the obvious.

There are many such examples, and in unusual places.  Consider this quote from the New York Times, no less:

Blacks are only 23 percent of the city’s population.  Whites ... make up 35 percent of the city’s population. ...

Based on reports filed by victims, blacks committed 66 percent of all violent crime in New York in 2009, including 80 percent of shootings and 71 percent of robberies. Blacks and Hispanics together accounted for 98 percent of reported gun assaults.

The Times is saying that blacks commit the overwhelming majority of the violent crimes in New York City!  How could that not be racist?

Well, let's compare it to the three points of racism:

  1. Is the Times categorizing people by race?  No, it is categorizing them first by their actions, that of committing a felony, and only then, the Times groups them by race.  But race is not their primary category, which is criminality.
  2. Is the Times making a blanket statement against all members of that race?  Are they saying, "All blacks/Hispanics are criminals"?  Certainly not.  Indeed, the article goes on to make it plain that most innocent victims of violent crime are also minorities.  Even though, by the Times' own reckoning, individual blacks are twenty times more likely to be criminals than individual whites, the vast majority of blacks are not criminals and the Times never suggests otherwise.  Nobody could use this article to maintain that any given black person was a criminal merely by virtue of skin color.
  3. Is the Times stating a falsehood?  There's no reason to suppose so: the statistics were collected by the NYPD, which has every political incentive not to reveal such glaring racial disparities.  We are quite confident that, on this occasion, the Times was reporting accurately.

Therefore, this article, though it reflects poorly on some blacks, is not in any way racist or bigoted although any Republican who said the same thing would be accused of both.

Now that we can clearly understand just what constitutes racism and bigotry, it should be much more understandable why we were so appalled by Justice Sotomayor's oft-repeated contention that "A wise Latina woman with the richness of her experience would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male."  Justice Sotomayor was making a blanket statement that a Hispanic female would generally make a better judge than a white male; she obviously was using race and gender, inherent genetic traits, as a primary discriminator.  She never even tried to present any proof or any logical defense of her claim, not that she could have: it doesn't exist, but she knew she'd never be asked for proof.  Even Darwin attempted to justify his bigoted views of women!

Justice Sotomayor's bigoted remarks should turn our stomachs, and for good reason.  The historic American dislike of bigotry is based in a principle found in our Constitution:

The Congress shall have power to declare the punishment of treason, but no attainder of treason shall work corruption of blood, or forfeiture except during the life of the person attainted.

 - Article III, Section 3, U.S. Constitution

In England at the time, if a man was convicted of treason, his whole family and descendants would suffer the penalty as well.  Our Founders recognized that this was wrong: it's appropriate for each individual to pay for their own crimes, but not for their children to have to also.

And what would more thoroughly be "corruption of blood" than to judge someone by their race, which they inherited through no fault of their own and which they couldn't escape if they tried?  Both are wrong, and though our Founders weren't able to ban slavery at the time, many of them tried and their descendants succeeded.

Similarly, this is why we are not disturbed by Trump's argument about a specific, individual judge, who does happen to be Hispanic, but who also has shown evidence of racist associations that would be directly biased against Mr. Trump's protected political views.  His attack is against one specific person, not an entire race, and there is solid evidence on his side.

If bigotry were confined to race and gender, the world would be a somewhat more straightforward place though doubtless just as violent.  Alas, it's not, and in the next article in this series we'll discuss other manifestations of these sins.

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other articles by Petrarch or other articles on Society.
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