Racism as an independent topic of investigation in philosophy has considerably developed since the 1990s, when it appeared as part of growing debates that, on the one hand, investigated the political meaning of race and, on the other, its ontology and whether it existed at all. Likewise, with the idea of racism, its broadly normative meaning is critiqued by some philosophers, while others ask how best to conceive of it and identify its immorality. There were a few early and significant forays in philosophy about the nature of racism, of which three works stand out because of the way they set the terms of the debate: David Theo Goldberg's Racist Culture, Charles W. Mills’ The Racial Contract, and Jorge L.A. Garcia's “The Heart of Racism.”1 This collection reacts to the latter fork in the discussion but does so in ways that significantly touch on the former.
The collection begins with Jorge L. Garcia's “Virtue Ethics in Social Theory: Defending a Volitional Analysis of Racism from Tommie Shelby's Challenges.” It is a clarification and defense of his influential volitional analysis of racism (VAR) from three prominent objections: that VAR inadequately accounts for the immorality of racism because it relies on the assumed wrongness of racism built into ordinary usage of the term ‘racist;’ that it mistakenly separates intention from belief; and that it does not fully account for the racism of some troubling mental states that cannot be traced back to a racist ill-will. Garcia's account of racism as fundamentally rooted in racist ill-will, along with Lawrence Blum's, is representative of agent-centered theories of racism. Not only do they attempt to explain individual or personal racism, but they also hold that racism in institutions, structures, or systems traces back to the racism of persons.
Current accounts of structural racism, however, claim that it exists and operates independently of infection from intentionally racist persons, that the focus on racist persons cannot adequately account for how racism works in society, and that, instead, we should concentrate on structures and ideologies. Amelia Wirts sharply defends this view in her, “What does it mean to say ‘The Criminal Justice System is Racist’?” She explains how structural racism applies to America's criminal justice system and other “intermediate” (between individual and societal level) structures. Wirts argues that personal accounts of racism, and in particular Garcia's VAR, do not adequately account for the patterns of racial disparity in the criminal justice system or its disproportionate harm to black people. She advocates, instead, for a patterned view of structural racism, the patterns of which operate “as if it were designed to disproportionately harm” some racialized group. Additionally, Wirts adds that such patterns are particularly racist when they fuel racist ideological symbols, as the criminal justice system does in relation to the idea of the black criminal.
Structural analyses of racism are powerfully instructive, and Alisa Bierria, in “Structural Racism Within Reason,” offers an account that takes an epistemic turn that advances our understanding of their meaning. More than the idea that personal and structural racism beget each other in continuous looping effects, and more than the view that racism is best understood as an ideology that provides the content to racist attitudes or policy proscriptions, she argues that structural racism structures reason. Drawing on the 2012 case of Marissa Alexander, who unsuccessfully tried to use Florida's Stand Your Ground Law to justify her firing a warning shot at her estranged, abusive husband to protect herself from his murderous threat, Bierra argues that structural racism extends constructed and controlling intentions onto its targets, and, as in the case she discusses, it uses those constructed and fictional intentions to justify their punishment and depriving them of equal justice.
Structural analyses of racism are essential additions to the philosophical understanding of racism that have appropriately challenged the centrality of agent-centered accounts. The increasing academic focus on structural explanations, however, along with the current overuse of “systemic racism” in popular discourse, threatens to eclipse the value of accounts of agent-centered accounts. In “Is Racism Essentially Systemic?” Michael Hardimon counsels against this trend. He reminds us that racism is not essentially systemic, and that the dominance of structural explanations could obscure its other forms and even the proper understanding of structural racism. Indeed, structures once constructed might operate independently of human intention, but they are designed, initiated, and often operated by persons.
After considering the direction of the current philosophical discussion about the meaning of racism and its immorality, the next set of articles expands the discussion into matters of class, xenophobia, and white nationalism. Lawrence Blum's “Race and Class Together” starts it off. Blum builds class into his analysis of racism and critiques its absence in anti-racist theory. He argues that paying attention to class is required to secure justice for the victims of racism because pursuing justice is often a matter of both. Blum contends that race and class are “normatively distinct axes of injustice” and that, depending on the question, racial injustice needs to be addressed separately. However, there are aspects of racial injustice that can only be dealt with through a class analysis and require class or combined class–race focused policies. Pointing to the fact that many of the members of groups targeted by racism (he considers blacks, Indigenous peoples, and Latinxs) share cross-class interests, which includes shared interests with some whites, which they do not share with more economically privileged members of their own groups, Blum argues that these interests should be addressed through “class-focused policies,” in a manner that will secure justice for disadvantaged racial groups.
Shifting from the class-race analysis, José Jorge Mendoza, in “‘Go Back to Where You Came From!’ Racism, Xenophobia, and White Nationalism,” turns our attention toward white nationalism to examine whether it is best understood as an expression of racism or xenophobia. Although he recognizes the importance of xenophobia in white nationalism, Mendoza does not neglect its connections with racist ideas. However, he acknowledges that emphasizing the role of race in condemnations of white nationalism risks overextending the concept of race, i.e., in regards to pan-racial groups, because some members of those groups are racially identified as white. Thus, the charge of racism against white nationalism in such cases may not clearly apply. To deal with those cases, Mendoza cleverly decouples the ideas of “radicalization” and “racial formation,” and he puts forward a new concept, “racial disintegration,” to account for the operation and shifting targets of white nationalism.
In the final piece, David H. Kim and I discuss xenophobia and racism in the case of “Anti-Asian Racism.” We move from general theories of racism to inquire about what is at the base of anti-Asian racism. Little is said in contemporary accounts of racism about anti-Asian racism. This is due, in part, to the high level of abstraction in those discussions but also because much of the literature takes anti-blackness as the model of racism. Our piece addresses this lacuna in a manner not beholden to the black-white binary. We discuss how the idea of anti-Asian racism is a conceptual problem in the American context dominated by that binary. We then argue that xenophobia as a form of civic ostracism, and to some extent xenophilia, play a particular role in how anti-Asian racism functions and its immorality.
The pieces in this collection resonate with current events and controversies involving racism and illustrate the potential of the debate to relate to and speak those events, not just to the specialized interests of a cloistered academic conversation. Each piece demonstrates the potential for extending vital lines of debate and discussion that touches the raw nerve of the public discussion of racism.
Garcia, J.L.A. “The Heart of Racism.” Journal of Social Philosophy 27, no. 1 (March 1996): 5–46; Goldberg, David Theo. Racist Culture: Philosophy and the Politics of Meaning. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1993; and Mills, Charles W. The Racial Contract. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1999.