Prejudice plus power
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“”There’s no such thing as sexism against men. That's because sexism is prejudice + power. Men are the dominant gender with power in society.
|—Anita Sarkeesian, Feminist Frequency|
The original definition of "racism" is something like "prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one's own race is superior." The narrower definition of "prejudice plus power" requires one ethnic group to be in a dominant position on a societal level over other ethnic groups and posits that this revised version of the word "racism" can only apply to them, due to their having more power to institute and take advantage of their racism. This version describes another type of racism. In fact, since this version of the word "racism" is applied at the group level, it often leads to the "logical" conclusion that all members of the dominant group are de facto racists.
The phrase institutional racism, where discrimination is a systemic consequence of old prejudices, aligns more closely with the "prejudice plus power" paradigm, particularly when institutions are involved in the exercise of power. This term was coined in the book Black Power in 1967, is uncontroversial, unambiguous, and does not conflict with an existing definition.
Another view of racism considers it not as a power imbalance, but as an ignorant and tribal expression of fear and hate, towards any race or ethnicity. In this view, the phenomenon of racism is seen as the collective problem of society and mankind, something that each and every human being is capable of and has a responsibility to remain vigilant against. Power imbalance only factors into the extent of the consequences.
It is important to note that, whether you agree or disagree with the definition, words can have many meanings at the same time. The use of racism to mean "prejudice plus power" by however many academics does not disqualify other definitions of the term any more than psychiatrists defining the term "depression" as a specific disorder disqualifies using it to mean being extremely sad. "Prejudice plus power" as used by some academics is what is called a stipulative definition, used primarily for academic research to literally simplify discussions and text, not to "replace" other definitions of the word in common usage. Whichever definition is used is only relative to the argument at hand and is important to establish prior to discussion for the point of distinction.
- 1 Etymology
- 2 Criticisms of the definition
- 2.1 "Single cause, single solution" fallacy
- 2.2 Encouragement of passivity and disempowerment
- 2.3 Prejudice and power are not causally connected
- 2.4 Incitement of bigotry and racial tension
- 2.5 Disregarding multiple forms of oppression
- 2.6 Failure to address economic inequality
- 2.7 A term of division claiming social justice
- 2.8 Undermining anti-racism
- 2.9 Reliance on word games
- 3 See also
- 4 External links
- 5 References
The word "racism" originated around 1936, "when a new word was required to describe the theories on which the Nazis based their persecution of the Jews". Earlier, this was called "racialism", "race hatred", or "race prejudice". The word "sexism" was coined in 1968 by Caroline Bird, with the definition:
There is recognition abroad that we are in many ways a sexist country. Sexism is judging people by their sex when sex doesn’t matter.
Sexism is intended to rhyme with racism. Both have been used to keep the powers that be in power. Women are sexists as often as men.
Notably, both of the original definitions defy the prejudice plus power definition — that came later: the phrase "prejudice plus power" was created in 1970 by Pat Bidol and popularized by Judith H. Katz in her 1978 book White Awareness: Handbook for Anti-Racism Training:
It is important to push for the understanding that racism is 'prejudice plus power' and therefore people of color cannot be racist against whites in the United States. People of color can be prejudiced against whites but clearly do not have the power as a group to enforce that prejudice.
In the United States at present, only whites can be racists, since whites dominate and control the institutions that create and enforce American cultural norms and values... blacks and other Third World peoples do not have access to the power to enforce any prejudices they may have, so they cannot, by definition, be racists.
All white individuals in our society are racists. Even if a white is totally free from all conscious racial prejudices, he remains a racist, for he receives benefits distributed by a white racist society through its institutions. Our institutional and cultural processes are so arranged as to automatically benefit whites, just because they are white.
The use of the term outside of its academic stipulative definition has thus circled around various groups pre-emptively defining away what human beings of certain skin colors could and could not do, even in theory, regardless of any situational counterexamples. The hypocrisy of essentially recommending a "socially just racism" appears to be lost here.
Criticisms of the definition
“”Hating people because of their color is wrong. And it doesn't matter which color does the hating. It's just plain wrong.
"Single cause, single solution" fallacy
In An Examination of Anti-Racist and Anti-Oppressive Theory and Practice in Social Work Education, senior lecturer in sociology Marie Macey and senior lecturer in social work Eileen Moxon wrote;
...an edifice of theory and action has been constructed on the simplistic 'explanation' of racism as being the outcome of power plus prejudice. Not only does this inaccurately assume a single cause and type of racism but it dangerously implies that there is a single solution to the phenomenon (Gilroy 1990; Husband, 1987; Miles, 1989).
The view that racism is an attribute of the monolithic category of people termed 'white' who hold all the power in society is equally confused and confusing. At one level of abstraction, it is true that a certain sector of the (white, male) population holds much of the economic and decision-making power in British society. It is also true that some members of this group are statistically likely to be racially prejudiced. However, though this knowledge should inform social work education, it has limited utility at the operational level of social work or, often, in the everyday lives of black and white service workers.
Furthermore, if a Pakistani Muslim male refuses to have an African-Caribbean or Indian Hindu female social worker for reasons which, if articulated by a white Christian would be condemned as racist, one has to ask what the point is of denying that this refusal stems from racist (or sexist or sectarian) motivations? Similarly, if one compares the structural position of a white, working class, homeless male with that of a black barrister, would the statement that 'only whites have power' make sense or be acceptable to either of them?
...the approaches [of anti-racism theory] are theoretical and thus closed to the canons of scientific evaluation and because the discourse itself prohibits the open, rigorous and critical interrogation which is essential to theoretical, professional and personal development.
This view of race and power only works if all white people are treated as active members of a cohesive body called "white people". True, whites have had — and still have — huge statistical advantages. However, it is unreasonable to believe that possessing white skin gives one "access to the power" to change institutional and cultural processes, and as such, it is unfair to attribute racism to all whites. As such, asserting that all whites are racist simultaneously devalues the work of white antiracists and lends credence to the ridiculous idea that anti-racists just wanna hate on whites.
Encouragement of passivity and disempowerment
Mixed-race journalist Lindsay Johns (who has a history of writing in the defense of social justice and in opposition to racism and sexism) casts his doubts on the notion that "power plus prejudice" ultimately has any positive utility for social justice;
At best, [Prejudice+Power] is, although well-intentioned, fallacious, as it is overly simplistic, spectacularly Manichean in its polarity and manifests a paucity of intellectual subtlety. At worst, [Prejudice+Power] divests black people of being the agents of their own destiny and reduces them yet again to the status of perennial victims needing special treatment.
For all the very real woes and horrendous evils done to black people over the centuries - evils which must never be forgotten or downplayed, and from which many people are still suffering the consequences - going to the other extreme and wallowing in a state of perpetually racialized victimhood and seeking special dispensations is counter-productive, as the historical inequality and disadvantage such a position purports to correct, in the overwhelming majority of cases, has the reverse consequence and actually engenders more, not less resentment and prejudice in the white population of this country. Not only that, but "special dispensation status" feeds into a notion of passivity, of being solely acted upon and of not being positive agents of change in one's own destiny, thus contributing to the notion that we are not masters of our own fate. Hence we persist in acting out the role of mere victims and pawns. That is something I will never advocate to the young people I mentor.
Prejudice and power are not causally connected
David Pilgrim, curator of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, has this to say on the conflicting definitions of racism:
Can blacks be racist? The answer, of course, will depend on how you define racism. If you define it as "prejudice against or hatred toward another race," then the answer is yes. If you define racism as "the belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race," the answer is yes. And if you define racism as "prejudice and discrimination rooted in race-based loathing," then the answer is, again, yes. However, if you define racism as "a system of group privilege by those who have a disproportionate share of society’s power, prestige, property, and privilege," then the answer is no. In the end, it is my opinion that individual blacks can be and sometimes are racists. However, collectively, blacks are neither the primary creators nor beneficiaries of the racism that permeates society today.
Obviously this would apply to any racial group that happens to be disadvantaged in a given area. Some of the more obvious examples in the world would include Indians living in Uganda during the rule of Idi Amin, white people formerly living under the rule of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, or the Ainu people of Japan.
Pilgrim goes on to describe how, as an adolescent attending a previously all-white junior high school in the seventies, he was pelted with stones by white passers-by. He points out that many of these bigoted whites were poverty-stricken and so lacked power: "To argue that one must have power in order to be racist is to suggest that the man in Prichard, Alabama who called me a 'red nigger' and threw a rock at me was not a racist. A different explanation is that his poverty and lack of power made him susceptible to anti-black racism." He goes on to relate how facing this prejudice caused him and his fellow black youth at the school to hate the poor whites in a similar capacity:
The quirky part of this story is that there were two groups of people, both desperately poor and treated as outcasts, who used their hatred of the Other as bonding mechanisms. I want it said loudly and clearly that we can define racism in many ways, but it is, in my opinion, intellectually disingenuous to define it in a way that trivializes the role that racial hatred plays. Certainly, not all racism is hate-driven, but to ignore the connection between racial hate and racism is to reduce the concept of racism to a useless theoretical abstraction.
Lindsay Johns follows a similar thread, commenting:
My rudimentary command of logic and syllogisms notwithstanding, [the Prejudice+Power] starting definition is clearly faulty. Racism is not merely about possessing the power to implement one's prejudices. Racism, by common definition and understanding, is making a pejorative judgement about someone based on their race. Black people are human beings. All human beings have the ability to be racist. Ergo black people can be racist too.
It would also be disingenuous to deny that much racial tension can and does exist between various peoples of colour. For example, many African nations do not like each other very much, as is sadly the case with many African and Caribbean people. Likewise, many Asians are very prejudiced against black people, and vice versa. Many of these attitudes have come about as a result of European "divide and rule" colonial politics. Many of them, equally, have not. But it suffices to say that racism is nowadays not just the white man’s malaise. As hard as it is for those accustomed to the old binary to accept, white people in 2012 do not have the monopoly on racism. That in itself is a sign of social and racial progress, of which [the champions of Prejudice+Power] should be proud.
Incitement of bigotry and racial tension
In The Pedagogy of the Meaning of Racism: Reconciling a Discordant Discourse, Carlos Hoyt, Jr. argues that the revised definition "charges white people with being de facto racists ... while providing an exemption to black people from being held accountable for racist beliefs". He advises that teachers use more specific, nuanced terms, such as "Race-based Oppression" or "Institutional Race-based Oppression":
To be prejudiced, one need only harbor preconceived opinions (positive or negative) not based on reason. To be a racist, one need only believe in race and in the inferiority or superiority of races. To oppress, one must have power over the target of one’s oppression.
He similarly recounts his youthful prejudices, considering them racism:
When I was a (black) teenager in the grips of false beliefs about the inferiority of white people (due in great part to the conviction that their presumed racist attitudes rendered them brutish, stupid, and dangerous), my belief constituted racism. And when I translated those beliefs into malicious actions (taunting, excluding, fighting), it was behavioral expression of racism. And when I was in a group of like-minded young racists, and we chose to take over the back of a public transportation bus and become openly hostile and threatening toward white riders—often to the point that they felt so unsafe that they disembarked before their desired destination had been reached, it was an exercise of power that adds up to race-based oppression.
Disregarding multiple forms of oppression
Other groups have suggested that instead of painting all oppression in terms of "prejudice plus power", both can be problems simultaneously. For example, the Institute of Race Relations writes;
Racism [is] the belief or ideology that 'races' have distinctive characteristics which gives some superiority over others. Also refers to discriminatory and abusive behaviour based on such a belief or ideology. In the UK, denying people access to good and services on the basis of their colour, nationality, ethnicity, religion etc is illegal and called racial discrimination. Institutional racism (a term coined by US Black Power leader Stokely Carmichael) occurs when a whole organisation’s procedures and policies disadvantage BME people. State racism refers to the way that racism can be enshrined in laws (such as immigration legislation), in procedures (such as police stops and searches) and programmes (such as those on political extremism).
The IRR's definition suggests that racism can be a problem in all of four areas (individual people's beliefs, individual people's actions, organizational actions, and state actions) all at once. In turn, this suggests that prejudice is a problem at all levels of power — meaning that one need not be the most powerful, or even more powerful, to be a cause of harmful prejudice. As Black Panther Party founder Huey Newton wrote regarding homosexuality:
I do not remember our ever constituting any value that said that a revolutionary must say offensive things towards homosexuals, or that a revolutionary should make sure that women do not speak out about their own particular kind of oppression. As a matter of fact, it is just the opposite: we say that we recognize the women’s right to be free. We have not said much about the homosexual at all, but we must relate to the homosexual movement because it is a real thing. And I know through reading, and through my life experience and observations that homosexuals are not given freedom and liberty by anyone in the society. They might be the most oppresed people in the society.
Failure to address economic inequality
In 1969, the top quintile of American wage-earners made 43 per cent of all the money earned in the US; the bottom quintile made 4.1 per cent. In 2007, the top quintile made 49.7 per cent; the bottom quintile 3.4. And while this inequality is both raced and gendered, it’s less so than you might think. White people, for example, make up about 70 per cent of the US population, and 62 per cent of those in the bottom quintile. Progress in fighting racism hasn’t done them any good; it hasn’t even been designed to do them any good. More generally, even if we succeeded completely in eliminating the effects of racism and sexism, we would not thereby have made any progress towards economic equality. A society in which white people were proportionately represented in the bottom quintile (and black people proportionately represented in the top quintile) would not be more equal; it would be exactly as unequal. It would not be more just; it would be proportionately unjust.
On the other side of the pond, Lindsay Johns also chimes in with similar criticisms, commenting:
On further consideration, this is ultimately, as with most debates which purport to be about race, far more about class. The slow, but now very welcome emergence of the still painfully nascent black British middle class has finally begun to bring with it the occupation of positions of power and responsibility. Not many, admittedly and certainly not as many as there should be, but nonetheless some. For example, there are now more than a handful of people of colour who are commissioning editors in TV and radio, columnists in national newspapers, together with MPs, bankers, barristers and museum curators. As our numbers continue to improve over time, this will doubtless prove [Prejudice plus power] wrong.
Almost everyone's on the same page when it comes to saying that prejudice is a bad thing, and that certain expressions of prejudice have more direct negative consequences than others. The problem with the prejudice-plus-power equation, however, is that it inherently shifts responsibility towards and from certain individuals as defined by very broad groupings (such as being "white" or "black"), based on simple variables. In this way, it is a divisive definition that breeds resentment between racial groups, rather than bringing them together to fight a common enemy. As civil rights activist Fred Hampton said:
We've got to face the fact that some people say you fight fire best with fire, but we say you put fire out best with water. We say you don't fight racism with racism. We're gonna fight racism with solidarity.
“”Lol when people call you racist because of the color of your skin.
It could be argued that validating bigotry against white men undermines anti-racism activism in general due to the attempts to justify one form of bigotry and not others being so paper-thin. It could also serve as a recruitment tool for white racists who want to make whites feel like they are under attack and give them cover when they are accused of racism. Moderate libertarian Cathy Young argues:
[Prejudice+Power] has legitimized overt race- and gender-based hate speech; if it’s okay to say hateful things about white men, the claim that it’s not okay to say them about other groups becomes tenuous. It has lent credibility to claims that whites, especially straight white men, are under attack. It has subverted the moral authority of anti-racism—and of liberalism (in the classic sense), dismissed in current progressive discourse as "a philosophy of white male domination." And it has so trivialized the concepts of bigotry and racism that they have lost much of their stigma. When wearing a sombrero for Halloween can get you labeled a racist, the label becomes meaningless.
Reliance on word games
Unsurprisingly the attempt by a handful of academics and activists to redefine a word in a certain ideological frame has been criticized, since this is not how words are typically defined and it makes their argument utterly unfalsifiable. Rationalist Scott Alexander, after quoting someone who insists that racism only refers to prejudice plus power, argues:
I can't argue with this. No, literally, I can’t argue with this. There's no disputing the definitions of words. If you say that "racism" is a rare species of nocturnal bird native to New Guinea which feeds upon morning dew and the dreams of young children, then all I can do is point out that the dictionary and common usage both disagree with you. And the sources I cited above have already admitted that "the dictionary is wrong" and "no one uses the word racism correctly".
In the comments he goes on to argue why it is disingenuous to use a word like "racism" in a way most people don't:
As long as these are called by the same word, they allow that word to be dangerous.
If I started calling people who liked little kids and got along with them well “pedophiles”, then even though this is appropriate Greek derivation, the people whom I called pedophiles might reasonably ask me to stop, especially if I kept doing it publicly. “I promise I’m keeping the two definitions straight in my head” isn’t much consolation if somebody overhears me using it. And if I refuse to stop, you’re reasonable to wonder whether I have some ulterior motive.
- Loaded language
- No True Scotsman
- Racialism — Because races are essentially "something", right?
- Social justice
- Black people cannot be racist, says former Ken Livingstone aide
- The Pedagogy of the Meaning of Racism: Reconciling a Discordant Discourse - Carlos Hoyt Jr.
- Change My View: I think that redefining 'racism' as 'prejudice plus power' is damaging to society
- AntiRacistWorkshop.org Definitions - "Racism is race prejudice plus power"
- TransGriot: Racism= Prejudice Plus Power
- Finally, A Feminism 101 Blog FAQ: What is “sexism”? - "an important, but often overlooked, part of the term is that sexism is prejudice plus power. Thus feminists reject the notion that women can be sexist towards men because women lack the institutional power that men have."
- A tweet by Feminist Frequency: https://archive.is/EOcDf
- Oxford Dictionaries definition of "racism" in English
- Using Latina/o Critical Race Theory (LatCrit) and Racist Nativism To Explore Intersectionality in the Educational Experiences of Undocumented Chicana College Students By Lindsay Pérez Huber
- What is Institutional Racism?, The Guardian, 24 Feb 1999
- Carmichael, S., & Hamilton, C. V. (1967). Black power: The politics of liberation in America.
- Cashmore, Ernest and Jennings, James (2001), Racism: Essential Readings, Sage (p. 111).
- Exploring the Psychological Motives of Racism, Clay Routledge, Psychology Today, Aug 21, 2010 [dead link, and blocked from Internet Archive]
- Black people can’t be racist, Sobantu Mzwakali Oct 13, 2015
- Fredrickson, G. M. (2002). Racism: A short history. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- The Online Etymology Dictionary: racist
- Caroline Bird’s “On Being Born Female”, published on November 15, 1968 in Vital Speeches of the Day (p. 6).
- Feminism Friday: The origins of the word "sexism"
- Developing New Perspectives on Race: An Innovative Multi-media Social Studies Curriculum in Racism Awareness for the Secondary Level, Pat A. Bidol
- White Awareness: Handbook for Anti-racism Training By Judy H. Katz, 2003 edition, 1978 edition
- Education and Racism: An Action Manual. National Education Association, Washington, DC.
- Definitions of Racism
- 21 Most Memorable Muhammad Ali Quotes June 4, 2016, CBSLA.com
- Oxford Journals - An Examination of Anti-Racist and Anti-Oppressive Theory and Practice in Social Work Education
- Lindsay Johns - Journalism
- Mixed-race Britain: Proud of both sides and here to stay, 11 December 2012
- The Bigotry That Dares Not Speak Its Name..., 11 September 2012
- Why Lee Jasper is wrong: White people don't have a monopoly on racism, Lindsay Johns, Daily Mail, 1 May 2012
- Jim Crow Museum Question of the Month: Can Blacks Be Racist? March 2009
- Institute of Race Relations: DEFINITIONS
- Looking Back at Huey Newton’s Thoughts on Gay Rights…In the Wake of Obama’s Endorsement, MAY 11, 2012 BY MRDAVEYD
- What Matters, Walter Benn Michaels
- Power Anywhere Where There's People, Fred Hampton
- You Can’t Whitewash The Alt-Right’s Bigotry By Cathy Young APRIL 14, 2016
- Social justice and words, words, words, JULY 7, 2014, Scott Alexander