John Derbyshire Asks: What, Exactly, Is Wrong With “Racism”?
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The June 30th issue of The Economist ran a Special Report on London, [PDF]  with much gloating about the demographic transformation of that city. I tossed and gored the thing here on

Two weeks later, the magazine ran some readers' letters on that Special Report. (The Economist is a weekly, but things move at a stately pace over there.)

Among those letters, the following one particularly caught my eye. It seems to be from a British resident of either U.S. or Canadian origin. She gives her name as Carolyn Gibson.

Sir—On many occasions I have had people mention to me, in passing, their dislike of immigrants: from foreign consultants in hospitals to foreign cleaners. The sad irony is that I am an immigrant, but in their eyes I don't count—I am white and speak English (albeit with a North American twang).

These people aren't anti-immigration. They are racist, plain and simple, and the media need to label it [sic] appropriately. Only then can politicians be free to deal with immigration sensibly.[July 14, 2012]

I don't doubt that Ms. Gibson is relating her experiences truthfully. A great many British people don't in the least mind white immigrants from the old British-settler "cousin" nations in any numbers at all, but do mind immigrants of other origins in the numbers they have been getting them in recent years.

Those Britons who read the political news probably mind the latter influx even more since learning that U.K. immigration policy from 1997 on has been driven in part by malice against the historic British nation.

Given that many British people feel this way, is it racist of them to do so? If it is, should their views therefore be ignored by politicians, on the grounds—this seems to be Ms. Gibson's argument—that racism is so far outside the range of opinions decent people may hold, voter segments apparently guilty of it should be excluded from the attention of national policy-makers?

The answer to the first question depends on the meaning of "racist." I don't have a British dictionary to hand, but my 1993 Webster's Third New International offers: "one who advocates or believes in racism." For "racism" they give:

"the assumption that psychocultural traits and capacities are determined by biological race and that races differ decisively from one another which is usu. coupled with a belief in the inherent superiority of a particular race and its right to domination over others."

I doubt that is a very good fit for most of the Brits objecting to mass immigration of nonwhite non-Anglophones. They would, I am sure, display a very wide range of views about the nature v. nurture issue; but as to racial superiority and a "right to domination over others," my guess is you would find complete lack of interest. Been there, done that.

What those Britons mostly desire is to be left alone with their customary way of life—to not have demographic revolution imposed on them. To the degree that it has been, probably irreversibly, they feel resentment.

Is that racist? On the definition given in Webster's Third, I can't see that it is.

Words change their meaning, though, and the commonly-understood scope of the word "racist" is now wider than it was in 1993. Probably it was already wider, even then, than the compilers of Webster's Third allowed.

Just how wide that scope has become was explored by Craig Bodeker in a 2008 documentary movie.

Young black woman at 4m33s in Craig's movie:

"You see [racism] every day. Like, if you walk into a company and you're the only black person there, or you're the only Asian, or the only gay person, or the only Muslim person. It's not very diverse …"

Middle-aged black guy at 9m19s:

"I'll give you an example [of racism]. I went to a local community college library … I noticed that one of the guys that worked in the library, he's staring at me. He's pretending he's going to get coffee, but he's staring at me while I'm using the computer. So then when I leave, he and one of the other librarians, they say to me: 'Well goodbye now,' like, it gave me the impression they were saying, like, 'Good riddance now.'"

And so on. That's the usage of the word "racism" today.  It denotes any insufficiency of diversity, in religion and sexual orientation as well as in race; and it further denotes any behavior directed at a colored person by a white person that is, or might conceivably be read as being, disobliging.

By these current standards, the common British attitudes recorded by Ms. Gibson in the letters columns of The Economist likely are racist. One is bound to ask, though: What's wrong with that?

Here is an island people, its population not much changed for millennia, suddenly confronted with huge inflows of people radically different in race, history, culture, and religion. Why should they not mind? What is heinous about their minding?

It seems to me very natural and understandable.

Taking a larger view, one might even more impertinently ask: What is wrong with racism on the definition given in Webster's Third?

The first part of that definition, "the assumption that psychocultural traits and capacities are determined by biological race and that races differ decisively from one another," is an opinion about facts in the world. The facts might be true or untrue, the opinions correspondingly correct or incorrect; but there is no moral content here, any more than there is in heliocentrism (true) or the phlogiston theory of combustion (untrue). The matter ought to be capable of resolution by cold empirical inquiry.

The other part, the part with which the first "is usu. coupled"—an odd sort of qualification to find in a dictionary definition, as Craig Bodeker notes in his movie—is "a belief in the inherent superiority of a particular race and its right to domination over others."

That other part, when it is indeed coupled with the first, is morally problematic.

You can make an argument that "inherently superior" is nonsensical in the case of the human personality, which has many, many more than one dimension. Superior on which trait?

Most of us know what is meant, though. The trait for which superiority is being asserted is a collective one: the capability for generating societies that are materially and creatively progressive—for generating civilizations.

The waters here are deep, perhaps unfathomable. Some races (Europeans, Northeast Asians) surely have generated civilizations; others (sub-Saharan Africans, the aborigines of Australia) have not. That those latter races could not generate civilizations has not been proved, though, and it's hard to see how one might arrive at such a proof. Empirical inquiry might deliver the goods on this one, but I wouldn't bet money on it.

If a Briton of today could be transported back to the country of his ancestors a mere hundred generations ago, before the Romans arrived, he would find them very barbarous. Could an educated Roman of that time, supposing he had been able to survey the whole world, have predicted which peoples would be in a civilized state a hundred generations thence? Not likely.

The question as to which races are or are not capable of generating civilizations is thus an open one. You can have an opinion about it, but you can't have a well-founded opinion.

Still, seen from a great height, sub specie æternitatis, even these opinions have no necessary moral content. The belief that one's own race is civilizationally superior to another might even lead one into compassionate paternalism—as indeed it often did when it was a common belief among Europeans.

Human nature being what it is, though, such a belief will generate at least equal quantities of arrogance and cruelty: that is the morally problematic aspect. That is the area in which the use of "racist" as a pejorative is justified.

As for "domination over others," though, I can detect no widespread desire for any such thing in today's world. Among American whites, the strongest negative desire I can see is for separation. For every white person who wants to lord it over blacks, there are a hundred at least who would just like to stay away from them, to live as if they did not exist. This is the desire driving the voluntary residential and educational segregation that are such marked features of modern American life.

The white Britons whom Ms. Gibson would like to exclude from their nation's politics are similarly disposed. They wish no harm to the people of Pakistan, Bangladesh, Africa, Arabia, and the black Caribbean. They just wish those people had stayed in their own countries. And they resent their not having done so.

Is that racism within the current usage of the word? Probably.

Is there anything wrong with it?

Not that I can see.

John Derbyshire [email him] writes an incredible amount on all sorts of subjects for all kinds of outlets. (This no longer includes National Review, whose editors had some kind of tantrum and fired him. He is the author of We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism and several other books. His writings are archived at

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