On the rationality and wrong of racism

By | July 16, 2013

After George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin, a narrative quickly emerged that Zimmerman “profiled” Martin, that he considered Martin suspicious merely because of the color of his skin and the fact that he was wearing a hoodie.

Leaving aside the question of whether that narrative is accurate in the particular case of the Zimmerman / Martin incident, it is indisputably true that profiling and judging people based on their race occurs every minute of every day in this country, leading to vastly disparate treatment of individuals.

Those who decry racism are right to do so. It is the root cause of a great deal of unfairness and suffering in the world, it causes strife where there need not be any, and it deprives individuals of liberties, rights, and privileges to which they are entitled.

However, there are three crucial facts about racism that are often ignored or at least unacknowledged by those who fight against it, even though they are also indisputably true:

  1. In many (but certainly not all) contexts, racism is rational.
  2. When people are prevented by force of law from behaving in a racist way, their liberty is infringed.
  3. Although we have chosen as a society to oppose racism (a choice I fully agree with), that fact does not negate either of the other two.

Suppose you are responsible for designing the security protocols for an airport. It is entirely rational to give certain passengers extra scrutiny based on their race.

Suppose you are a police officer, and you believe that the rate of violent crime among black men in this country is far higher than for men of other races (whether that belief is correct is not relevant). Given that your job is to prevent crime and apprehend criminals, and given that your own, personal safety and security depend on getting the bad guys before they get you, it is entirely rational for you to pay more attention to black men.

Suppose you are a shopkeeper, and your shop keeps getting robbed, and four of the last five robbers were young black men. It is entirely rational for you to decide that you don’t want to allow young black men in your store anymore.

Here is what we, as a society, are saying to that shopkeeper: “You are not allowed to choose not to serve a particular clientele even if it is objectively true that such a choice would reduce the likelihood of harm to you and your employees.” Or, putting it another way, “Society values equality and respect for every individual more highly than we value your personal safety.”

Here is what we are saying to that airport security director: “You are not allowed to use race as a factor when determining which passengers should receive extra scrutiny, even if doing so would make it more likely that you would catch a terrorist.” Such a policy does not just impact the airport security director’s job; it impacts the security of every passenger on every flight.

What many opponents of racism either don’t understand or are unwilling to admit is that sometimes, when we ask people not to treat people differently based on the color of their skin, we are asking them to sacrifice liberty, and in some cases safety and security, for the benefit of others.

Perhaps that’s a fair trade-off and one that will ultimately benefit society. But that doesn’t mean we should refuse to acknowledge it or vilify as a racist anyone who tries to.

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