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Derald Wing Sue on Racism

December 17th, 2010 by David Kronemyer · 2 Comments

I recently re-read the article “Are you a racist?” by Derald Wing Sue (2003). I think Sue’s argument is mistaken on several points, which I now propose to address.

Who is a racist?

Distilled to its essentials, Sue’s basic argument is that every white male is a racist because they are beneficiaries of a pervasive, embedded, institutionalized culture of privilege, dominance and power. I think the latter half of this proposition basically is true. However, Sue makes a fallacious inference when he concludes, on this basis, that every person to whom this ascriptive predicate can be attributed is a racist. Here are some of the reasons why I think Sue is wrong.

Collective intentionality. Sue commits what has come to be known as an “ecological fallacy” – that is, he extrapolates group behavior to particular individuals.1 The formal structure of his argument is to identify what he would characterize as an institutional fact, such as racism. He then attempts to connect it with people, whom he believes are complicit in perpetuating it. There is a difference, however, between “we intend” and “I intend.” In order for the latter to conflate to the former, there has to be collective effort, and each agent must recognize the others are contributing to it. Each makes a contribution on the assumption the others make a counterpart contribution. This is not, however, what typically happens. I do what I am doing, because that’s what I personally believe in doing. Even if I might suppose others are cooperating with me, that’s not the reason why I do it.

To take an example, let’s imagine I’m a rain dancer of Hopi American Indian descent. I do the rain dance because I believe it will bring rain. A latent function of a group of people doing the rain dance is that it improves social cohesion.2 This isn’t, however, why I do the rain dance. I do it because I believe it is causally efficacious, and will bring rain.

The Berkeley philosopher John Searle puts it this way:

“The content of my intention-in-action can only make reference to things I can cause (or at least believe I can cause). In order to engage in collective behavior I have to believe (or assume or presuppose) that others are cooperating with me. And their cooperation will consist in their having intentions-in-action that specify the same goal as I have but need not specify the same means to the goal. I have to believe they are cooperating, but except for unusual cases, it is not part of the content of my own intention-in-action to cause their cooperation.”

Searle, 2010, p. 53. Searle goes on to say it isn’t even necessary for an agent to know what the other’s contribution is. One knows one’s own intention, “but for complex acts of large groups no one knows what everybody else is doing” (Searle, 2010, p. 54). The only intentionality that can exist “is in the heads of individuals. There is no collective intentionality beyond what is in the head of each member of the collective” (Searle, 2010, p. 55).

“Racism,” then, is significantly different than “being a racist.” Racism is a social or cultural condition. Being a racist is a personal belief. Sue misses this distinction.

Natural kinds. Another problem with Sue’s analysis is he disregards that different racial populations present with issues unique to their respective race. If not “caused” by race, they are extremely closely correlated with it. An example is public health. Persons who are Ashkenazi Jews are at increased risk for a variety of medical conditions such as Tay-Sachs disease, Ashkenazi Jewish genetic diseases (2010). 10.4% percent of persons of Hispanic/Latino origin over the age of 20 have diagnosed diabetes, with resulting risk for cardiovascular disease, Hispanics/Latinos and Diabetes (2010). Persons who are African-Americans are at increased risk for coronary heart disease, diabetes and sickle cell anemia (1 in 12 persons who are African Americans carry the sickle cell trait), Genetic disease profile: Sickle cell anemia (2010). Yet it would be a misnomer to characterize a doctor making a diagnosis of one of these maladies in a patient of a given race as a “racist.” They are based on inherited genetic factors, not behavioral dispositions.3 Sociologists such as Hazel Markus and Shinobu Kitayama (1991, 2003) have gone so far as to devise elaborate cultural theories about “group” versus “individual” identity, solely on the basis of race. Sue cannot account for these cases.

Salience. Sue assumes that, from a phenomenological standpoint, race is what makes the first and foremost impact on people’s perceptions of one another. Even a moment’s reflection, though, will demonstrate this is not so. The first thing one thinks of when one encounters a person who is noticeably handicapped is, “that person has a disability,” regardless of his or her race. The first thing one thinks of when one encounters someone who is acting erratically and inappropriately is, “that person may be mentally unbalanced,” regardless of his or her race.

Other examples of this sort are not hard to devise. Many countries, such as Britain and India, predominantly are class-driven. In Britain, one can discern another’s social class simply by the way they speak. Race often is not the most salient characteristic or basis upon which people evaluate others, or divide them into groups. One might be prejudiced against people who are visibly handicapped, or prejudiced against people who have apparent mental disabilities, or prejudiced against people of a different class. As despicable as this is, it is a different problem than being a racist. Sue overlooks this basic point about human nature.

Separatism, anti-integrationism. Sue also fails to consider that many racial groups now prefer to self-identify or self-segregate on the basis of race. Yet, we do not think of them as racists. In recent U.S. history, for persons of African-American descent, this originated with organizations such as the Black Panther Party and the Nation of Islam, which eschewed the more inclusionary message of counterparts such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Sales, 2010).

Three related issues are inter-ethnic racism, intra-ethnic violence and “Christian privilege.”  Victor in the film “The Color of Fear” asserted (to the effect that) there is no good explanation for inter-ethnic racism, except in the context of white privilege. In light of the ethnic separatist movement, I would have to say this is incorrect. A more likely explanation for inter-ethnic racism is that, once they self-segregate, people who are members of a particular racial group tend to feel discriminated against, if only because of their increased internal cohesion and solidarity (Allen, 2004).

Victor also would have a hard time explaining black-on-black or Hispanic-on-Hispanic violence (Clarke, 1996), or the culture of nihilism expressed by younger members of long-established gangs such as the MS-13 (Hagedorn, 2008). How is this caused by white privilege? I suspect Victor would adopt an external locus of control and blame it on institutionalized racism. The true fact of the matter, in my opinion, is that it is no different in principle than white-on-white violence. It should be analyzed in terms of violence and the factors predisposing people to it, not in terms of race.

The idea of “Christian privilege” also is problematic because, like racial communities, members of different religious groups tend to self-congregate. Then, they tend define out-groups as spiritually deficient, because they do not accept their theological beliefs. Many persons of the Jewish faith, for example, believe they are “God’s chosen people,” which at least can be construed to mean that anybody else is “not chosen.” Christian fundamentalists believe theirs is the only possible interpretation of scripture. As a next step, religious communities often suppose they are under an affirmative obligation to convert people who do not share their own theological principles. If one believes one’s God is the only one there is, then it follows that everybody else should (or even must) believe in it, too. For example, many persons who are evangelical Christians believe they are under an affirmative duty to proselytize. Due in part to forced conversions, Islam became the dominant religion of the Middle East within only a few years following the death of Muhammad in 632 CE.4

It is difficult to discern Christian privilege within this matrix of inter-cultural and cross-cultural currents. Judaism is an interesting case illustration. Because of factors such as the initial Diaspora and religious proscriptions, historically many communities comprised of persons of the Jewish faith were autonomous and self-sufficient. In the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s, most likely in response to pressures of modernism, persons of the Jewish faith were more prone to secularize and assimilate. For example, a study in 1990 showed that only 33.2% of persons in the U.S. identifying themselves as Jewish ever belonged to a synagogue; only 10% attended synagogue weekly; only 14.2% agreed the Bible is the actual word of God; only 11.6% kept kosher; only 18.9% usually lit candles on Friday night; and 30.6% sometimes had a Christmas tree. 16.4% had embraced irreligiousness, and 19.4% actually had converted to Christianity. Some 20 years later, however, Orthodox Judaism once again is prevalent.5

Status functions. Sue also misunderstands the dynamic of background facts and status functions. In order for there to be institutionalized racism, there must be a system supporting its collective recognition and acceptance. While of course it still exists in many cultural sub-groups6, this no longer is as prevalent as it once was (and certainly is less prevalent among Sue’s intended audience, who would not even consider reading his book unless they were at least modestly enlightened on these issues. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the civil rights movement now have culminated with the election of a president of the United States who, though clearly biracial, (at least) looks more black than white (Walters, 2007). Clarence Thomas, a member of the U.S. Supreme Court, is an African American (albeit probably one of the most conservative justices in its history). And, Sonia Sotomayor, the newest justice, is a self-described “wise Latina woman.”7 In 1948, in the case of Perez v. Sharp (32 Cal. 2d 711), the California Supreme Court abolished prohibitions on inter-racial marriage; the U.S. Supreme Court followed in 1967, in the case of Loving v. Virginia (388 U.S. 1). In August 2010, the U.S. District Court declared California’s recently enacted Proposition 8, prohibiting same-sex marriage, was unconstitutional (McKinley & Schwartz, 2010); this ruling presently is on appeal (McKinley, 2010). These developments would not have been possible until recently.

Particularly considering the current economic crisis, categories such as “black” and “white” no longer make as much sense as ones like “rich” and “poor”8. Two recent examples of this: the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, Washington Post columnist and MSNBC commentator Eugene Robinson recently declared there is no such thing anymore as “black America” (Robinson, 2010). And, the noted feminist writer Susan Faludi recently wrote there is no such thing any more as the “feminist movement” (Faludi, 2010). The reason why is that older “racial” and “gender” divisions have disintegrated as other, more salient categories have taken their place. Maybe even the idea of the “middle class” now is a myth. It an amorphous designation to begin with, dissolving under economic pressure and political polarization (Foster, 2010).

In conclusion, Sue’s basic theory is that because of who one is, they can’t not be a racist, or at least not be predisposed to being one. For the reasons I have set forth, however, I believe this is incorrect. Sue simply lumps everybody into the same category – arguably, evidence of his own subtly racial biases.


Spike Lee has been quoted as stating: “Racism = Power”9. I think he is right when he says that racism is, or is equivalent to, or has something to do with, the exercise of power. It is a mistake, though, to equate all forms of the exercise of power as racism; or, even to assume that racism is the most apparent way in which power is exercised. Rather, it is a subset of the many ways in which power accrues to institutions and the ways in which people become victimized by its use.

“Power” means you can make somebody do something you want for them to do, even if they don’t want to do it. If one does what one wants to do anyway, then power is not exercised. Exercising power is someone’s intentional act. It is different from influence, which is getting people to want something they otherwise wouldn’t want. It is different from getting people to perceive some options as more desirable then others, or preventing them from seeing available options, which if presented to them, might have affected the outcome. It also is different than leadership, which is the ability to inspire trust and confidence (Searle, 2010).

We live in a social environment where power is exercised by the government, the military, the penal system, large corporations, and similar others. The reason why they have power is because of background cultural practices, resulting in norms of behavior, the rise of institutions regulating it, and other categories of social facts. These in turn carry “deontic powers” such as rights, duties, obligations, requirements, permissions, authorizations, entitlements, etc., all of which present desire-independent reasons for acting one way instead of another. Sanctions are imposed when one violates the expectations they create (Searle, 2010).

The French philosopher Michel Foucault characterized this as “biopower” (Foucault, 1998). As a result of living in a social network, humans regress to the mean and are “normalized” to expect to be administrated, herded, marketed to, and generally told what to do. The invisible structures of power promote lassitude and conformity. Technology, particularly recent phenomena such as “social networking,” facilitates this compliance. Modern media, in its rapacious search for celebrity and relentless descent to the lowest common denominator of consumer preference, exacerbates these trends. It alters people’s personal expectations of what counts as meaningful, reinforces cultural stereotypes, and creates a kind of “learned dependence” upon the status quo. The real problem is not “racism.”  The equation is more complex; it really is about “powerism.”

Interim Conclusion

For these reasons (among others), my current perspective is that one has to look beyond issues of race to get to the true meaning of multi-culturalism. Categories like “race,” or even the salience of “being handicapped” or “appearing to be mentally disabled,” aren’t the relevant metric. One even must look beyond culture, to the realm of powerful institutions, the media, and social pressure to conform. To have deconstructed race or culture, or go “beyond” it, doesn’t mean one ignores it, or doesn’t think about it. One need not deny one is a member of a group, or that one is a beneficiary of whatever advantages have accrued as a result. Rather, one not only becomes aware of it, but also does what one can to influence the course of dialog (which is not an exercise of power, as per above), to enable others to reach the same outcome.

This leaves one with the question, “whose responsibility is it to instigate change?” Here’s how I think this can be addressed, at least provisionally. Whenever somebody has what we call a “right,” it means that person can act against somebody else’s interests. The person whose interests are being acted against has a correlative “duty” to acquiesce, whether or not they want to do so.10 The existence of this duty presents a desire-independent reason for action, in the form of compliance (Searle, 2010). To take a simple example, and while there is a narrow set of constitutional exceptions, I have a right to free speech. This means others have a duty not to impinge on it.

A universal human right “to be free from racism” does not fit easily into this schema, because there is no counterpart universal human duty “not to be a racist.” In saying this, it is not my intention for anybody to get excited ideologically. Rather, it is an issue with all human rights in general. It “might be nice” if people weren’t racists, and a tolerant society should aspire to a set of conditions where everybody can be judged on their own merits, regardless of race (or any other factor, for that matter, other than their own unique personhood). From an axiological standpoint, it is hard to make an argument that racism is valuable in and of itself, or that it benefits humanity. Except for a few, it has no direct social utility.

In the United States, at least, there are specific negative obligations associated with particular classifications of persons, such as not to interfere with housing rights, employment rights, not to commit hate crimes, and not to discriminate on a variety of other bases. These are extremely important, and we as a society should be grateful they are in place as minimal standards of performance. I fully support programs of affirmative action to redress imbalances arising out of previous misapplications of this equation.

That being so, the formal logic of these “negative rights” is different from that of “positive rights,” even those positive rights (such as the “right to live in peace”) which really are negative rights in logical structure (such as “the right to live in peace,” which really means “free from interference by others,” or “the right to attempt to obtain a positive right,” which really means “you have no right to interfere with me from trying to do so”) (Searle, 2010).11

This still leaves one in a quandary, though, as to whose responsibility it is to instigate change. Each of us has a moral duty to further this objective, to the fullest extent possible, within the practical confines of one’s everyday life. The existence of this duty may not be strictly derivable from principles of deontic logic. However, it is part of the highest ideals of being human to be free from “isms,” like racism. People are not amenable to being classified, nor should they be discriminated against, on the basis of race or any other condition, other than whom they are as unique individuals. As expressed by Lon Fuller (1964), there is a morality of aspiration that transcends a morality of duty.12


(1) This term originated with Robinson (1950).

(2) The social anthropologists who originally developed the concept of “latent functions” held religion primarily is a cultural phenomenon resulting in, among other consequences, improved social cohesion and utility, in an economic sense; on margin, its usefulness outweighs its costs (Durkheim, 1912/2008; Weber, 1905/2002). In contrast, phenomenological theories hold religion primarily is a set of beliefs people devise in order to explain the world and natural processes such as life and death (Frazer, 1890/2009). It is a search for meaning (or, an attempt to elude meaninglessness) by interpreting, or entering into a relationship with, the transcendental, i.e., that which is not immediately perceivable by the senses (Eliade, 1957/1987). As such, it primarily is experiential (Otto, 1923/1958).

(3) And thus fundamentally are unlike cases of “profiling,” for example, assuming that all gay men have AIDS, or that all Muslims are terrorists. Some 72% of births to people of African-American descent occur outside of marriage, as opposed to some 29% of births among people who are of Caucasian descent (Landale, Schoen & Daniels, 2010). There is a large school “achievement gap” between students of African-American and Mexican-American background between counterpart students of Caucasian background (Skelton, 2010, Dec. 6). This does not mean women of African-American descent are genetically more prone to be single mothers, or that students of African-American or Mexican-American descent are stupider than students of Caucasian descent. Many other factors, such as SES and cultural expectations, are in play. From the standpoint of pop culture, the problem of profiling is highlighted by TV shows such as “Criminal Minds,” which is about a (hopefully, fictitious) FBI “behavioral analysis” unit.

(4) Exploring this dynamic in detail, see Stark (2003) and Armstrong (2010).

(5) Lawson (2010). In the Fairfax District of Los Angeles, for example, menorahs and other symbols associated with the Jewish faith are prominently on display in many public places, even as Christmas trees proliferate amidst shopping centers such as The Grove, a few blocks away. Christmas trees have nothing to do with Christianity, but rather are economic devices designed to drive holiday (including Hanukkah) sales. Would public displays of crosses on, say, the streets of Pacific Palisades, or Islamic symbols in Beverly Hills, be cause for consternation?

(6) The most flagrant recent example might be the “Tea Party” movement. The ostensible alienation of its members, and their concerns over the “otherness” of government, most likely are a disguised form of racism, or at least racial phobia (Fraser, 2010). Recent statements by Fox News commentators such as Glenn Beck have been condemned as (and they are) blatantly racist (Hitchens, 2011, Jan.).

(7) Does this mean that all men are stupid, or perhaps just Latino men? Or, possibly, women who aren’t Latinas?

(8) Unquestionably there is a high correlation between SES and race; my point simply is that it is a form of category error to conflate the two.

(9) I have been unable to find a good cite for this quote. It certainly is implicit in much of his work such as the seminal film, “Do the right thing”.

(10) This idea dates back to the British jurist John Austin (1832/1995).

(11) What happens in the absence of a right, that later is recognized?  Consider, for example, the institution of slavery (abolished by the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862), or a woman’s right to vote (not recognized until 1920). Did the disenfranchised “have” the right all along, or did it only then start to exist?  Arguably these simply are two different ways to report the same set of facts. They have immense practical significance, however. Consider: “This has been our territory for 300 years, and you’re occupying it” versus “This hasn’t been our territory, since our claims to it haven’t been recognized for 300 years” (Searle, 2010). Wars have been fought over this distinction. Under the institution of slavery, slaves had no rights because they were not thought of as human beings. Many people formerly thought slavery was a perfectly acceptable institution, and still do; consider, for example, the enslavement of teenagers to work as prostitutes, common in most large U.S. cities. While this point certainly can be argued in both directions, my intuition is that if somebody can override a right, then the right probably doesn’t exist, until that activity is stopped.

(12) The question of “where do these moral imperatives come from” is beyond the scope of this essay.


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