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The wrongs of racist beliefs

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We care not only about how people treat us, but also what they believe of us. If I believe that you’re a bad tipper given your race, I’ve wronged you. But, what if you are a bad tipper? It is commonly argued that the way racist beliefs wrong is that the racist believer either misrepresents reality, organizes facts in a misleading way that distorts the truth, or engages in fallacious reasoning. In this paper, I present a case that challenges this orthodoxy: the case of the supposedly rational racist. We live in a world that has been, and continues to be, structured by racist attitudes and institutions. As a result, the evidence might be stacked in favour of racist beliefs. But, if there are racist beliefs that reflect reality and are rationally justified, what could be wrong with them? Moreover, how do I wrong you by believing what I epistemically ought believe given the evidence? To address this challenge, we must recognize that there are not only epistemic norms governing belief, but moral ones as well. This view, however, is at odds with the assumption that moral obligation requires a kind of voluntary control that we lack with regard to our beliefs. This background assumption motivates many philosophers to try to explain away the appearance that beliefs can wrong by locating the wrong elsewhere, e.g., in an agent’s actions. Further, even accounts that accept the thesis that racist beliefs can wrong restrict the class of beliefs that wrong to beliefs that are either false or the result of hot irrationality, e.g., the racist belief is a result of ill-will. In this paper I argue that although these accounts will capture many of the wrongs associated with racist beliefs, they will be only partial explanations because they cannot explain the wrong committed by the supposedly rational racist. The challenge posed by the supposedly rational racist concerns our epistemic practices in a non-ideal world. The world is an unjust place, and there may be many morally objectionable beliefs it justifies. To address this challenge, we must seriously consider the thesis that people wrong others in virtue of what they believe about them, and not just in virtue of what they do.

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  1. Regarding North Carolina's discriminatory voter ID law, see:

  2. This is a commonly shared view. See for example, Appiah (1990), Ikuenobe (2011), Lengbeyer (2004), Clough and Loges (2008), etc. I will explore similar accounts in more detail in Sect. 4.

  3. You might worry, as an anonymous referee has worried, that that this constraint seems to conflate a theoretical task—explaining what makes Spencer’s belief racist and what makes it wrong—with the pragmatic task of engaging fruitfully with Spencer. I do not have a direct argument that Spencer's self-conception is correct, instead what I hope to provide is a suggestive argument that it would be disappointing if there could be no wrong if Spencer’s self-conception is correct. If that is how things turn out, then we although we might have all the theoretical resources we need to diagnose real-life Spencers whose self-conceptions are not completely accurate, we cannot engage with them. They, after all, think they are in a better position than us to know whether they have been dispassionately rational or biased in forming their belief. It is thus helpful to have this pragmatic constraint guiding the theoretical task of explaining what makes Spencer's belief racist. It may, nonetheless, turn out that the right answer to the theoretical question—what makes Spencer's belief wrong—involves attributing to Spencer an epistemic mistake or a moral failing, and as a result, we shouldn't grant Spencer his self-conception of himself. Nonetheless, the pragmatic constraint that we should, as much as possible, do our best to grant Spencer his conception of himself should constrain how we approach the theoretical question.

  4. Blum later changes his mind in Blum (2004) and argues that there is a plurality of racial ills that could all be regarded as racist.

  5. This statistic is loosely based on the Department of Justice's investigation of the Ferguson police department which found that 62% of residents had open arrest warrants, and of those residents, 92% were black. On Aug 25, 2015, a municipal court judge in Ferguson issued an order to withdraw all arrest warrants issued in Ferguson before Dec 31, 2014 due to the Ferguson police and the city's municipal court pattern and practice of discrimination against African-Americans. If you are worried that this case seems contrived, I note that in neighboring predominantly black municipalities, the ratios are even worse. For example, in Country Club Hills there are 33,102 active warrants for a population of 1381. Similarly, in Wellston there are 15,000 outstanding warrants for a population of 2460.

  6. If you are having difficulty with this intuition, consider the following analogous case from the movie Pretty Woman. Vivian Ward, played by Julia Roberts, is an escort who has been hired by Richard Gere's character, Edward Lewis. Edward gives Vivian money for a new wardrobe. Vivian visits a store in Beverly Hills, and the first shot when she enters the store is the reaction from the workers in the store. Although she reminds them she has money to spend in the store, the clerks refuse to believe her and ask her to leave. Although it seems like the wrong committed in this case concerns how the store clerks acted towards Vivian, you need only ask almost anyone you know with a darker tint what it feels like in a store where people believe you will shoplift. They may not always follow you around, they may not always act any differently towards you, but that they believe you will steal, or that they believe you can't afford anything in the store, etc. hurt. For more on these cases, see Basu (2018, chap. 2).

  7. Thanks to Jessie Munton for first illustrating this distinction in a similar way when presenting comments on this paper at Athena in Action.

  8. This is a simplified discussion of stereotypes and stereotyping. For a more nuanced and careful discussion, see Erin Beeghly (2015) and Louise Antony (2016).

  9. For example, I can unproblematically hold as my stereotype of a dog the image of Labrador retriever, but it doesn’t follow from my possession of that stereotype that I also accept the generic claim that “Dogs are Labrador retrievers”. Thanks again to an anonymous referee for this point.

  10. Note that a risky amplifying belief could also be a stereotype, but not all risky amplifying beliefs are stereotypes. I owe the term “risky amplifying belief” to a conversation with Renee Bolinger.

  11. See for example Gendler (2011) and Mandelbaum (2016). For some of the controversy surrounding the IAT see Oswald et al. (2013, 2015), Greenwald and Banaji (2015), and Madva and Brownstein (2016). Thanks to Gabbrielle Johnson for many conversations about implicit bias.

  12. For more on locating the wrong of racist and prejudiced beliefs in upstream features of an agent’s cognitive architecture see Begby (2013) and and Munton (MS). Begby argues that the reason why prejudices are epistemically insidious concerns how they become interalized as background beliefs that are recalcitrant to empirical counterevidence. Munton argues that the flaw in well-founded statistically accurate beliefs about certain demographics concerns how we tacitly ascribe the domain of the statistic in question. That is, there are often flaws in our implicit representation of the generality of statistics concerning the rates of violent crime, etc. (see also Bolinger (2018) and Gardiner (forthcoming) for more). As noted, I am in agreement that these accounts all get something right, they simply lack the resources to address the character of Spencer, and the peculiarities of the character of Spencer are my primary concern in this paper.

  13. Although Appiah himself does not think that these racial essences are biological, this account does seem to paint the racist as a biological essentialist. But, that is not necessary. For example, imagine a racist who doesn't believe that the differences are biological, merely cultural. For example, the racist who refuses to hire a Korean dogwalker because of the false belief that Koreans eat dogs. Again, we have a racial proposition Koreans eat dogs, which is false, and the disposition to treat their race (or culture) as being of moral significance because it indicates some morally relevant racial property. Alternatively, a clearer example of the cultural racist can be seen in cases involving resentment towards new immigrants from a particular country from the descendants of immigrants from that same country.

  14. She reiterates this point in Arpaly and Schroeder (2014, p. 234) when she asks, so, what's the difference between the ordinary racist, i.e. the one who deserves condemnation, and the alien racist who does not?

    One difference that springs to mind is the fact that the Earthly racist holds his belief in, e.g., the supremacy of the majority Chinese ethnicity against plentiful evidence that is readily available to him. With a typical level of intelligence and with the information that is available to rather uneducated people in the first world, he would probably not have developed his racist beliefs if there were not something amiss with him epistemically. The run-of-the-mill racist is epistemically irrational, as are other run-of-the-mill prejudiced people.


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I owe a large debt of gratitude to the following people for lots of enlightening comments and discussions: Mike Ashfield, Renee Bolinger, Kenny Easwaran, Maegan Fairchild, Stephen Finlay, Georgi Gardiner, Liz Harman, Pamela Hieronymi, Gabbrielle Johnson, Tanya Kostochka, Zi Lin, Jessie Munton, Mark Schroeder, Ralph Wedgwood, various other graduate students and faculty at USC, several anonymous reviewers, and audience members at Athena in Action and the Penn-Rutgers-Princeton Social Epistemology Workshop where this paper was presented under the title “Motivating Ethical Demands on Belief”.

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Correspondence to Rima Basu.

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Basu, R. The wrongs of racist beliefs. Philos Stud 176, 2497–2515 (2019).

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