This article is in response to a video by Mic titled, “Racism is a spectrum,” the caption of which boldly claims, “Are all white people racists? Yes, of course they are. Let us explain” (Video Link – Here)
Aside from the fact that saying an entire group of people - by virtue of their skin color - is racist sounds a bit, well, racist, my writing of this article isn’t to question the validity of the argument or even its claims against white people, but rather the soundness of thelogic used in reaching its conclusion.
For those of you who are already beginning to get lost, a valid argument is one which possesses good logical structure – one which takes a form that makes it impossible for the premises to be true and the conclusion nevertheless to be false. It’s important to emphasize that when testing for validity, the premises are assumed to be true. Thus, a valid argument does not require true premises to be true.
This Is where the term “soundness,” and the source of my objection to this video’s argument, comes into play. An argument is sound if and only if the argument is 1) valid and 2) all of its premises are true. By now you should see that an argument can be perfect valid, yet imperfectly sound. Now that you’ve successfully passed Logic 101, let’s take a look at the video’s argument as presented in its summarized logical-form below:
P1 – Broadly speaking, the word “racist” is defined as, “someone who feels discrimination or prejudice to people of a different race, or feels that one race is superior to another.”
P2 – Because the definition is an either/or, a person who meets the former half while failing to meet the latter half is still, by definition, a racist.
P3 – Because people can have varying degrees of prejudice, racism is not a binary output, but rather a spectrum.
P4 – The implicit association test shows that all people have varying degrees of racial bias.
P5 – White people fall within the category of “all people.”
∴ Ergo, “Are all white people racists? Yes, of course they are.”
Let’s take a look at the first two premises, in which the speaker defines what a racist is, only to then narrow the definition and subsequently expand the scope of those whom it describes. This one-two combo is really informal fallacy known as a straw man– an argument in which the offender creates the illusion of having completely refuted an opponent’s position through the subtle replacement of it with a different but similar position.
In the context of the video, the speaker makes use of semantics to present an either/or definition of the word “racist,” which then allows him to immediately discredit the natural counter-argument to his thesis. In doing so, the speaker misconstrues what it means to be a racist by, in his own words, using prejudice as the foundation of what racism is. Insert any number of other equally acceptable definitions of the word racism, and the argument falls apart.
Take, for instance the top definition for racism via a google search which defines racism as, “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.” Alternatively, the Wikipedia entry on racism defines racism as “discrimination and prejudice towards people based on their race or ethnicity.” As a final example, take Merriam-Websterfor Students whichdefines racism as, “discrimination or hatred based on race.”
Notice that these three definitions all specifically include some form of action directed towards others. It’s only through the speaker’s definition – which is equivalent in meaning, but subtly different in semantics – can the scope of racism be expanded to anyone who simply possesses some degree of racial prejudice, even if such prejudice is never acted upon.
This is yet another important distinction to make – the difference between being a racist and simply having prejudice. The speaker even admits that having prejudice, alone, doesn’t necessarily make you a racist. However, rather following this concession with its logical extension – which would say that being a racist requires action motivated by this prejudice – the speaker introduces the concept of racism existing on a spectrum by which the amplitude of one’s implicit racial-bias is the more or less a means to measure their position on the spectrum of racism (listed as premise three above).
All of a sudden, those who possess more implicit prejudice are more racist than those with less implicit prejudice. Extending this logic, this means that two people – neither of whom have ever acted out of racism towards another person – can not only both be racist, but also be different levels of racist, simply because they possess different levels of bias.
Surely, no one, including those at Mic, actually takes this view. Unfortunately, though, while “Racism is a spectrum” by Mic, is, on its surface, a video that has good intentions in explaining how we all possess a degree of racial-prejudice, it falls short of constructively building on this revelation by trying to imply that prejudice, alone, carries some degree of moral equivalency to actually racism. This type of definition, and its corresponding claim against white people, is not only offensive, but also marginalizes the impact of real racism and any meaningful discussion that can be had as to how to mitigate it.