The sociological definition that racism is prejudice plus power is immoral and dishonest. Though it’s amusing how non-white people attempt to absolve themselves of their racism on account of their nonexistent institutional power, they are, in effect, racists.
It’s a sad truth that a person’s pigment still matters. And to say that white people tend to experience less prejudice is not a controversial statement.
Still, I find myself bemused.
“Black people can’t be racist. Prejudiced, yes, but not racist,” said Logan Browning, the actress who plays Sam White in Netflix’s “Dear White People.” “Racism describes a system of disadvantage based on race. Black people can’t be racists since we don’t stand to benefit from such a system.”
This drivel is a convoluted, convenient pardon for non-white people. Should we suspend reason for a moment and accept the definition that racism is prejudice plus power, then, yes, a non-white person cannot be racist.
But this semantic ploy, first introduced by social scientist Patricia Bidol-Padva in the 1970s, raises several issues which demonstrate how incredibly unhelpful the sociological definition is.
Imagine two people, Sophia and Agnoia, in conversation. Agnoia, a person of color, mutters a racist epithet about a white passerby.
Sophia, also a person of color, calls Agnoia a racist. Agnoia claims it is impossible for her to be racist, only prejudiced, because racism is prejudice plus power.
Then, Agnoia claims that reverse racism is not real.
Sophia corrects Agnoia, detailing that racism is a matter of prejudicial, racial superiority and hostility — power or influence do not factor — and clarifies that, indeed, reverse racism does not exist. There is only racism.
Agnoia reiterates that racism is prejudice plus power, and excuses herself of the label she deserves (again assuming the conclusion that a non-white person cannot be racist, that she is only prejudiced).
This circular reasoning, if education, veracity and sanity are to matter, should be disavowed, as should linguistic confusion, which deprives language of its efficacy.
Prejudice, a preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or experience, is only one component of racism. The Oxford Dictionary defines racism as prejudice, discrimination and antagonism foundationalized by notions of racial superiority.
Here, Agnoia’s epithet, if considered racist, must be more than mere prejudice. But there is no means by which a person of color can be racist if racism is prejudice plus power, regardless of whether they are, in effect, racist.
In this regard, the word prejudice is wholly impotent.
Racist bigots should not be excused on account of being brown, or not white. Should that claim upset you, I invite you to interrogate yourself.
In this spirit, power and prejudice succumb to at least two additional deficiencies.
First, the formulation that racism is prejudice plus power commits the single cause fallacy, which occurs when a complex problem is oversimplified without acknowledging the tapestry of joint causes.
Further, power works here if, and only if, white people are diligent members of a united, cohesive body of white people, who possess the requisite influence and access (simply by virtue of their whiteness) to affect cultural and institutional structures. This is unreasonable, and exhibits the thought pattern of a racist: all people of a certain race are identical.
Power is complex, operating vertically and horizontally. A lack of melanin does not grant absolute authority.
Secondly, there is the “reductio ad absurdum” (reduction to absurdity) case: an argument which illustrates the absurdity of its logical conclusion.
Suppose an analogous example of theft. For sake of illustration, imagine theft, a crime of stolen property, was stipulated as part of a system of oppression and occurred if, and only if, power and prejudice were determinants.
More still, because a person of color cannot benefit from the oppression, it’s impossible for theft to occur even if a person of color steals someone else’s possession.
In this case, because power and prejudice are immaterial, the act is no longer theft but, instead, false borrowing.
As a consequence, a non-white person could, in effect, steal a white person’s property. But the only recourse, if theft must include prejudice plus power, is to designate such a person a false borrower.
Again, this is ineffectual drivel, and it points to an error in reasoning. Neither theft nor racism are contingent on power or prejudice.
Proponents of the prejudice plus power stipulation must consider whether it applies to any other domain of social life.
The collective supersession of complexion over individual character suggests that a homeless white man has more power than, say, Denzel Washington or former President Barack Obama.
Untenable though this may be, this is where the logic leads.
There is no need to introduce a stipulation to redefine racism to include prejudice plus power because terms such as institutional racism or race-based oppression suffice, without obfuscating the discourse — and without emboldening unthinking racists of color.
Christopher Salazar PZ ’20 is a philosophy major from La Verne, California. He’s not one to proselytize, but he considers whiskey on the rocks sacrilege.