UNE philosopher David Livingstone Smith makes a case against the word “racism”

David Livingstone Smith
David Livingstone Smith

October 04, 2017

“Getting Rid of 'Racism,'” an essay by David Livingstone Smith, Ph.D., professor of philosophy, was published on the Philosophy Talk website on October 3. While he prefaces the essay with the statement that “racism is morally wrong” and “we should all make an effort to get rid of [it],” he makes clear that the aim of his essay is to explain why the word “racism” should no longer be used.

Smith explains that “if something is morally wrong, then it’s morally problematic to talk about that thing in ways that obscure its moral wrongness.”  And this is exactly what people are doing when they use the word “racism,” he claims.

According to Smith, there are many different conceptions of what racism is: feelings of hostility toward members of another race, the conception of racial others as inferior without hostility, an indifference toward another race with neither hostility nor belief in its inferiority, behavior that selectively disadvantages racial others, or structural racism – a condition in which social systems are inherently racist by empowering certain racial groups at the expensive of others.

With so many different definitions of racism, Smith argues that using the word is “morally opaque, because it blunts the fine edge of moral awareness and critique.”

Smith poses a question to his readers: “… instead of accusing someone of racism, why not dispense with the label and try to spell out as accurately as possible what you have in mind?”

“Doing this may not resolve the dispute,” he says, “but it will at least make clear what the dispute is really about.”

Read the essay

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