Why racism is a form of structural injustice

April 08, 2021 06:00
Photo: Reuters

Our previous discussion took us to the conclusion that racism can manifest in both speech and action.

It is equally apparent that racism can rear its head in places where it is least expected to – it is by no means the sole propriety of your stereotypical ‘hillbillies’ or, as some narratives unhelpfully and misleadingly argue, of the ‘uneducated’ ‘deplorables’. Highly educated, incredibly cosmopolitan individuals who espouse ‘liberal’ ideals can also be racist – when they exhibit fundamentally erroneous, misinformed, and disrespectful beliefs concerning other races, or when they act in racially differentiated ways towards individuals of particular ethnicities that thereby undermine their interests.

There is racism that is direct, obvious, intentional, and individual in nature. Such racism is malevolent, and arises from agents intending to cause harm or disrespect towards others on the basis of their race.

And then there is racism that is indirect, implicit, unintended, and collective in kind. Such racism would count as a structural injustice. Unpacking this proposition requires us to first make sense of what ‘structural injustice’ denotes. There are at least three possible senses in which the phrase is typically deployed in academic or everyday discourse.

The first sense concerns the site of injustice. Structural injustice takes place within structures – e.g. the workplace, the school, the government. This is juxtaposed against injustice that occurs outside these structures, e.g. between individuals interacting in a consensual manner, decoupled from wider structures; alternatively, between non-interacting agents who relate to each other tangentially only through their thoughts (e.g. someone holding a racist view and belief of another individual, without ever seeking to establish the veracity of the claim).

The second sense pertains to the cause of injustice. Structural injustice is induced by social structures – caused by collectives of persons and institutions, rather than distinctively identifiable groups or individuals. Empirically, such forms of injustice are often perpetrated and maintained by corporate agents, imagined or reified communities, political groups and parties, as opposed to individuals that can be singled out in our attempt to attribute causation and responsibility.

The final sense, in some ways, is the product of cross-pollination of the above two, and in many ways constitutes the logical implication of the two – structural injustice gives rise to structural responsibility, as Iris Marion Young argues in her seminal Responsibility for Justice. It occurs when individual agents, acting perfectly (ostensibly) within their remit and in accordance with established background norms in their society, bring upon harmful outcomes that afflict vulnerable or marginalised individuals in their community.

How does structural racism play out, then?

When it comes to the site of racism, structural racism occurs under well-defined settings. American schools leaving out histories of anti-Asian American and anti-African American discrimination over the past centuries; universities dismissing reports of harassment from Chinese students as the product of “anxieties over COVID-19”; Chinese television promulgating Blackface and bizarre stereotypes of Africans in adverts. These aren’t just one-off instances of damningly glaring racism, but the tips of icebergs, the cogs of machines that entrench bigoted tropes about races, and seek to normalise them in name of “workplace culture” or “socially accepted norms”. Structural racism inheres in structures.

Then there is the cause. I do not want to whitewash racism – but it is well worth noting that even “good” folks, too, well-intentioned and benign in kind, could also be capable of racism. Racism need not stem from intentional malice – it could instead be the product of decades of inculcation and brainwashing in schools, or ritualisation and routinisation of racially targeted habits, or, indeed, innocuous beliefs and value judgments that add up to supporting some rather questionable tenets of action (e.g. Malthusian economics oft being invoked to justify racist eugenics and persecution of minority races). Individuals could be complying with the guidelines and protocol of their employers when enacting racism – this does not render the racism any more acceptable or palatable, but it certainly suggests that it would be flawed, if not dangerous, to lay the blame squarely and solely at the feet of individual actors.

Finally, on responsibility. Consider someone’s accidental poisoning of an innocent party – we should not hesitate to condemn the poisoning, to regret the death, to call out the moral failures and cognitive shortcomings that culminated at the accidental killing; yet – unlike manslaughter or murder – we would not blame the agent in question per se for their actions. Blame connotes a very specific kind of judgment, that suggests that it is reasonable for us to attribute the negative outcome in question (e.g. the death) to the intentions, will, and character of the agent.

The agent here may not have intended to kill their victim. Perhaps they could not have acted otherwise; perhaps they were merely following orders (without knowing that their compliance would lead to another party’s death); perhaps they were acting under good faith – under the (mistaken) presumption that their actions served the interest of the deceased. Indeed, under certain circumstances, we may even find these agents wholly blame-free for their acts – just as we may find individual agents undeserving of any blame for their racism. Structures are oppressive, coercive, and transformative – and they could well dictate or shape individual decisions in ways that are beyond resistance.

Yet it is high time that we disentangle the presumption that all racists must be blameworthy in order to qualify as racists, and our condemnation of racist speech and act. It’s not good enough to argue that “racists should be racists because that’s the culture in which they’re raised” (itself a rather questionable – morally speaking – claim rooted in cultural essentialism). It’s equally not good enough to ‘excuse’ racism by invoking the classic “Forgive and forget them! – they didn’t mean it”.

We can call out, challenge, and problematicise racism, whilst remaining comprehensively cognizant of the moral complexities at stake here. It’s one thing to posit that structures cause individuals to become racists, and thus they should be treated as blameless insofar as blame is concerned; it’s another to argue that their actions are thus justified or acceptable. No – the fact that someone’s racism could not have been avoided, does not render it any more acceptable or warranted. Racism is racism, and we must work to combat it.

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Assistant Professor, HKU