Sunday 3 January 2021

Racism Is Global and Local - But Not Especially American

The passionate global response to George Floyd's killing showed that the world is as connected as ever, despite the hard borders and economic nationalism induced by Covid. Yet it also showed that America is still the centre of world politics and the problems that come with that. 

Racism is a global phenomenon that one can find everywhere from South Africa to Brazil to India to Japan, but it takes different forms in different places. Americans are too quick to assume that their particular experience of the oppression of black people and their stop-start struggle for equal rights provides a universal diagnosis and treatment plan for racism. The rest of the world is too willing to copy and paste America's provincial self-understanding, however poorly it fits their situation.

I. Defining Racism

Racism is the toxic result of the intersection of two dispositions that seem built into human moral psychology.

  1. Status ranking
  2. Xenophobia

Both these dispositions provide normative shortcuts for categorising people, for deciding at a glance whether any particular person deserves to be properly seen as a whole, morally real person. Since the whole point is to quickly sort people on the basis of superficial features, ethnicity is an important marker. In full blown racism, victims are identified as degenerate aliens, i.e. both 

  1. low in moral status, meaning that their views, interests, and even lives don't matter as much and they should defer to high status individuals, and also 
  2. outsiders, meaning that they are otherised, objects of special attention and suspicion, and held to arbitrarily different standards.
Both aspects are required. High status outsiders, for example, will be treated differently than insiders, but it will be under the category of guests not threats (e.g. London is host to many French 'expats', but swarms of Eastern European 'migrants' also live there). Low status insiders, such as high school dropouts or people doing demeaning jobs, like street cleaners, may well encounter misrecognition and mistreatment, but not outright scepticism of their membership of the society. 

The problem of racism is that such failures to morally recognise each other properly can add up to much more than interpersonal wrongs. We are social creatures and in a society our prejudices can take on a life of their own, forming part of our shared social reality and systematically undermining the lives of those with the bad luck to be on the wrong end of them. However, it is the link to the political that makes racism truly dangerous, for politics has the capacity to amplify the significance of our prejudices and to shape their content: which groups are unlucky enough to be seen as both outsiders and low status; how their mistreatment is institutionalised; and the stories advanced to rationalise their treatment. Indeed, political entrepreneurs have often found this a very rewarding space of innovation.

This account of racism is deliberately thin. But it allows us to note and try to understand the many different forms that racism takes around the world. For example, we can note that racism in India works differently from that in America and has its own targets, histories, and rationalisations - relating for example to the institutionalised discrimination of the caste system and to more recent political histories including conflicts with Muslim Pakistan and the Hindu supremacy political movement that is currently hollowing out India's secular institutions. In many countries, including the Netherlands & Germany (until very recently), and Japan (still) the idea of nationality is bound up with autochthony (the ideal of unmixed descent from the people sprung from this soil) which presents a particularly hard barrier for visibly new comers to cross. In America, by contrast, autochthony is most likely to be encountered in a more positive context, as an argument for the special rights of indigenous peoples.

The point I am getting at here is that racism is everywhere but everywhere it is is different. It would be a mistake to elide any of the particular instantiations of racism with racism per se, and an even bigger mistake to try to use the analysis of such a particular as a framework for understanding and defeating the general challenge of racism. You would miss a lot of what is actually going on, and misdiagnose the rest. Yet this is just what seems to have happened in the global copy-pasting of America's reaction to the killing of George Floyd.

Activist discussion - and hence 'woke' discussion - of racism in America is currently dominated by the theory of white supremacy. This derives from an academic school of Critical Race Theory that developed in the 1980s and relatively recently broke into mainstream political culture thanks to the efforts of activists and eloquent writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates. The core idea is that America was founded on white people's collective interest in exploiting and suppressing of non-whites, a goal achieved by different institutional forms from racialised slavery to Jim Crow that continue into the present. Hence the experience of unequal and degrading treatment by people of colour in America today, whether at the hands of the criminal justice system or potential employers or teachers or shop employees, is merely a continuation of the same extractive oppression that has been essential to America from the beginning.

There are various problems with this white supremacy theory of racism. For example, it is very unclear how this supposed collective interest of whites works, somehow unconsciously, to motivate vast numbers of individuals to work in a coordinated way for the suppression of people of colour. 'White supremacy' is an axiom of the system, not an empirically testable claim. (Similar problems afflict Marx's account of class interests from which it seems to have been lifted.*) For another thing, even just considering America, there is an awful lot of unarguably racist behaviour that is hard to fit into an explanatory structure so clearly modelled on the experience of African Americans, such as the systematic mistreatment of Italians, Irish, Jews, Hispanics, or, more recently, Muslims.

But the point of this essay is not to analyse how wrong Americans' ideas of themselves are, but the larger puzzle of why people outside America have been so eager to adopt this one rather provincial theory of racism despite how poorly it fits their own situations. Why are we letting Americans do our thinking for us about something so important? My answer is that we have mistakenly allowed thinking about justice to be one more thing that we seek to economise on, and importing America's ideas is much cheaper than coming up with our own would be. 

II. The International Market for Ideas

China is economically and militarily powerful these days, but retains the charisma of wet cement.  Europe has some hits, but is too fragmented. America is still the cultural centre of the world. Everyone watches what they do: their celebrities, movies, tv, music, but also - more importantly - their political squabbles and the analysis of those squabbles by their media, academics, and activists. That means that the rest of the world imports American values without intending to, and also their value conflicts and their self-reflections about those conflicts. 

Why is America a cultural superpower? I see it as a straightforward outcome of internal economies of scale (Krugman's New Trade Theory explainer). The rest of the world imports and consumes such vast quantities of American TV, movies, music and other cultural products because they are much better than what we can make, despite their often awkward cultural fit and even the need for subtitling or dubbing. The reason they are better is that the economies of scale permitted by America's huge media market (rich and monolingual) allows their creative industries to invest much more in production quality than other countries (up to $15 million per episode of Game of Thrones, for example). This in turn supported the development of creative industry clusters (e.g. in New York and LA) that attract the most talented performers and writers from the rest of the world to their opportunities. The result is that people around the world are saturated in American cultural values, from models of romantic relationships to holidays like Halloween to what makes us laugh.**

A similar thing happens in academia, which is dominated by America for very similar reasons. As American academic philosophers, for example, became more excited about racism over the last decades and created centres of study and journals dedicated to its intellectual analysis, their framing of the problem and conclusions have become a major export. Even for philosophers thinking is expensive, since it comes at the expense of thinking about other things - the ones we need to think well enough about to get published so we can keep our jobs. When racism rather abruptly became a topic on which one ought to have a sophisticated progressive opinion, we all looked around for one we could buy off the shelf without having to do too much hard thinking of our own about it. Hence the sudden popularity of Charles Mills' Racial Contract among my Dutch academic philosophy colleagues, together with manifestos for diversifying the philosophy curriculum copied from American university websites. 

Finally, the same economies of scale explain why American politics has so much influence. America's politics are unusual in several respects. They are very public, in contrast to the closed door style of many countries (even many democracies - like Japan), which makes them accessible. They are also unusually ideological, i.e. there many disputes about which values should rule (not merely who), which makes America's politics interesting beyond its borders. Most importantly, America is a huge market for politics in which a great deal of money is spent publicising, analysing, and contesting ideas in entertaining ways.  Furthermore, the American market is big enough to support the development of large, sophisticated think tanks and activist groups pumping out ideas, talking points and memes on topics of political interest to Americans. It is often easier for activists in other countries to recycle those talking points than to come up with their own, even though their built in American framing may be a very imperfect fit with their situation. It is therefore not surprising that global interest in topics like sexual harassment, racial injustice, and trans rights follows closely behind and resembles that in America.

The outcome of America's proficiency in cultural exports is that the rest of the world finds it easiest (because cheapest) to think and talk like them. More specifically, the ready availability of American ideas and analysis makes it relatively more expensive to develop your own locally based ideas and reduces the local demand for any you do come up with. That is a problem for those, such as communitarians and deliberative democrats, who think that societies should think for themselves. As a liberal I usually disagree with those theorists so eager to get everyone in a society thinking the same thoughts at the same time. Thus - unlike communitarians - I don't think it does much harm that billions of people around the world enjoy watching Friends and The Office. I think it may even help us all to get along better by adding some shared experiences to the human condition. 

However, the case of racism has two features that demand greater localism. First, because the form of racism varies so much between places, America's export of white supremacy is unlikely to meet local needs. Even in objective (social) scientific inquiry from economics to politics to epidemiology to agriculture the domination of analysis by American academics - focused on how they have come to see the subject and the problems they care about - can be unhelpful and even dangerous. For example, American economists were until very recently focused almost entirely on investigating a rich economy like theirs, rather than the poor developing ones that make up most of the world, but this didn't stop American economics analysis from dominating global development policy with rather unfortunate consequences. Likewise, American white supremacy theory is completely irrelevant to cases of white on white racism (such as the kind of discrimination against Eastern Europeans that contributed to the Brexit vote, or that troubles Northern Ireland), and not much help even with many of Europe's white-nonwhite injustices, such as the systematic mistreatment of 10 million Roma or hostility to refugees crossing the Mediterranean. Nor should we forget that non-white majority countries are also locations of racial injustice, and indeed that there are far more people suffering such injustice there since there are far more people living in them. 

Second, there are some things in life that are worth knowing but that we don't need to make the effort to figure out for ourselves, such as how vaccines or climate change work, or the global timeline for the abolition of slavery. In such cases it makes sense to have a division of intellectual labour in which only the products are exchanged (for example, by being made available on Wikipedia). However, there are certain things - values - for which there is no such shortcut because the process of coming to know them is a process of coming to live by them. Racism is an injustice of misrecognition, but it is an error not only of individuals' orientation towards each other but of whole cultures, whole ways of life and meaning. In other words, it is a failure of collective as well as individual self-government. Overcoming these failures requires a society to engage in a genuine shared engagement with them, something which sharing another American BLM meme is unlikely to achieve. In various countries there has been an attempt to move beyond protesting George Floyd's killing to such a process (including the Netherlands) but many of these seem to be struggling against the limits of copy-paste protesting.

Finally, such relevant and genuine localism needs to feed back into a wider, deeper, more serious global anti-racist politics. This is especially important because many regimes around the world are not only uninterested in overcoming racial injustice but are consciously committed to it. Narendra Modi seems intent on remaking India as a Hindu nation, with non-Hindus, especially Muslims, reduced to sub or non-citizenship. Xi Jinping seems to be trying to rebuild the political legitimacy of the Communist Party's rule on ethnic (Han) nationalism and is systematically crushing every ethnic minority into its new place under the empire's floor. The military-civilian government of Myanmar has used mass murder and rape to ethnically cleanse an entire ethnic group from the country. Regional politicians in Ethiopia have systematically exploited racial distinctions to build up their powerbases and independence from the central government: a Bosnia-style genocidal civil war may already be inevitable (only with 110 million not 4 million people at risk). There are plenty of other cases.

I am not saying that we do not have any other ways to criticise these atrocities (such as human rights), nor that any moral criticism could now succeed in changing the paths chosen by these regimes. Nonetheless, it is surely absurd that the dominant definition of racism has nothing to say about them (except perhaps some biting remarks about the legacy of white colonialism). Moreover, if the rest of the world had been more attentive to the diversity of racism's forms, perhaps we might have seen some of these coming in time to do something about them. Among other things, perhaps we wouldn't have been so quick to give a Bamar supremacist a Nobel Peace Prize.


Americans are so used to being the centre of the world that they assume that they must be the main protagonist of every story - even if that means claiming to be the evil villains who invented racism! But racism was not invented by dead white male Americans, nor by the other Europeans who went colonising 500 years ago, though it was certainly committed by them. The reduction of racism to this or any other single story is profoundly misleading and unhelpful. Racism is not an historical fact, like the invention of gunpowder, but a recurring danger of human political society, like war. 

However, at least the Americans are trying to think for themselves about their all too real problem of racial injustice. The rest of the world has largely avoided doing so. There was a surreal copy-paste quality to the worldwide demonstrations in front of American embassies against the killing George Floyd while BLM memes circled virtually overhead on Twitter and Facebook. On something this important, every society needs to do its own thinking without trying to take a shortcut.


*A further unfortunate similarity to Marxism is that if anyone (whether they are white or not) isn't convinced by the arguments for the white supremacy account, this is interpreted as evidence of an ideological/identity blindness induced by their class interest. Such theories are thus self-immunised against criticism or refutation.  

**There is a lot more to say about the economics of scale of cultural industries that is interesting, but would be a distraction from my main point. For example about why America's sports don't travel far (no advantage to being a large mono-lingual market) and its mediocre performance in the high arts such as classical music or literature (older industries already established in Europe). 

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution: Thomas R. Wells is a philosopher in The Netherlands. He blogs on philosophy, politics, and economics at The Philosopher's Beard.