Racism and Moral Character


As some of you know I teach a Philosophy and Race course on a regular basis. As some of you also know, my sons are Latino and African American, so on a much more regular basis I think about race. And I am an ethicist, and my dissertation and first book were on moral character and the military. So the debate in the press about the number of supporters of a certain presidential nominee that hold views generally considered to be racist, and whether that makes them ‘deplorable’ or having bad moral character (‘being bad people’) piqued my interest.

In addition to this, our speaker for Fall Conference at PLU this year was a scholar who studies whiteness and race, named Robin DiAngelo.  One of her points was that we have a binary where ‘racists’ are Othered as immoral persons deemed to hold beliefs that are outside the pale of ‘normal’ people in society who are moral.  Her point here is that given White Privilege and systemic and institution racism which ensures white dominance and power, this binary is false and also unhelpful in white folks (like me) confronting and changing their own participation in this system, the water that is all around us, that we (as whites) swim in and cannot see. Charles Mills in The Racial Contract argues the same invisibility point in discussing the epistemology of ignorance; the system is designed so its privilege and bias are invisible to those who most benefit from it. here

All this said, there is an argument to be made (and is made by POC) that refusing to call people with consistently racist views immoral or bad is simply complicity with a system that refuses to acknowledge the problem and is designed to make these people feel better. The issue is that is seems worse (morally speaking) to CALL someone a racist, than for someone to BE a racist and this ‘calling out’ is crossing a line. So we are morally shocked by calling or being called a racist, but not morally shocked at racism or its harms visited on our brothers and sisters.

As an ethicist (favoring Aristotle and David Hume), I am inclined to judge moral character on the basis of habit and action, although clearly thought, intention, deliberation and sentiment inform and motivate these. So if we have someone who habitually has beliefs, sentiments, attitudes, actions and behaviors that we would describe as racist, then it seems that they have a racist character. To the degree we agree racism is immoral or morally problematic, then they have an immoral and morally problematic character. Its hard, at this point, to see what is wrong or problematic with saying or noting this as a moral judgement, just as we do with people who habitually lie, kill, cheat or exploit.

The question for me is whether in DiAngelo’s language we are ‘calling people out’ or ‘calling people in.’  The first tends to be motivated for a desire to shame and show that a person is outside the normative bounds of the community and its moral code. The second is calling the person to account within the community and hopefully to change their behavior to accord with the moral code of the community. Naturally, I would prefer the second, but that requires that racism and racist beliefs, actions and behaviors are truly at odds with our moral codes.

The recent kerfuffle has me wondering if the reactions to this issue demonstrate that racism is NOT outside the bounds of our moral norms as a community,  Therefore to ‘call it out’ is to acknowledge the fact that racism is part of our communal fabric, but we are supposed to be silent and acquiesce to that fact, except in really egregious cases that we will agree represent exceptions to the rule (terrorists, serial killers, ‘mentally unfit’)

But I don’t know…

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