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Thoughts on racism (2): identify the racist

The Virtue of Selfishness

The Virtue of Selfishness (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Apologies for neglecting the queries in the comments lately, but I’ve been consumed in preparations for my presentations at the Atlas Society’s Graduate Seminar next week at George Washington University. A few months ago, I posted “Thoughts on Racism (1)” on Rosalind Hursthouse’s account of “the repentant racist.” Here is “Thoughts on racism (2),” an exercise designed to apply the definition of racism that I extract from Ayn Rand’s account of racism in her essay of that name in The Virtue of Selfishness. Each item below poses a scenario and asks whether the claim asserted by the person in the scenario is racist or not. I’ll give my own definition and answers to the questions at (and as far as the blog is concerned, after) the TAS Seminar.

1. You meet a lawyer of Mexican descent. He says that he does pro bono legal work in defense of illegal immigrants. He adds that he’s a member of La Raza. Can you conclude that the latter membership implies racism on his part?

2. You’ve having a conversation about the Arab/Israeli dispute with a partisan of the Palestinian cause. You worry out loud about anti-Semitism among Palestinians. He says that he thinks that “anti-Semitism is a justifiable response to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and Golan.” Can you conclude that he’s an anti-Semite? (Assume that “anti-Semite” means “racist.”)

3. You’re having a conversation with a Palestinian in Israel. He recounts bitter experiences of discrimination at the hands of Israelis. “But what do you expect?” he asks. “The Israelis are nothing but the trash and rabble of Europe. They couldn’t make it there, so the Europeans dumped their trash on us, just like they did in America and Australia.” Is this statement anti-Semitic?

4. You’re having a casual conversation with a black colleague. The George Zimmerman case comes up. Your colleague begins the conversation on the premise that Zimmerman is obviously guilty of murder. Is this assumption racist?

5. You’re having a conversation with an Armenian person who lived through the Turkish massacres of the Armenians. He recounts the horrors he experienced, and adds: “Don’t be so shocked, though. Murder is just part of the Turkish character and way of life. ‘Every Turk is born a soldier’ is one of their own goddamn slogans. It’s just deeply ingrained in them. They think life is cheap, especially if it’s not Muslim or not Turkish. The Europeans are morons for wanting to have these animals in the EU.” Is this statement racist?

6. An Italian-American friend of yours wants to have a party on Columbus Day. As a joke, he suggests that everyone dress up as Indians (i.e., Native Americans): “They got wasted—and so will we!” Is this suggestion racist?

7. Your department chair is worried that there’s insufficient (racial) diversity among the faculty and graduate students in your department. He asks you to be on a committee to deal with the problem. Is the very formulation of this problem racist? Is the request? Is the chair himself a racist for making the suggestion?

8. Ayn Rand in 1979: “If you mean whose side should we be on: Israel or the Arabs? I would certainly say Israel because it’s the advanced, technological, civilized country amidst a group of almost totally primitive savages.” This claim has often been described as racist. Is it?

9. A favorite uncle of yours is credibly but not conclusively accused of child molestation by an alleged victim who’s waited twenty years to make the accusation (and whose story cannot be confirmed by third party testimony or physical evidence). The family, in a fit of righteous indignation, pulls together in defense of the uncle, attacking the credibility of the attacker, and expecting you to join in. Should you? Suppose you don’t, and  you’re accused of betrayal, both to the uncle and to the family as a whole. Are they racists? Would your cutting them some slack make you a racist? (This is a non-standard example, but see Rand’s examples on pp. 147-48 of “Racism,” and contrast them with Appiah’s discussion of the partiality we owe family members in his “Racisms.”)

10. You’re at an academic conference. A white academic, A, makes an argument with which another white academic, B, disagrees. A says to B: “Well of course you’d say that; you’re just part of the dominant white elite.” Would it be justified for you to join the discussion by accusing A of racism?

11. Here is the text of Israel’s Law of Return, which gives preference to Jews in matters of immigration. Is it racist?

[12. You’re in the Old City of Jerusalem, in the courtyard of what Muslims regard as the Al Aqsa Mosque Complex, and what Jews call “The Temple Mount.” An argument ensues between a Palestinian Muslim and an Israeli Jew. “Get out!” the Muslim screams at the Jew. “This place belongs to us. Al Quds [Jerusalem] belongs to us. You are the betrayers and murderers of the prophets. You don’t belong here!” The Jew responds: “This is the Temple Mount, not your fraudulent ‘Al Aqsa’. We were here long before you were here. You are the ones who don’t belong here. We have the means to throw you out, and we will!” This is obviously a religious dispute. Is it also a racial dispute? Is “racist” an appropriate category for describing one or both of these individuals?]*


*I added this example after posting the original post. An even dozen examples works better than eleven. Or so my venerated ancestors have always believed.



  1. The Appiah link goes to Wikipedia instead.

  2. irfankhawaja says:

    Thanks, fixed that link, and linked to a summary of the Appiah argument. I actually modified these examples once again for use at TAS, but more on that later.

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