The Religious Conviction that America is Systemically Racist

Since the Democrats use the accusation that America is systemically racist to divide the country and stay in money and power, philosophy Prof. Boghossian posts a video of a discussion with two university students, a white male (hereafter M) and a white female (hereafter F), on the notion that “America is racist”. They are asked to state their degree of support: strongly agree, agree, slightly agree, neutral, slightly disagree, disagree, strongly disagree.

Professor Boghossian and his interviewees

When F is asked why she “slightly agrees” with the notion, she states that once she went into a store with a black friend and two employees told her friend they thought she was shoplifting because she was black.  F supports her view that America is systemically racist by citing a particular example, but that is the fallacy of hasty generalization (supporting a general conclusion on the basis of particular examples). When asked if that was a “one off,” F replies that she has “seen a lot of it”.  But that is the fallacy of composition in which one fallaciously infers from the properties of the parts, two racist individuals, to the properties of the whole American system.  Neither student ever comes to terms with these part-whole and particular-general distinctions.  It appears that neither student has even thought of them.

F states, astonishingly, that she believes America is systemically racist but doesn’t have the facts to back it up.  But then why does she believe it?  F adds that it is hard for her to “speak on it because I only see what happens in my group”.  But if she only sees what happens in her white group, why does she accuse America as a whole?  Perhaps sensing that she is on thin ice, F comes up with two new reasons to support her accusation against America, namely that she believes that “America is based in racist ideals and if you look at who the land is stolen from”.  

The first of these new arguments is the fallacy of begging the question (circular reasoning), that is, assuming what one purports to prove (the claim that America is founded in racist ideals simply repeats, in different words, the claim that America is systemically racist).  The second of her new arguments, that America is systemically racist because of the land was stolen long ago, is the genetic fallacy, i.e., fallacious arguing for a conclusion solely based on origins.  One cannot prove that America is racist now because it allegedly was racist long ago. 

When M is asked why he agrees with the notion, he says it is “because I believe [that] systemic inequalities … exist in the US”.   That is more circular reasoning.  When asked to explain what he means by “system,” M says, “I mean the violence inherent in the system … to quote Monty Python.”  Unfortunately, M has defined the word “system” by appeal to the word “system”, another circular definition that explains nothing, apparently not noticing the appropriate irony in the fact that he quoted a comedy troupe to explain his “intensely” believed view.  (Note: When one can quote Aristotle, and do so appropriately, as opposed to comedians, one is approaching the point where one can claim to know something.)

Boghossian asks M to give an example of a law on the books that’s racist and M informs him that “It doesn’t have to do with laws … [but] with entrenched social movements” because “laws are just one of the many things that govern behavior”.  Unfortunately, M has changed the parameters again.  The question was about “the system”, which is why Boghossian mentioned laws.   A law on the books, e.g., the old “redlining laws” that restrict where certain races can live, characterizes the legal system per se and would therefore, if such laws still exist, support the motion.  Further, when M mentions “social movements,” he is again committing the fallacy of composition, fallaciously inferring from the parts of the system, movements within it, to the whole system. 

After M lectures the professor that he is “degrading it to laws” alone, Boghossian asks M to name “a system within the US that is racist,” which is followed by a long comical period in which M walks around clutching his brow and waving his hands around as he says he’s trying to think of a “specific” one. 

Eventually, M suggests that we change the subject to gender relations where he might do better.  Boghossian indicates he wants to stay on the issue of racism so M tries again, saying, “it’s more just how people act with each other” but that again is a fallacy of composition from parts to whole.  Boghossian asks how is that a system and M states that it is “because we’re in the system, humans are systemic”, thereby managing to commit another fallacy of composition coupled with another circular definition (“it’s a system because humans are systemic”).  Boghossian also correctly points out that, on M’s logic, if a black person goes into a store and is not harassed then one could use M’s point to argue that there is a system in place that does not discriminate against black people.  At the point M appeals to F saying “She’s describing one from the outside”.  Unfortunately, F had rested on the fallacy of hasty generalization.

In another revealing exchange toward the end of the video Boghossian asks M what “evidence” would convince him to move from “strongly agree” to “agree” on a certain topic and M says “I don’t think I would … because I see no point”.  M later adds that he “has no idea” what evidence would make him shift to the opposite view.  That is, M admits that his views on that issue are unfalsifiable.  In a similar exchange with Boghossian, F, who is white, says that “People don’t see much racism if they are in a predominately white culture … but I do think America is racist.”   In effect, both M and F admit that facts are irrelevant to their political beliefs. This is the standard religious faith on university campuses these days: Accuse your own country irrespective of the facts!

Neither student has good reasons for their view that America is racist.  They have slogans and bumper stickers. They display no serious critical reasoning abilities.  These are only two cases but they reflect the uncritical indoctrination being prevalent on university campuses these days.  It would appear that student confidence in their political beliefs is inversely proportional to the actual strength of the evidence.  In all likelihood, M and F subscribe to the popular unfalsifiable campus religious belief that America is racist because they believe this makes them virtuous (another ad populum fallacy).  Real virtue is a much harder task.

In the fifth century B.C. Athens, Socrates held conversations with Athenian citizens in which he demonstrated that none of them had solid reasons for what they believe, indeed, that none of them had even actually thought about the issues -- and they killed him for it. 

Photo credit: YouTube screengrab

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