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Is It Racism If You Admit You're A Racist But Decry Racist Behaviour?
May 13, 2002 8:36 AM   Subscribe

Is It Racism If You Admit You're A Racist But Decry Racist Behaviour? Geoffrey Sampson, Professor of Natural Language Computing at the University of Sussex in the UK is likely to be sacked from the Conservative Party for his defense of "racialism" as a legitimate human emotion. In an interview on this morninn's BBC Radio 4's "Today" programme, he said recognising people's racial prejudices is a scientific fact has nothing to do with espousing discriminatory behaviour. The Observer coyly shrank from linking Sampson's offending article but it wasn't difficult to find: here it is. Judge for yourselves.[My two cents and a question for UK Mefis: as a conservative, I'm quite impressed with Ian Duncan-Smith's(the new Tory leader's)efforts to dissociate himself from the Tory Party's reactionary bastions(e.g.The Monday Club) and attitudes. Is it just a pose, electioneering or is there something to it?]
posted by MiguelCardoso (33 comments total)

 
There is overwhelming scientific evidence that races differ to some extent in their average intelligence levels - yellow-skinned Orientals tend to be rather brighter than whites, Negroes tend to be rather less bright

Oh dear. His rigorous scientific thinking is exposed in that sentence alone. What an idiot. Yes, Ian Duncan Smith would be right to get rid of him, as he was right to sack Ann Winterton. Before anyone shouts about freedom of speech - a political party is within its rights to expel anyone who contradicts its philosophy. I don't care whether IDS is posing or not, as long as he realises the majority of voters won't tolerate this sort of ignorance and hatred. Which he seems to.
posted by Summer at 9:01 AM on May 13, 2002


You're protecting him a bit too much in the post there Miguel. He is NOT talking about "recognizing racial prejudeces" as a human emotion, he's saying the prejeduces themselves are okay and based on "fact".

There are plenty of things that are natural human emotions and behaviors that are still plenty objectionable: murderous rage for example, or idiocy (see linked article).

The idea that we by nature feel closer to people with the same genetic make up is just silly (how genetically different are hutus and tutsis? croats and serbs? irish and english?). England maybe felt "like a family" to him when all he saw was pasty white faces, but that had NOTHING to do with his genes, and everything to do with his racist socialization.

Comments like "Negroes tend to be rather less bright", based on the laughable "Bell Curve" is a funny "scientific fact" to recognize, and holds about as much water as all the other gene-driven theories for all human action.

I'd like to think most people would have realized by now that the nature/nurture debate is a false dichotomy, its nearly always nature filtered thru nurture, certainly in cases of behavior and "intelligence".

I'm wrong, of course, because its terribly convenient for hateful bastards like this guy to dress up their fear and hate in a cloak of pseudo-science to give it weight.

He's welcome to say them, but I'd fire him as a "professor" too.
posted by malphigian at 9:06 AM on May 13, 2002


You're protecting him a bit too much in the post there Miguel

Hmmm, Malphigian, I feared as much... I was trying to keep the post as non-committal as I could, to avoid editorializing and invitations along the lines of "let's lynch the guy". My own instincts towards him are unmentionable - I was truly tempted to link the photograph of himself he offers on his website and say you only had to look at him. Not to mention including a heartfelt "What are British universities coming to?" sob.

But I find it's best, when posting, to keep things just about as open as one can possibly can. Though I think I gave the game away with the inverted commas around "racialist" - a common ploy with this sort of loony so-called academic.

posted by MiguelCardoso at 9:19 AM on May 13, 2002


I can't stand it when people misuse the study of genetics. Genetics has enough bad press as it is.
posted by Summer at 9:19 AM on May 13, 2002


Not very educated in genetics this person, right?
Anyway he is generalizing from a particular case: "Racism" has been shown by people against people who are very similar to them i.e. (and Sampson must be aware of this) British against Irish or Greeks against Albanians currently (which is a total counterexample: African immigrants are treated much better than Albanians here). Indeed one could also remind mr. Sampson that in many countries external appearance is very varied among the native population anyway: see many Latin American countries, India, N.African countries etc.
So his "theory" can be refuted by simple observation
posted by talos at 9:24 AM on May 13, 2002


For a man, the most direct way to replicate his genes involves getting mixed up with a woman's body, so biology ensures that he will want to do that. It is silly to be ashamed of feelings which are biologically so inevitable.

Interesting how he plans to get mixed up with "a woman's body", not a woman... so does this mean rape is okay, too? It's the most "direct way to replicate your genes" (well, in terms of biological urges; obviously in real life it would be a poor strategy)...

Those 'natural selection' defenses of behavior seem really oversimplified, and always try to defend certain hateful behavior but not others - I mean, it's "natural" in the sense that it happens in nature, to want to kill people, chop them up and store them in your freezer. That doesn't mean it's a good thing. And hair color is genetic too, but he doesn't mention his "healthy natural" prejudice against blondes.

If he were the least bit sincere about this, he'd be discussing ways to overcome such emotions, not stating 'it's just how it is'. Plenty of people admit to having felt racial bias at some point in their lives, but it's primarily because we're often brought up in rather segregated communities. People who grow up in truly mixed communities don't tend to notice racial difference that much. And adults overcome bias when they start living in integrated communities. It's more about experience than genetics.

Also, how does he know how everyone else feels? He finds a way to justify his feelings and then projects them onto the entire world. And they are almost always written from a man's point of view, so that it's unclear what women's gene's have to do with anything.
posted by mdn at 9:27 AM on May 13, 2002


monday magazine meme #1

Bio from 'Atlantic Monthly' article, "I Tried to be a Communist" by Richard Wright. Aug, 1944.

"Richard Wright is an american negro whose schooling carried him through grammar grade and who has been educating himself ever since. His novel, Native Son, which was widely discussed in the year of it's publication (1940), and his forthcming autobiography, which will appear later this year, proclaim him as one of the most forthright and eloquent authors of his race. This is the first of two installment."
posted by clavdivs at 9:34 AM on May 13, 2002


Mdn: Well said; I agree. Does anyone else find there's also a "Eeewwww" factor in the way he says "mixed up with a woman's body" as if there was something repulsive but biologically compelling to it? There's also an interesting Freudian inroad to be found by considering how he equates racism and sexual attractiveness. Logically, the comparison would be the opposite - how people are mostly sexually attracted to people with the same colour skin. Bit he seems to posit women as if they were another race and then imply that's why they're attractive to men.

But back to my main point. The overtly racist BNP has been successful in Burnley - you can put that down to ignorance and spite. But here you have a university professor, with tenure, who's a Tory councillor(how come the Tory Party only found out he's a racist now?)and claims academic respectability.

So it's not the venting of some repressed skinhead or member of the lumpenproletariat, or crazy upper-class loon, or ambitious little petit-bourgeois twerp. It's more dangerous than that, unfortunately.

(I keep remembering all those racist and anti-semitic tracts who always manage to quote some "academic" to back up their hateful screeds. Well, Sampson seems to be one of those sources).
posted by MiguelCardoso at 9:53 AM on May 13, 2002


mdn: People who grow up in truly mixed communities don't tend to notice racial difference that much. And adults overcome bias when they start living in integrated communities. It's more about experience than genetics.

Perhaps you're right. According to Mr. Sampson:

Except for a small Jewish community (who don't look much different from the indigenous English anyway), virtually everyone living in England was related to everyone else - I don't know the maths, but two inhabitants of England chosen at random in 1950 must on average have had numerous common ancestors

So, blame it on inexperience. Or inbreeding.
posted by groundhog at 9:53 AM on May 13, 2002


that or which - not "who".
posted by MiguelCardoso at 9:55 AM on May 13, 2002


I can't help thinking there's many, many supposedly intelligent people who think like this, not just in Britain but all over, but he's the only one stupid enough to post it on a Web site. Smug tory bastard.
posted by Summer at 10:22 AM on May 13, 2002


For those looking for an opposing point of view, backed up by recent genetic research, check out Steve Olson's recent interview in the Atlantic. Racial prejudices, he argues, are mere cultural artifacts.

People organize human groups for social and cultural reasons and then go looking for biological ways to justify the distinctions that they've made. If they can find biological reasons, they'll use them, but if the biological reasons don't exist, it doesn't really change the fact that the cultural distinctions have already been made.
posted by vacapinta at 10:51 AM on May 13, 2002


What I've never heard an explanation of is why there's no correlation between how much "European blood" an African-American has and their IQ; most African-Americans have white people in their ancestry, but the amount seems not to affect how they deviate from the average African-American IQ level. As well, the standard deviation of IQ in the white population, and the standard deviation of IQ in the black population, are higher than the difference between the mean IQ in the two populations.... explain that one, as well.

As it is, there's too many white people in the world for me to feel genetically connected to all of them. I'm actually related to some black people by blood, so what am I supposed to do?
posted by meep at 10:58 AM on May 13, 2002


Without commenting on Sampson's ideas, which I don't think I've quite processed yet, I have to comment on the "loony so-called academic"-type stuff. He's not an idiot, he's not loony, as far as I know--one can certainly be wrong withoout being loony--and he's definitely a productive, well-respected researcher on human language, or has been until this came up. I doubt he will ever recover from it. This is not a defense of his ideas on race, which have little to do with his academic work, as far as I can see.
posted by rodii at 11:11 AM on May 13, 2002


To say that racial distinctions are "merely cultural" is to misuse the word "mere." The overwhelming fact is that "race" is stupendeously important in some way to virtually everybody. The problem is, that the importance of race has so far proven impossible to systematize and identify. It may never be done. In the meantime, simply to dismiss it as a cultural artifact and to hope that it will someday wither away is ludicrous. It is perfectly natural to hate people who look and talk and act differently than us. Sometimes, it's even reasonable. Overcoming this perfectly natural, and actuallty somewhat enjoyable tendancy to hate people who are not like us takes a continual effort of will. Some people are willing to make this effort. Some people are not. In any case, not hating is continual hard work, and let's not pretend otherwise.
posted by Faze at 11:14 AM on May 13, 2002


I was truly tempted to link the photograph of himself he offers on his website and say you only had to look at him.
miguel, i looked hard, but i for the life of me cannot find the big 'RACIST' stamped on his forehead that you apparently saw. upon reading, i agree - but where did you get this dubious ability to judge books by covers?
posted by quonsar at 11:17 AM on May 13, 2002


Rodii: Well, that makes it more interesting. A probably stupid and certainly uniformed question: do you think, in a misguided sort of mental framework, that linguists' respect for difference could conceivably lead to the sort of relativism that might unguardedly lead to a defense of racially-inspired distinctions?

Quonsar - I admit if I'd seen his face after reading something wonderful he'd written, I would just have easily said "It's clear, from the looks of him, he's a nice guy." Is this racism? Or just morphologism? In any case, touché! I remember Leonard Cohen's poem about Eichmann, inspired by Hannah Arendt's "banality of evil" thesis: "Eyes: blue; Forehead: normal; "Mouth: average..."(not his actual words, of course; but the gist of it)
posted by MiguelCardoso at 11:28 AM on May 13, 2002


The overwhelming fact is that "race" is stupendeously important in some way to virtually everybody.
Unless you're using "race" to mean "ethnicity", I don't think that is true at all for quite a few multicultural societies such as the North African Societies or the Latin American societies I mentioned previously. "Race", besides being a very ill defined concept, really misses the true diversity of humanity. This concept of race, seems to me uniquely North American, both in the absoluteness of racial categories (there are few self-identifird "mulattos" in the US, just black or white) and in the emphasis placed thereupon. There are historical reasons for this of course but let's not mistake its centrality as universal.
I was suprised to hear this racialist rhetoric coming from Britain though- the Bell Curve types there seem more preoccupied with establishing the genetic inferiority of the poor than the "lower races"... Trans-Atlantic influences?
posted by talos at 11:35 AM on May 13, 2002


Miguel: It's possible that many linguists might travel that route, but Sampson has never been on the more Boasian wing of the field, no. At the very least, I think he is being overly subtle, even coy about his claims here--engaging in a sort of meatspace trolling. I imagine he sees himself not as a defender of racism, but as a tough-minded empiricist sarcastically taking on what he sees as woolly-headed ideologues who aren't willing to face facts if they find the facts distasteful. I think he was probably naive about how such a message would be received, but I'm guessing he meant it less as a message of hate than as a challenge to debate, more fool him.

I would say that Sampson's situation, among linguists, is special. He has long been a commentator on Chomsky, one of the few who claims that Chomsky's linguistic ideas are philosophically connected to his political ideas--Chomsky has steadfastly denied it. Sampson thinks that Chomsky's linguistics leads, pace Chomsky, via ideas about personal autonomy, to a defense of classical liberalism (i.e., "conservatism"). Like Chomsky, he seems to see himself as the Last Rational Man.
posted by rodii at 11:51 AM on May 13, 2002


Thanks, rodii. That's certainly given me something to put in my pipe and smoke.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 12:09 PM on May 13, 2002


The overwhelming fact is that "race" is stupendeously important in some way to virtually everybody

I'll agree with that if you add the word "today" It is not an overwhelming fact that race is not a recent invention. Olson, in the interview I link to above, points out that Romans cared much more whether you were 'civilized' than what the color of your skin was.

It is perfectly natural to hate people who look and talk and act differently than us.

Perhaps. I think it is more natural to hate the "other". This can take the form of supporters of a different football team, people who dress differently or talk with a foreign accent. But all these are examples of cultural not racial distinctions.
posted by vacapinta at 12:43 PM on May 13, 2002


It is not an overwhelming fact that race is not a recent invention.

Can you reparse that a little bit, please?
posted by rodii at 12:46 PM on May 13, 2002


How about: I would argue that the concept of race is a recent invention.

(The best I can hope for in my writing these days is not to contradict myself. I blame metafilter)
posted by vacapinta at 1:21 PM on May 13, 2002


Thanks. Sorry for being so easily boggled.
posted by rodii at 2:26 PM on May 13, 2002


The overwhelming fact is that "race" is stupendeously important in some way to virtually everybody. The problem is, that the importance of race has so far proven impossible to systematize and identify. It may never be done.

I think cultural and national boundaries are more important than genetic ones to most people. A rich white professional would be more likely to befriend a rich black professional than a poor white junkie, etc. This goes back over generations of course - if the junkie came from a "good family", went to prep school and only later got into trouble, he might be familiar enough. Or if the black man was the first of his family to go to college and often visits his mom & brother in a bad neighborhood, maybe he won't fit in. But after a few generations, the skin color ceases to be the issue. It's what people know, how they act, etc. Accents, unusual customs (e.g., getting out of the car to bow to mecca in the US) or strange ways of dressing (including class based - khakis vs. baggy pants & bandanas) are more likely to be problems than genetic difference.

In the meantime, simply to dismiss it as a cultural artifact and to hope that it will someday wither away is ludicrous. It is perfectly natural to hate people who look and talk and act differently than us. Sometimes, it's even reasonable.

Lots of difference-prejudice has withered away - admittedly, usually because we find a new common enemy. It's possible the only things that properly bands humans together is a common enemy, but perhaps it can become some more abstract enemy like cancer or something. If not, fine, we have some negative instincts. But they needn't be so primary, and the race-based hatred could easily die out if people felt comfortable and connected to people of other races. This happens in integrated communities - often little subcommunities, like a school you go to or professional gatherings or local leagues etc - I've personally found that when you're all focused on something in common you're much less likely to notice race. It's on the street with strangers, or sometimes if you go to a party where it's up to you to make up things to talk about, it can be an issue (e.g., if you're white and you go to a party and almost everyone there is black, you will probably notice that right away). But if you go to, say, a martial arts class and almost everyone else is black, sure you might notice, but then you get into sparring and working together and it totally fades into the background.

Overcoming this perfectly natural, and actuallty somewhat enjoyable tendancy to hate people who are not like us takes a continual effort of will. Some people are willing to make this effort. Some people are not. In any case, not hating is continual hard work, and let's not pretend otherwise.

dude, get in therapy. It is not hard to live in the world and not hate people. Sure, we all feel surges of anger or contempt or outright hate from time to time, but to regularly and continually hate one group of people without even interacting with them is not necessary or good for anyone.
posted by mdn at 2:31 PM on May 13, 2002


I* agree with rodii's take on his motivations. He seems impish, almost playful, a sprite in a minefield, dancing a come-hither dervish. Kinda spooky.

The drivel aside, his basic premise/justification, that of "My genes, first, foremost, and forever", is one of the most overused anthropological conceits in the culturalists' arsenal. While I grant culturalists their right to consult (and to occasionally invoke) biological imperatives, their tireless attempts to reconnect all of us to intellectually discredited atavisms are boring, insulting, and usually dishonest.

*dispassionate anti-culturalist
posted by Opus Dark at 2:46 PM on May 13, 2002


Perhaps. I think it is more natural to hate the "other". This can take the form of supporters of a different football team, people who dress differently or talk with a foreign accent. But all these are examples of cultural not racial distinctions.

Actually, I don't think it's natural to hate others. What does appear to be natural is a certain amount of ingroup/out-group bias and fear. The disturbing part is how easily the groups are created. Laboratory manipulations using first year undergraduates, every psychologist's favourite guinea pigs, have shown that things as simple as birthdates can produce the effects of group membership. So salient cues such as skin colour, facial features, etc can easily do so.

If you want to see arbitrary groups and their biases just watch some teenagers at the local mall. Or better yet ask them what they think of kids who have different clothing styles ..goths, b-boys, jocks..etc. Or you could go to republican and democratic conventions, or pop into the alt.sports newsgroups on usenets and ask about the sports fan in different cities. Or you can ask the people here about the differences between mefites, farkers, and plasticians.

Evolutionary justifications for racial hatred also fall short because there is no concievable utility for any sort of built in race discrimination mechanism when during the early evolution of human beings they lacked any inter-racial exposure. There were no planes, trains, or automobiles.

If racism and hatred were innate how do so many manage to overcome it?

Okay, that was all over the place. I innately hate it when other people are all over the place. Fortunately, I am a member of my own in-group.
posted by srboisvert at 2:54 PM on May 13, 2002


It is perfectly natural to hate people who look and talk and act differently than us. Sometimes, it's even reasonable. Overcoming this perfectly natural, and actuallty somewhat enjoyable tendancy to hate people who are not like us takes a continual effort of will.

Listen. We are not all like that.

Not by any stretch of your imagination.
posted by fold_and_mutilate at 6:11 PM on May 13, 2002


So, foldy, where's the love in your heart for meat-eaters?
posted by darukaru at 6:45 PM on May 13, 2002


It is natural to be suspicious and fearful of those "not of your tribe." Hate might be too strong a word, although I'm sure in some individuals it rises to that level.

It is also natural to deny your own shortcomings.
posted by kindall at 6:51 PM on May 13, 2002


It is also natural to deny your own shortcomings.

I delight in discovering and examining my own shortcomings...and, no doubt, some of them are commonly shared. But even I haven't the audacity to extrapolate my own flawed template to catholicity. The presumption of universal 'shortcomings' can be equivalent to prescribing them...and is most certainly...presumptuous. Even if higher intellect does often wrestle with some subjective appraisal of muscle-and-bone reflex, the indeterminate range of the variables involved renders broad generalizations quite useless.

For instance...

...for me, it is quite unnatural to deny my own shortcomings.
posted by Opus Dark at 8:01 PM on May 13, 2002


As a UK contributor (and not a Conservative) I have actually been impressed with IDS's action against the racists in his party - he appears sincere (although it is also pragmatic and absolutely necessary if he is to stand a hope in hell at the next election). This is especially true because he must be aware that this could be ongoing with expulsions continuing until the next election- a sizeable proportion of Conservatives hold outdated views on race that are unacceptable to the majority of British people.

I can imagine journalists poring over transcripts of after-dinner speeches as Conservative councillors up and down the UK frantically boot-up Front Page and start deleting those 'personal' opinions from their websites.

Miguel: Your absoutely right about the word 'racialist' - there is no bigger giveaway for those who speak with authority but betray, at the very least, their 'institutionalised' racism.
posted by niceness at 1:59 AM on May 14, 2002


In the UK, there is a swing to the right as far as immigration is concerned - this lovely piece of news, along with countless others recently, has helped to heighten, rightly or wrongly, the feeling that the non-english are ruining the UK's resources of money, and ruining the English way of life to an extent. The riots in refugee hostels in Britain, the Jamaican/African gangs that are becoming more prevailent in major UK cities, riots in towns across Britain - all this serves to alienate the huge influx of refugees that is in the news at the moment. If we didn't see any difference in our lives, then there would be no angst. And if the present Labour government could get anything remotely right at the moment... oh hold on, that's asking too much.
posted by wibbler at 11:27 AM on May 14, 2002


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