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Can Facts Be Racist?

Here is the sequence of events.  1. Richard Dawkins tweets that all the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College Cambridge.  2. Cue a twitter onslaught – accusing Professor Dawkins of racism.  3. Richard Dawkins writes that a fact can’t be racist.

It seems to me pretty silly to call Dawkins a racist, for some of the reasons he spells out here.

But I want to focus on his claim that a fact can’t be racist.  That seems to me a bit silly too.  You don’t have to be a post-Derridean, neo-Lacanian, Baudriallardian-wannabe to recognize that the meaning of ‘facts’ can only be drawn from their use and context.

Take a simple example.  Imagine there was an imaginary newspaper, let’s call it the Mail Daily, which only cited certain facts about immigration – let’s say negative facts.  True facts.  Facts which might have to do with crime, for example, or housing shortages, or the abuse of the welfare system.  Imagine that the Mail Daily never gave any positive facts about immigration – never emphasized any of the enormous benefits that immigration brings.

Would it be fair to accuse the Mail Daily of being racist in its coverage of immigration?  That’s a rhetorical question.

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41 Comment on this post

  1. The content of a true fact is irrelevant to the motivation behind someone focusing on that true fact to the exclusion of others. You seem to confuse a true fact being ‘racist’ with the potential racial bias behind a motivation to share it.

    1. Not sure what you mean Ekwasi. I was merely trying to counter the claim that it can’t be racist to cite a fact or set of ‘facts’. That was what Professor Dawkins was implying. And this claims seems to me to be false.

      1. What I believe Ekwasi means, is that, the issue you state – ‘can facts be racist’ – conflates: (i) a motivational racial bias, which might dispose us towards cherry-picking and/or presenting facts in a manner which satisfies that bias; and (ii) the content of a fact itself, which is merely descriptive (given accuracy), and thus holds no intrinsic racial – or otherwise – bias. Meaning the idea that ‘facts can be racist’ confuses (ii) for (i). What you really want to say is that a given cherry-picking and/or presentation of facts in a certain way might be indicative of motivational racial bias, not that the fact itself (which can be used, and remains invariable, through any context of application) is itself racist.

        Perhaps thought, we might say – when inferring motivational racist bias owing to seeming cherry-picking and or the manner of presentation of a set of facts – that the performance of that fact was racist, and reproduces racial sentiments. But again, the emphasis is on the performer, not the fact.

  2. “Citing” a set of facts is different to the fact itself David. (Or are you saying it isn’t?) If not you seem to equivocate between your title question and comment there. Can a fact be racist? In itself Ekwasi is saying no. Can “citing” a fact be racist? Yes, if (as I would suggest, and I think Ekwasi does) you have an underlying motivation that is discernible from how you cite your fact.

    Also, can you be racist about a religion!?! (That’s a rhetorical question)

    1. Hi Jeremy and Ekwasi

      Thanks for comments. No – to answer your rhetorical question Jeremy! – I don’t think you can be racist about a religion – a point Dawkins eloquently makes in his blog post. Well, perhaps I should have been less loose in my language, but I thought the point was clear from the context. Professor Dawkins dismissed the charge that he was racist using, as one argument, that he only cited a fact. This, he implies, lets him off the hook. Dawkins aside, my point is that you aren’t let off the hook just because you cite facts.

      I agree with Ekwasi that it’s perfectly possible to utter uncomfortable truths without being prejudiced. Indeed, sometimes, for all sorts of reasons, these truths ought to be aired. I was making a narrower claim: that the fact that a person only cites facts does not inoculate them against the charge of bigotry.

      1. Agreed! Have you read the comments to Dawkins blog? Some of the more skeptical responses to his reasoning are particularly interesting!

  3. I took you as arguing that a true fact is racist if it is cited by someone motivated by racism. This I thought was false as while the motivation to cite it might be racist, this has no baring on the fact itself. This distinction seems important because unless it is made, we risk that (at least some) truths cannot be cited because in some possible way they could also conceivably be motivated by racism.

    Surely some truths uttered by people motivated by racism could also be uttered by others for reasons or motivations not connected to any form of racial prejudice. If we accept you position, it seems we cannot prevent the former (racist motivation) without also precluding the latter (other non-racial motivations).

  4. I agree with the notion that facts in themselves are not racist but can be used to fit an agenda or ulterior motive. I certainly do not think that Richard Dawkins comment was racist (as pointed out a religion is not a race) but I do not agree with his assertion that factual information cannot be used with racist motivation.

  5. I would echo the distinction made above between stating a fact and the context in which it is reported. I would also add the distinction between stating a fact and the fact itself. Here’s my analysis:

    The context of a fact can of course be racist—a fact might be stated in the context of a hate-filled rant about illegal immigrants, for example. In your example of the purely hypothetical newspaper, it is the context that is racist, not the facts themselves. Consider that those very same facts could appear in a different, non-racist, context—perhaps in a more positive report about immigration which included other facts for a more balanced view—and not appear racist.

    Stating a fact can also, I think, be racist, depending what it implies. Dawkins’ tweet implies a negative judgment about Muslims, and would be racist if (1) Muslims were a race, and (2) if the implied negative judgment were racist.

    Can facts themselves be racist? I’m puzzling about this. I think the answer is probably yes, but am happy to debate this. If we adopt the fairly mainstream philosophical view that a fact is an obtaining state of affairs, I think facts can be racist. There are, after all, obtaining states of affairs that are unfair, and racism is (among other things) a type of unfairness.

    1. I need to think about your final question Rebecca. This can’t be the first time in the history of philosophy that it, or a similar question, has been asked – so there must be some literature on it. To say that a fact itself is racist sounds a bit like language has gone on its August holiday – to paraphrase an Austrian immigrant.

      1. I had the same feeling, David, but I couldn’t find anything about it in a (fairly lazy, admittedly) Google search. I’m not sure it would be ridiculous to say that a fact itself is racist. If racism is a type of unfairness, and facts are states of affairs, then this would be like saying that a state of affairs is unfair, which prima facie doesn’t strike me as remotely August-holiday-bound – on the contrary, people say this sort of thing all the time. I guess a good candidate for a racist fact would be the fact that, in Apartheid-era South Africa, Blacks had restricted access to public places merely on account of their race.

    2. I suppose it depends on what you would consider a fact – and racist, paha. Does admitting your feelings count as ‘fact’ – in so far as it describes a true state of affairs? If so I suppose a lot of facts can be racist (“I don’t like to serve white people, they make my skin crawl” for example)

  6. You can’t be let off the hook *just because* you cite facts, of course. However, the interesting question here is that, perhaps due to the challenges of twitter, the *only* thing that Dawkins did was cite a fact.

    A large proportion of whether the use of a fact is said to be ‘racist’ (leaving aside the religion issue and for this purpose assuming it did relate to race) is what purpose or argument it is being used to support. Therefore the very same fact (comparing the number of nobel laureates in different groups) could be used by a) someone who thought there was a problem with how the committee decided who got the awards (that is there was racism in the selection process), or b) by someone who was arguing that science funding or institutional set ups in predominantly Muslim countries needed reform (that is, the category of Muslim was a lazy proxy for another way of categorizing winners by educational background or opportunities), or else by c) someone who did want to make a “racist” point about the scientific ability of Muslim people

    In a “Mail Daily” article, you might have a number of clues as to how you were meant to interpret the facts they cite, e.g. the other facts they choose, the tone of the article, the headline, any editorial comments surrounding those facts and so on.

    On twitter it is a bit more difficult. Publishing the one fact on a twitter feed leaves people to interpret it themselves, based on their own thoughts on what the author’s views are, which may or may not be accurate.

  7. It’s the balance of facts – the ability of the portfolio of facts presented to accurately reflect the wider context in which the fact is cited – that might indicate some sort of systematic bias (incl racism). But a single fact on its own isn’t. And I agree it isn’t racism that’s the issue here, it’s religion and – presumably the point that Dawkins was getting at – intellectual culture.

  8. Hi David,

    But I want to focus on his claim that a fact can’t be racist.

    He actually seems to claim that the assertion of an undeniable fact can’t be bigoted. If racism is bigotry, he seems to be saying that asserting an undeniable fact can’t be racist. False, as your Daily Mail examples show.

    I’m not sure I agree with you that his defensive reasons (against the charge of racism) work. His main argument seems to be that Muslims aren’t a race. Presumably, if an act is to qualify as racist, it must be directed toward an actual racial group. He also says that Jews aren’t a race. It seems to follow that anti-Semitism isn’t a form of racism, which seems odd.

    1. “It seems to follow that anti-Semitism isn’t a form of racism, which seems odd.”

      Anti-semitism is a form of racism because anti-semites do identify the Jews as a race, and persecute them accordingly. But Jews are not actually a race. Racists are often racially biased against people that they identify as being different races even when they are not actually different races.

      Some anthropologists regard the whole concept of “race” as having little scientific basis.

      As for Dawkins, he clearly and correctly identifies Islam as a religion, and one which has far more wide-ranging social influence amongst its followers than is now the case with Christianity. And he blames the influence of Islam for the lack of academic achievements amongst modern muslims, which seems fair enough to me.

      He’s widely accused of racism mainly because the entrenched relativist ideology of multiculturalism holds that all cultures should be regarded as being of equal value, whether or not that is actually the case, and any dissent from this line is now routinely dismissed as “racism”.

      1. Nikolas, can you see the offense that could be caused though when Dawkins, and yourself, make very lazy conclusions about Islam and academic achievements – (“which seems fair enough”) Read some of the comments that are more skeptical of Dawkins on his blog – Nobel prizes are a single metric, there haven’t been many of them (relatively speaking), economic and social factors could play a huge role, etc. I don’t believe it is racism but I do believe it is just lazy thinking that deserves some ridicule. Dawkins in my mind was just being inflammatory – hence why citing facts can, in my mind, be racist (though not in this case). All cultures *may* not be equal but drawing such crass conclusions in a tweet, or alluding to it, is just testimony to why Dawkins shouldn’t be taken too seriously anymore.

        1. “is just testimony to why Dawkins shouldn’t be taken too seriously anymore.”

          You and your kind have never taken Dawkins seriously Jeremy, and I’m sure the feeling is mutual. Me, I prefer facts to relativist propaganda designed to portray under-achieving cultures in an undeservedly flattering light.

          1. My kind? Who exactly are ‘my kind’ Nikolas? In fact, what exactly are you talking about? Is there some club I have accidentally let slip I am part of? The Anti-Dawkins kind? The church-goers? Islam? Christianity? Maybe even (God forbid!) the Agnostics Anonymous. This conversation has taken a turn to the absurd.

  9. An interesting debate; wandering a little from the practical ethics descriptor at the top of the page in places, perhaps?
    I would perhaps agree that a fact can’t in and of itself be racist, as racism perhaps always involves a degree of opinion and a “pure” fact does not, by definition.
    It could be argued though that facts are human constructs and only take meaning from their use. The way that those facts are used depends upon the intent of the user and so any opinon, racist or otherwise, is in the intent of the user.
    Can a stick be racist? No. Can it be used in a racist way? Of course.
    Is Dawkins attempting a subtle racial agenda? I think that we’re all used to his modus operandi when challenging established religion. He’s using the fuss generated to try to make the debate about religion more public. It seems a pity that this hasn’t led to a more earnest questioning as to whether the awarding of Nobel prizes favours scholars from certain groups based on race or belief.

  10. Anthony Drinkwater

    I wonder whether philosophers shouldn’t acknowledge that language is rather more subtle than most philosophies.
    To give a trivial example : it is a fact that I have never seen David Edmonds (or any other other contributors to the Practical Ethics blog) sober.
    This «fact» can be scientifically corroborated – I’ve never seen any of them (in fact).
    But this «fact» could nevertheless be uttered or construed in a damaging fashion. Richard Dawkins should be intelligent enough to recognise this, surely?

    1. Interestingly Anthony someone made that exact point to Dawkin except with the comment “Dawkins has never apologised for making racist statements”. He fell foul of the trick saying she was being libellous for saying he had made racist statements. She explained that it was true *because* he has never made such statements. Implication is important! Would attach screenshot if I could.

    2. Is Richard Dawkins’ responsible for the fact that this could be construed in a damaging fashion by others? I would suggest not; there is no indication that he uttered this fact with a view to casting aspersions on any particular race. Religion, yes; race, no.

      Should he have not uttered the fact because of some responsibility to be silent about truths which some might see as casting aspersions on a particular race. I still think not; as we seem to all agree, there is nothing to suggest that his views are motivated by any contempt for a person’s race.

      Maybe, on the other hand, we can highlight people who might be said to be reacting in a damaging fashion; two of them come to mind: those who see this as a reinforcement of some unfounded sense of racial superiority; and those who see this as a reinforcement of some unfounded sense of racial superiority, and therefore try to condemn Richard Dawkins for stating it.

  11. to me the point is that he compares to things that should not be compared: a college Vs a religion. What the sake those to have to do together? If he would have had compared the Universities in Muslim countries it could have had made sense, maybe. But again framing the sentence in a competition approach make it strange… Well to me the point is not the fact the how he told it..

  12. What are these “enormous benefits that immigration brings”?

    I’m not aware of any down our way. Please list them.

    1. I’d also like a list of them. Other than economic statistics which mean nothing to people down my way.

    2. I have no idea where your way is, or anything about your circumstances. Perhaps you have spent all your life in a cave sustained only by a diet of obnoxious newspapers. There have been various waves of immigrants to Britain over the centuries. Even you, Eric, heaven forbid, might be of immigrant stock. But as for more recent waves of immigrants and their offspring, they have:

      – maintained through their labour, much of our infrastructure, such as the tube and the railways and key institutions like the NHS. Without immigrant labour many of our service industries would be unrecognizable.

      – played an entirely disproportionate role in music, theatre, literature, architecture, science, journalism and philosophy

      – founded some of our most successful companies which have employed millions of people, from Easy Jet to Tesco (In the US it’s estimated that 40% of the top 500 companies were set up by immigrants.)

      – provided the backbone to our national sporting teams as evident from last night’s football and the 2012 Olympics. Good luck tonight Mo.

      Apart from that, what has immigration done for us? Actually, it’s enriched our lives in numerous other ways too, from language to cuisine to fashion.

      Immigration brings enormous social, economic and political challenges. But it ain’t one-sided. All of this is self-evident….unless you live in a cave.

      1. The immigration on which the Daily Mail focuses solely is that from 1997 onwards.

        However, what you’ve done is imply that it is unreasonable for the Daily Mail to do this, and you’ve subsequently citied benefits of the immigration that happened decades ago to justify this view.

        I obviously meant a list of the benefits of post-1997 immigration, given that this is the focus of the Daily Mail.

        1. This began as a philosophy discussion, with an entirely fictitious newspaper. As for the Daily Mail, perhaps you never read it before 1997. Its attitude to immigration has been unchanged since the 50s. So I don’t really understand what you mean. We won’t get into its support for the Blackshirts. But all this is irrelevant to the point I was making.

  13. Thank-you David.

    You’ve made some fair points. I suppose I have a few questions.

    On the first point, what do you mean by ‘unrecognisable.’ This does not seem to me to be a value judgement (i.e. beneficial or detrimental), just an irrelevant fact; albeit not necessarily untrue.

    It’s also interesting that the discussion on immigration is always about its ‘benefits’ and its ‘challenges.’ Why are we too scared to discuss it in its proper terms? i.e. it’s ‘benefits’ (of which there are indeed many), but also its ‘detriments’ as opposed to the patronisingly euphemistic ‘challenges.’

    Finally, we always seem to assume that but for immigrants the natives (I imagine that is the correct term?) would not have been able to find ways of providing for themselves the things that they are now accused of relying on immigrants for. This is silly. There would have been art, good food, fine literature and philosophy and sportsmen; just in a different form. Let’s not automatically label that different form as being of less value just because it might not have included as many contributions from immigrants.

    Worth reiterating, I am not against immigration. And acknowledge that there are benefits. However, I do not think that the debate has not properly been had; nor, indeed, been allowed to be had.

    Anyway, a bit off topic.

  14. Hi Ekwasi. I’m perfectly willing to concede that there are real problems caused by immigration. Didn’t mean to be euphemistic at all. Indeed, many more problems than the left has traditionally acknowledged. The blog imagined a newspaper that only gave ‘facts’ about the problems, however – and didn’t mention the benefits. And of course, our hotels and NHS and trains would continue to function without immigrants – probably not as well, and certainly at higher cost.

    1. Perhaps if immigration to Western countries were to be restricted to people who are genuinely enthusiastic about Western culture (and its liberal, secular, democratic, humanist traditions) a lot of the problems could be deftly avoided.

    2. It never fails to amaze me how many times the left have to acknowledge problems that they didn’t foresee at the time they were accusing everyone who questioned their agenda of being racist, sexist, xenophobic, etc. etc. etc.

  15. Today people concerned with social justice often use the sociological definition of racism (concerned with differential outcomes based on race or ethnic origins) rather than as motivational bias. Then whether a statement is racist depends on the real or likely consequences of saying it and arguing about the author’s motivation is beside the point, often put as “intent isn’t magic.”

    A statement about Islam an overwhelming majority of whose adherents are POC can clearly have a differential outcome based on race, and therefore can be racist.

    For a white british person (i.e. ex-Raj) to say something that could easily be taken to mean “persons of colour are stupid” was certainly insensitive.

    1. Oh yes, the sociological definition of racism; can also be articulated as – ‘Truth or otherwise is irrelevant. Some might not like it, therefore you’re not allowed to say it.’

      1. Or put a different way; it needn’t have been a racial issue (as things stood, it was a question of the effects of a religion). But because sociologists can’t see beyond race, it was therefore racist.

        Non-‘brown’ people can also be Muslim and not win Nobels.

  16. @Ekwasi
    You object to the definition of racism via outcomes rather than intentions: do you really believe actions can only be harmful if they are ill-intended?

    “Differential outcomes” mean that different groups are disproportionately affected. This does not imply any group must be completely unaffected.

    It’s not about what you say, but about how you say it. I’m sure there would have been ways to put it that would have made clear there was no intention to denigrate people of colour.

  17. I suspect that the majority of people who read Richard Dawkins’ tweet knew that there was no intention to denigrate adherents of Islam because they happen to have a certain skin colour. He was clearly referring to a religion. As I recall white Muslim’s were also affronted by the remark, no?

    Before you accuse me of not understanding ‘differential outcomes,’ ask yourself whether you would have defended white people over the comments he has made about the negative effects of Christianity on its adherents, given that the majority of its adherents happen to be white. (He has made such remarks about Christianity, as he is perfectly entitled to do; and, speaking as a Christian, it is healthy for Christianity that he does so.)

    Given Dawkins consistent and equal criticisms of both Christianity and Islam (who cares if he’s insensitive!), the only people ensuring a ‘differential outcome’ are sociologists. I have never heard any outcry based on sociological ‘definitions’ of racism in defence of people ‘not-of-colour’ in light of his remarks on Christianity. Is white not a race? It seems to me that you’re inadvertently reinforcing the notion of white as the ‘hegemonic norm?’ It also seems to me that to speak of condemning Dawkins based on the notion of differential outcomes with regards to race and Islam, and not race and Christianity, sociologists would essentially be engaging in the practice of differential treatment based on racist; which is where real racism lies.

  18. @Ekwasi
    The fact that white Muslims were also offended doesn’t mean it wasn’t racist. That is what “differential outcomes” means, as I’ve explained before.

    Social justice is about leveling the playing field for less privileged groups, those lacking institutional power. This is why in the western world affirmative action for POC or criticising white people is not racism. This doesn’t mean criticising white people is always fair or kind, it’s just not racism. When someone has received the message thousands of times that they are inferior because of the colour of their skin, suggesting it just once more has a totally different effect than if someone has never or rarely heard this message, and it’s not reinforced by the surrounding culture. I once read it put as: who complains about a paper cut? The person who already has a thousand paper cuts.
    Btw. less than half of all Christians are white.

    I agree that Richard Dawkins most likely didn’t intend to denigrate POC. That’s exactly why I like the sociological viewpoint on this: it allows us to talk about harmful consequences of actions without ascribing bad intentions to people.

  19. And you speak of equality.

    What you’ve essentially said is that sociologists, those self-anointed harbingers of what is and isn’t ‘fair,’ will decide.

    They’re the modern day equivalent of the medieval clergy. Declaring left, right and centre what is and isn’t permitted to be said on pain of excommunication.

    So long as they make their proclamations based on historical inequalities, they perpetuate those historical inequalities. If differential outcomes dictates what we allow people to say, we’re all ultimately poorer for it. Even those who have historically lacked institutional power. I’m just grateful that the social sciences are beginning to lose credibility. And rightfully so. One cannot trivialise human interaction, redefining it at every step by using definitions based on ‘diferential outcomes’ such that they are conveniently in a constant state of flux. How could a sociologist ever thus be wrong!? If only physicists had such luxuries with the laws of nature. We could have a unified theory based on whatever physical outcome we decided we wanted, and hadn’t historically had.

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