Philosophy 220
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Philosophy 220. Racism, Humor and Reparations. A Cultural Concept. Though it didn’t seem necessary to begin with a definition of biological sexual difference, the concept of race is a more complicated and tendentious one.

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Philosophy 220

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Philosophy 220

Philosophy 220

Racism, Humor and Reparations


A cultural concept

A Cultural Concept

  • Though it didn’t seem necessary to begin with a definition of biological sexual difference, the concept of race is a more complicated and tendentious one.

  • Though we generally think of race as distinctive biological types of human beings, the reality is that there is no genetic basis for perceived racial differences.

    • That is, there are no genes or other hereditary factors shared by all members of any particular race.

  • Race is not a biological reality. It is however a cultural reality, reliant in part on appearance and ancestry, but significantly dependent on a range of culturally specified behaviors and norms (linguistic patterns, dress, religious identification, etc.).


Another reality

Another Reality

  • Racism: 1) “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race” and 2) “racial prejudice or discrimination” (232).

    • Classic Racism: race based illwill. Can be covert or overt.

    • Unintentional Racism: race-specific action or speech that indirectly harms (example: crossing the street to avoid a member of another race).

    • Institutional Racism: features of public, social, political or economic organizations that are harmful to non-whites (example: anti-miscegenation laws). Can be covert or overt.


Philips racist acts and racist humor

Philips, “Racist Acts and Racist Humor”

  • Philips’s article addresses a long recognized issue: the moral status of race-based humor.

  • We all know that they can be funny, and as Philips notes, it’s often precisely because they are racist.

  • The issue arises with the assumption that racism is what Philips calls a prima facie moral wrong.

    • Prima facie – (first face) at first sight – accepted as correct until proven otherwise.

  • The issue becomes, in what contexts, if any, is the racist dimensions of such humor overwhelmed by other factors/features of the situation.


Racist v non racist humor

Racist v. Non-racist Humor

  • Certainly, not all humor that draws attention to a racial group is racist.

    • Is this racist?

    • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W8YAK8oMEKI

  • What explains the difference?

  • As Philips recognizes, we need a sufficiently sophisticated account of racism.

  • Philips considers a couple of different accounts that might do the job.


Theories of racism

Theories of Racism

  • The Agent-Centered Accountof racism: Racist acts are acts performed by racist people on the basis of racist beliefs, intentions, etc.

    • If this approach is true, then a joke is not racist unless it is motivated by racist intentions or reflective of racist beliefs.

  • The Act-Centered Accountof racism: It is acts, rather than agents to which the label racist is most accurately and fundamentally applied. Racist acts are those which harm someone (directly or indirectly) as a function of their membership in a racial/ethnic group.

    • It’s not the motives or belief of the agents, but the effects of their actions that make those acts racist.

    • Thus a joke, even if well intended, could be racist.


Philips s position

Philips’s Position

  • Philips wants to defend the act-centered approach to racism, and thus is critical of the agent centered approach.

  • Before he makes his case, he highlights what he considers to be the advantages of his approach.

    • The act-centered approach can accommodate the perspective of the agent-centered approach (racist acts are often motivated by agent belief/intentions), but focusing on the effects on the victims better explains the moral wrongness of racism.

    • The agent-centered approach takes the perspective of the actor in the situation; the act-centered approach takes the perspective of the victim. If our aim is to combat the effects of racism, we are better served to adopt the latter perspective.


Limitations of agent focus

Limitations of Agent Focus

  • Philips identifies a number of issues which the agent-centered account of racism struggles to evaluate.

    • It makes it difficult to assess all relevant uses of the category ‘racist.’

      • The travellers: is ‘Nigger’ a social offense or a racist offense? Do we have to know what the white person’s attitudes are to assess this?

    • It doesn’t handle mixed motivational situations well.

      • Patriotic Nazi; businessman Klansman.

      • The issue is not whether these people are racists, but whether their acts are.


An objection

An Objection

  • One apparently powerful objection to Philips’s act-centered focus is that it would make many apparently unobjectionable acts into racist and therefore morally objectionable acts.

    • Example of “cases of distrust” (shrinking back in the elevator).

    • Someone might argue that prevailing social forces/context makes such action prudent, and therefore not prima facie wrong.

    • This can’t be right, inasmuch as the distrust is not of social forces/context but of an individual who has (to your knowledge) done anything to deserve it.

  • What it sadly reveals is the way in which a racist society distorts us all (cf. 256c1-2).


Racist humor

Racist Humor

  • Philips then applies the act-centered theory of racism to racist humor.

  • According to this theory, humor is racist: “(a) when it is used with the intent to victimize a member of an ethnic group in virtue of her ethnicity; and (b) when it in fact promotes such victimization or can reasonably be expected to promote it” (257c1).

  • More specifically, an instance of humor may be racist in three ways:

    • “They may insult (or be intended to insult), humiliate, or ridicule members of victimized groups in relation to their ethnic identity;

    • They may create (or be intended to create) a community of feelings against such a group;

    • They may promote (or be intended to promote) beliefs that are used to “justify” the mistreatment of such a group” (260c1).


The put down

The “Put Down”

  • One advantage of this account of racist humor is how it can be expanded to address a wide range of racist acts that aren’t strictly speaking humorous, though they can be part of racist humor.

  • The use of physical stereotypes (Jewish noses, Black lips) to insult (or to be joked about) is not an attempt to describe a group, but rather takes a position that having the characteristic is undesirable, and then insults an individual or group for having it (or for stereotypically possessing it).

    • Can be harmful, even in a clearly jocular context, and even if there’s no rational basis for the observation.


It comes down to context

It Comes Down to Context

  • Though the act-centered approach points to specific objective features of the uses of humor as the proper basis for an analysis of possible racism, much of the analysis still comes down to context.

  • Whether a particular instance of humor is racist is going to turn importantly on the context in which it is employed.

  • What isn’t relevant is the possible truth of the characterizations employed (261c1).


Corlett reparations to native americans

Corlett, “Reparations to Native Americans?”

  • Corlett addresses himself to the unfortunate history of the Native Americans, a history characterized by dispossession, genocide, enslavement.

  • One possible response to this historyis a system of reparations: payment or other compensation to redress a wrong.

    • Reparative compensation: providing wronged parties or their descendants money, property, and other tangible goods that might be (roughly) proportional to the harms experienced by them

    • Reparative punishment: punishment directed at those who intentionally refuse to provide reparative compensation

  • Corlett argues that the historic rights violations of the U.S. government against Native Americans ought to be rectified by way of reparations.


Reparations as expressive

Reparations as Expressive

  • One argument justifying reparation schemes generally is that they serve an important expressive function.

  • That is, like punishment schemes, reparation schemes send a clear social message.

    • They disavow the wrong being compensated.

    • They clearly state that the wrong is inconsistent with our social goals.

    • They speak in favor of a legal solution to a historical failing of standards of law and justice.

    • They mark a clear break with a history dominated by the wrong and make possible a different future.


The argument

The Argument

  • To the extent possible, “instances of clear and substantial historic rights violations ought to be rectified by way or reparation” (263c2).

    • Justified by a principle of retributive justice: wrongdoers ought to ‘pay’ for their wrong.

    • “Possible extent” signals a commitment to proportionality.

  • The U.S. government has committed substantial historic violations of the rights of Native Americans.

    Therefore, the U. S. government ought to rectify these violations through reparations to the extent possible.


Objections

Objections

  • Corlett considers (and rejects) arguments which deny that the U.S. government and its citizens have an obligation to provide reparations to Native Americans:

    • The objection from historical complexity: can’t figure out all of the wrongs, and even if we could it wouldn’t be fair to impose the punishment on the apparently innocent descendants of the wrongdoers.

      • In response, Corlett notes that holes in the historical record don’t preclude judgments when the record is clear. Furthermore, we have a longstanding legal principle which recognizes that a transfer or acquisition of property is not sacrosanct if the property is morally encumbered (ex. Stolen property).

    • The objection to collective responsibility: we can’t hold the current U. S. government or citizens responsible for the actions of previous generations.

      • In response, Corlett insists on the continuity of the government (new president doesn’t mean new government). In addition, the argument above about fair acquisition/transfer still holds.

    • The affirmative action objection: we already have a reparation program, it’s called ‘affirmative action.’

      • In response, Corlett notes both that AA addresses current,not historical, social limitations experienced by people and that AA fails the proportionality test (opportunity does not equal property).


More objections

More Objections

  • The objection from the indeterminacy of Native American identity: Native American identity is so watered down as to make it impossible to specify who should receive the reparations.

    • In response, Corlett points to the stable and specific membership roles of the Native American Nations. Further, the fact that some may not have justified basis for a claim doesn’t mean that no one does.

  • The historical reparations objection: reparation has already happened.

    • In response, Corlett highlights the lack of proportionality; doesn’t address not property-based offenses; such reparations are the exception rather than the rule.

  • The objection from social utility: reparations of the sort under consideration would be economically, politically and socially disastrous.

    • Corlett responds by insisting that social utility might be appropriately overwhelmed by concerns for justice (even if it mean the end of the U. S. as we know it.


Possible schemes

Possible Schemes

  • Strict Justice: Complete restitution of dispossessed lands and compensation for harms.

  • Restitution of Land

  • Compensation for Harms

  • The Buffalo Commons: grant the prairie lands (not an important economic/social/population region in U. S.).

  • Reparation Tax


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