You’ve probably heard the media trumpet blasts this weekend, heralding a study that purportedly shows 9-month-old babies to be “racist.”
Little b-words are probably sexist, sizeist, and ageist too.
According to the study, babies of 9 months (whose lives, we should note, are centered on eating, doodying their diapers, and putting unsanitary things in their mouths) have difficulty interpreting the facial expressions of people of other races. Medical Xpress, reporting on the U. Mass Amherst study, summarizes the findings as follows:
The researchers found that by 9 months, infants show a decline in their ability to tell apart two faces within another race and to accurately match emotional sounds with emotional expressions of different-race individuals. This is the first investigation of this effect in infancy and supports other studies suggesting that emotion recognition is less accurate for other-race faces than own-race faces.
So there is a decline in infants’ ability to distinguish between other-race faces (the decline was observed between 5 and 9 months in the study). Of course, there are a lot of changes in babies between 5 and 9 months, such as getting way bigger, gaining teeth, sitting up and crawling, sleeping through the night, and so forth. If we went by the labeling standard with which the “racist babies” study is being touted, we’d describe a baby’s growth as obesity and his sleeping proficiency as narcolepsy.
If “racism” is defined as any form of noticing that there are physical differences between the races – anytime, anywhere, by anyone – then the concept has no political or moral meaning whatsoever. It is as neutral and uninteresting as eyelashes and fingernails. The “differently abled” or handicapped, according to this definition of racism, would be those who did not develop it. If it’s typical of babies in a study, regardless of race, then it’s – by definition – normal.
But the thoughtless use of the word “racism” in connection with this study highlights a snowballing trend – something in the nature of an avalanche – in modern communication. There are a number of freighted words, like “racism,” “intolerance,” and “[x]-phobia,” which have specific meanings and were coined at one time to identify patterns in which people either made conscious choices to believe certain things and behave in certain ways, or were driven to by pathologies attributable to rearing or their social environment. The point of this post is not to refight the battles of their creation, but to observe that these words are used in invalid ways to prejudice public dialogue.
The idea of racism – see Dinesh D’Souza’s comprehensive volume on it – gained momentum in the 19th century with theories of race from well-known historians and philosophers, followed by a moral and political backlash against the idea of permanent racial disparities. Racism was initially considered to be an intellectual choice, based on “empirical” observation and analysis. Its opponents, for their part, regarded their position as a moral one, adopted out of moral concern for the treatment of – discrimination against – their fellow men.
As D’Souza notes, the modern take has evolved further: the “prevailing view … is that racism … is a product of irrational antipathy … a kind of pathology or dementia.” (1995 hardback edition of The End of Racism; p. 28.)
These two distinct concepts are themselves something of a mishmash, requiring much refinement and explanation. The first implies a choice that is ultimately moral: a choice of how to perceive and treat other humans. The second implies a socio-psychological problem that may require therapy, although it’s not clear how to administer such a program for vast numbers of people. But in either case, the central idea is that there is a problem, an anomaly that affects the community and needs to be dealt with by policy of some kind.
These concepts are on another planet from the untutored responses of 9-month-olds. If our earliest natural response to other races constitutes “racism,” then the manifestation cannot be either a moral problem – which must be based on individual choice – or “a pathology,” something that is damaging to a system because it is anomalous.
We have developed imperfect (and easily abused) means to try to deal with the kinds of problem racism has been defined as in the past. But what do we do if it’s not one of those problems? Babies aren’t making moral choices to “discriminate” or assume derogatory things about others. And if they carry a universal “pathology,” what meaning can that possibly have? How are we to see ourselves as a species, if we are all carriers of this pathology? How do we justify placing a moral value on ourselves? Or are we to subjugate our moral value to the need to eliminate “pathologies”? Do we declare open season on ourselves because of our innate characteristics?
The lunacy of labeling the natural responses of infants “racism” consists partly in that doing so robs racism of any useful meaning. But it also creates an open-ended pretext for haranguing the people, and making policy that seeks to limit their options and punish them preemptively. It suggests, if it doesn’t explicitly say, that liberty and freedom of choice are problems for mankind – because who knows what all these racist babies would do with them.
The issue here is partly that a concept as poorly defined as racism is constantly waved at the public like a talisman. But an equally great problem – perhaps a greater one – is that so many in the media have obediently discussed the U. Mass Amherst study’s results as evidence of racism. It’s as if the entire nation has adopted the word “racism” as a banner with felt appliqués, something big and colorful and recognizable, without much of an explicit definition, but conveying a set of self-congratulatory emotions.
Yet the implication – that there’s a terrible, destructive pathology born into us that needs to be eradicated – is incompatible with the idea of humans as moral actors, in charge of our behavior and accountable for what we do. It’s incompatible with the very useful respect we have for our moral consciences. We get angry with ourselves when we don’t follow our consciences – and we know when that has happened – but we don’t drown in metaphysical doubt about the efficacy of conscience or the fundamental propriety of its guideposts.
In the end, we can’t help noticing that the implied concept of “original racism” is basically like the Christian concept of “original sin,” but without the all-important redemption feature. Christians do believe that the “sin nature” requires renovation through the ministrations of Jesus Christ. But Christianity is about redemption of the whole person – turning what was corrupted to the good purposes it was meant for – not removal of innate human traits. Moreover, America was established as the world’s beacon of religious liberty precisely because concepts like original sin and Christian redemption are inherently a matter of conscience, to be handled by the individual and his fellows in faith without coercion from the state.
We should actively resist turning public education and the legal code into a doctrine of salvation – from racism or anything else – administered by the government. It isn’t enough to make jokes about the racist babies, and thereby convey that we’re not taking this too seriously. The careless, inconsequent use of the word “racism” needs to be called out, and all its implications refuted. Talking about “racism” should entail talking about something that has been defined for a declared purpose – a purpose to which the means at human disposal are suited. We don’t have the power to remake mankind, not even with the resources of the government, nor would we use it wisely if we did.
If you believe that it’s an example of racism when David Duke associates laziness and other contemptible qualities with black people, or when Louis Farrakhan associates the world’s great evils with white people, then I’m with you, and we can unite in decrying racism. If you believe we humans harbor original racism, an evil existing outside the competence of our moral consciences, but one that needs to be expiated, and exorcised by appointed practitioners, then just register as a religion already.