Made-up Math: Debunking ‘Racism = Prejudice + Power’
“Prejudice plus power” is a neat little formula that rolls nicely off the tongue. Probably the phrase owes half its catchiness to alliteration, and half to conceptual simplicity. These merits are shared with slogans, buzzwords and everything else in the intellectual bargain-bucket. That said, we can’t be too contemptuous of this little glib standby, since as a phrase to captivate both the attention and the intellect, prejudice-plus-power does have a touch of genius.
We all know that prejudice-plus-power is most famously, most frequently and most annoyingly used to rig the race hustle against whites. It’s a sleight-of-rhetoric which ensures only whites can be burned with the brand of evil, namely the mark of “racism”. And that’s because only white-devils have the requisite power to be racist.
Now on the serious intellectual level, we can hardly agree with this idea. “Power” is not some sort of switch that only has two positions – off and on (perhaps they’re confusing sociopolitical power with electrical power?). Everybody has different degrees and types of power, and in different situations. The world simply is not arranged in the pattern that prejudice-plus-power suggests it is, which is one reason why this particular formula sinks into incoherence so readily. Even the justifications for the formula, which are supposed to iron out the problems with it, only serve to drive the whole thing more completely off-kilter.
The advocate for the prejudice-plus-power formulation sometimes tries to justify his little catchphrase by saying that only those with power can do harm. In truth, the very idea of victimizing somebody presupposes that you must have had the power that is necessary to harm them. Even if we accept prejudice-plus-power because, “doing harm requires power”, it only follows that anybody with power to victimize (i.e. virtually anybody with an able body and ill intent) can harm others on the basis of prejudice and thereby perpetrate racism.
So what power does an armed black gangster have over an unarmed white store clerk? Luckily its only the power of life and death. Good thing too, otherwise the clerk might have had cause to worry whether the black guy is racist or not. Or let’s take black celebrities versus white paupers. Does the power differential enable the blacks to be racist in this case? Can Robert Mugabe be racist against Zimbabwean farmers, since he rules the country after all? Or perhaps he is too disempowered by living on a planet “ruled” by whites? And what socially constructed threshold of power does your group have to attain before you can be a bona-fide racist anyway? Can one minority be racist to another, or can only the “majority” be racist?
But let’s leave this alone. We could multiply examples and thorny questions to go with them, it only becomes tiresome. Eventually you realize that the dictionary definition of “racism” has the significant virtue of fitting the real world better. It is more coherent, more elegant, less tortuous and frankly less suspect. And if you wanted to talk about racism with some other dimension added to it, then you only need say “institutional” racism or “societal” racism. Yes, the mechanisms of the English language can accommodate you. There’s no need to scribble contentious and confusing new definitions over less contentious and more coherent definitions.
But the minority rights activist will object to this, and it’s obvious why. He needs terms which are smoother and less clunky to make his accusations with, which returns us to the intrinsic appeal of “prejudice + power” – namely its punchy simplicity. This too is the appeal of “racism” as a standalone term. Qualifiers like “institutional” and “societal” only dilute the horror of the word “racism”, by making it coexist with more technical, almost jargon-type language. As an activist, this is very unsatisfying. As an activist you’re campaigning against certain groups, and you need certain terms of abuse – simple, emotive, knee-jerk terms – to apply only to those groups. Racism fits the bill nicely.
We can concede that it’s a more hazardous situation if a majority population is racist against a dis-empowered minority. Although it’s also quite a combustible state of affairs if you have a virulently racist minority dwelling among a comparatively non-racist majority – a majority that is largely hapless, quiescent and misinformed. But we know that just never happens. Besides, dealing with those real-world complexities is quite beyond certain activists who prefer to squawk attack-lines at you.
Let’s not get the wrong message from this. Having brief, punchy and appealing terms to summarize abstract ideas is not a bad thing in and of itself (unless the abstract ideas are themselves bad). Word-smithing and focusing the mind-plus-emotions are, in any case, the essential skills in culture-war. Even the malign forces of radical (that is, non-acceptable) reaction have recently turned a fine phrase or two. Regardless of what you may think of MRAs, the idea of the “Disposable male” seems to have made inroads into the discussion space – much to the displeasure of feminists. Culture has always needed a little engineering, a little conscious intervention, and truly the strangest things can happen. With enough drive and subtlety and relevance to people’s “lived experience” (excuse the term), who knows? “Anti-white racism” could roll off the tongue the same way “anti-Semitism” does now.