A review of “Racism Without Racists” by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva i
Banners outside the residence of three students falsely accused of rape
I’d never heard of Eduardo Bonilla-Silva before I chanced upon an ad for a conference on “white privilege” in Madison, March 2014. I’ll call him ‘Ed’ for short. One of the papers for this conference referenced Ed’s “Racism Without Racists” (4th edition, 2013). So I downloaded and read this 318-page lamentation about the persistence of “racism” in the form of “color-blindness”. This struck me as somewhat illogical, since “color-blindness” means treating people equally regardless of their race.
I noticed that he is located at Duke University in North Carolina, and quickly established that he was one of the “group of 88” who, on the basis of her testimony alone, falsely accused three white students of raping a black woman in 2006 ii. His book contributes to the assumptions which led to that injustice. The contrary view can be found in “Until Proven Innocent: Political Correctness and the Shameful Injustices of the Duke Lacrosse Rape Case” iii.
Throughout the book, he makes claims about how white people view black people and other minorities, usually, without any evidence, occasionally, with an anecdote.
He starts by claiming that in the USA, “racial ‘others’ of dark complexion are always viewed as incapable of doing much”, and president Obama’s two election victories, in which millions of white Americans voted for him, makes no difference. To reiterate – he claims whites always view members of minorities as “incapable of doing much”, even when they vote for one of them as president.
How does he get away with it?
My tentative explanation for continued credulity toward people like Ed is: it’s a combination of guilt and a lack of logic. Most people wouldn’t understand that the arguments of “critical race theory” are circular: failure to accept the theory is explained by the theory itself, thus it permits of no falsification.
People who give the impression that they are guilty about who they are, for example, white participants in the white privilege conference mentioned above, are signaling to less moral people that they can be taken advantage of. White guilt is the notion that, to be a good white person, you have to act to make up for bad things which other white people have done to non-white people in the past.
The “hate industry”, consisting of several well-funded institutions, which exaggerate the degree of white racial prejudice iv, such as the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center, numerous academic departments doing the same, of which the African and African-American Studies Department at Duke University is a particularly acute example, various local and national government “diversity” bodies – without white guilt, all of this could not continue.
On the second page of chapter one. Ed claims that “most whites insist that minorities (especially blacks) are responsible for whatever ‘race problem’ we have in this country” (my emphasis), without a single reference to back it up. “They publicly denounce blacks for playing the race card” he continues.
This is a clever gambit – if one accepts it, one cannot criticize black people who play the race card! These unsubstantiated claims continue through the book. Chapter seven: “Most whites in the United States… believe blacks are culturally deficient, welfare-dependent, and lazy.”
Having dismissed the idea that members of minorities could have any responsibility for their own condition, he describes it. Dark-skinned minority members are three times more likely to be poor than white people, earn on average 40% less, receive inferior education (not including his own students), and if they own houses, they are roughly 35% less valuable than whites’. Minority members receive “impolite treatment” in stores and restaurants, and “pay more for goods such as cars and houses than do whites”. Finally, he adds, blacks and Latinos are subject to racial profiling by the police.
Normally, one tests a theory’s explanatory power by trying to find other explanations of the phenomena it claims to explain. But in this case, Ed tries to dissuade us from doing that, because “whites have developed powerful explanations – which have become justifications – for contemporary racial inequality which exculpate them from any responsibility for the status of people of color”.
And “whites rationalize minorities’ contemporary status as the product of market dynamics, naturally occurring phenomena, and blacks’ implied cultural limitations”. Whoa! I don’t recall ever meeting a white person who said any of those things. Does Ed encounter people like that? He works for and with submissive white people like the president of Duke university, Richard Brodhead v, who responded to the allegations against the three innocent students by publicly denouncing them:
“But it is clear that the acts the police are investigating are only part of the problem.”
- the acts the police investigated did not occur, so they could not have been part of any problem
“If they didn’t do it, whatever they did is bad enough.”
- the students didn’t do anything
“The survival of the legacy of racism, the most hateful feature American history has produced.”
- racism had nothing to do with the rape which didn’t happen
In 2006, the establishment tended to assume the three white students were guilty – the university, the police, the D.A., and much of the local and national media. This is the fourth edition of Ed’s book, published in 2013. The first edition was published in August 2006, after evidence was already available showing that the rape claim was false vi
Ed accuses “whites” of “resentment”: “Shielded by color blindness whites can express resentment toward minorities; criticize their morality, values and work ethic; and even claim to be the victims of ‘reverse racism’”.
The Duke three were victims of more than reverse racism. It’s not just that they are white – they are also male, heterosexual, and none of them are poor. They were accused of implementing “the daily violence of racism/ white supremacy, sexism/ transphobia/ patriarchy, classism/ capitalism, and homophobia/ heterosexism”. It’s easy to laugh at this, but the D.A., mindful of the black vote, tried to send the three to prison for twenty years, long after evidence had emerged proving their innocence.
Less obvious than the old racism, the “new color blind racism”, according to Ed, “otherizes softly” – it says that minorities are unsuccessful because they are lazy. He gives no evidence either that white people believe this, nor that it is false, but from it, draws the lofty conclusion that “this new ideology has become a formidable political tool for the maintenance of the racial order”. As an example of the new racism, Ed cites opposition to affirmative action, which gives extra help in obtaining college places to members of minorities. He tries to stop debate on this thorny subject by tarring one of the sides with the unanswerable allegation “racist”. He uses the same technique on the issue of “busing”, a policy which forced white children to go to largely black schools far from home, and vice versa.
His dependence on unfamiliarity with logic is illustrated in chapter two, when he tries to use the statistics for incarceration rates to defend his claim that the “new racism” is as bad as the old. He finds a correlation between race and imprisonment, and says this shows race “influences” imprisonment. But correlation does not prove causation. He claims that the introduction of more draconian sentences was caused by “white fear of black crime”, without evidence that this fear really had any racial element.
In chapter two, Ed argues that the practices of the new racism “are as effective as the old ones in maintaining the racial status quo”. Laws against racial discrimination and ethnic profiling, the outlawing of segregation, departments of African-American studies, busing, affirmative action, diversity training, Obama’s re-election, NBC… all this has made no difference. We must try harder.
The concept “race” is central to Ed’s hypothesis. What is it? A paper for the white privilege conference states “Almost an academic consensus, race is understood to have no scientific foundation. Rather it is a social construct that is under constant (re)negotiation.” vii
Ed also defends this consensus, that race is “socially constructed”. He uses a false dichotomy to dismiss the idea that it has a biological basis. He claims the alternatives are that races are either
a. human creations, or they are
b. eternal, essential categories.
In fact, you can accept that races are genetically based, without claiming they are eternal or essential, as I explained in “Invention, Imagination, Race and Nation” viii. You can believe races are based on biology, without denying that inaccurate, harmful views on race exist.
An example of the self-confirming nature of Ed’s approach is his claim that less than ten percent of whites can legitimately claim “some of my best friends are blacks”. But if a white person does say that, it’s regarded as an attempt to cover up racism. It’s damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.
Another example of his self-confirming method is his selective use of the term “minority”. Normally, Latino is a minority. But George Zimmerman, a Latino who shot a black teenager in self-defense, Ed calls an “honorary white”. Zimmerman was subjected to a media firestorm, in particular, on NBC, which assumed his motive was racial, despite the complete lack of evidence for this theory ix.
“Asians” are another minority, who on average do well at school. Ed writes “Whites (and Asians) are considerably (and statistically significantly) more likely to be placed in the academic track than comparably achieving African American and Latino students”. So is the system biased in favor of Asians, as well as whites? If the black and Latino students really are “comparably achieving”, there is no need for affirmative action based on race – a color-blind meritocracy would serve them well. Yet Ed is so strongly in favor of affirmative action, he thinks anyone who disagrees is a racist.
A once-disadvantaged minority – Asians – does well. Another – African Americans – does not so well. How to explain it within Ed’s theory? The first group are “honorary whites”. This is an example of the logical fallacy known as “special pleading”: an apparent falsification of the theory is explained by modifying the theory.
Ed teaches a version of science, “social science”, which accepts the validity of statements such as
“The central component of any dominant racial ideology is its frames or set paths for interpreting information. These set paths operate as cul-de-sacs because after people filter issues through them, they explain racial phenomena following a predictable route.” (Ed, chapter 3)
An example of a “frame” is the idea that people “naturally” associate with people of the same race. Instead of looking into whether this might be the expression of an adaptive trait, as I do, Ed dismisses it as “a frame that allows whites to explain away racial phenomena by suggesting they are natural occurrences”.
The book contains interviews with various white students about hot-button issues like affirmative action. Ed analyzes their responses, accusing most of them of “racism”. Their hesitation and changes of opinion in mid-sentence he interprets as attempts to cover up for it. Another interpretation might be that white people find it difficult to express their opinions in the current atmosphere.
Ed suspects, from his jaundiced analysis of the students’ responses, “This may well mean that, as whites enter the labor market, they feel entitled to vent their resentment in a relatively straightforward manner”. Nothing could be further from the truth. As Dena Samuels explains in a paper for the white privilege conference x, by 2005, two-thirds of US employers had some kind of diversity training, although it is not legally mandated. You can’t express “white resentment” in American workplaces.
It’s true that some of his interviewees seem to try too hard not to sound racist. Ed doesn’t ask the question “why do they even bother?” Why would white people be concerned about racism at all?
Most of those interviewed oppose racial quotas in education. Ed says this is “cultural racism”, because in order to say it, you have to believe that “discrimination is not the reason why blacks are worse off than whites”.
Ed thinks racism includes, not just openly supporting discrimination, but disagreeing with his opinions about it. Being as charitable as possible to his argument, it can be summarized as follows:
a. Members of minorities are on average underprivileged compared to white people
b. There are only two possible explanations of this:
- The USA is mostly a meritocracy, therefore minorities must be less able than white people
- Minority people must be victims of racism
c. Position 1. above is racist. Therefore, unless you accept position 2., you are a racist.
But this doesn’t follow, because you might either disagree with his argument, or simply not understand it. Who says one is obliged to explain this particular problem – minority poverty in the USA – out of all the problems in the world?
I don’t know what is the cause of the relative disadvantage of some American ethnic minorities. However, I don’t think it can be solved by spreading prejudice against the white majority. I’m not inspired to do something about it by hate-filled books like this. Ed’s belief that “whites” in general make negative racial generalizations is itself a negative racial generalization. He, and the other eighty-seven professors who signed the notorious statement falsely accusing students of rape, are still teaching the politics which led to that victimization. This fact alone is a major argument against his theory that this is a white racist society.
“What happened to this young woman” – the statement of the group of 88
vii White Capital: Ways Racial Stereotypes are Symbolic Systems of Power, Kasey Hendricks, 2014