Peter Singer: On Defending Racism

[:en]Peter Singer[:]

In an earlier piece on defining racism I wrote:

‘Contemporary western philosophers are so committed to identifying racism with mental aberration that they loose any sense of reality.  Unless there is a guilty mind or a guilty thought there can be no racism in their opinion. This absurdity is cover for their wish to exculpate themselves. “I did not intend a racist result or have a racist thought in mind so I cannot be racist.”  1

Some might feel the case made is highly theoretical so an example should help clarify matters. Peter Singer  wrote:

‘The overwhelming desire of society today is to assume that equal powers of reason are a universal heritage of humanity. It may well be. But simply wanting this to be the case is not enough. This is not science. To question this is not to give in to racism.

Watson is right that questioning this assumption is not, in itself, racist. A racist has a negative attitude to people of a particular race. There is nothing racist about trying to learn what the facts are.”2

This requires close inspection: ‘ A racist has a negative attitude to people of a particular race.’ By basing  his definition of racism on the attitude of the subject  he allows for self exculpation. Only the subject has direct access to his inner most feelings and attitudes and his report is final on this view. As long as I say I have no negative attitude to the ’other’  I can do or say whatever I like and be excused from allegations of racism.

This point is far more important than  the issue that arises with Singer’s conclusion:

‘Finally, no matter what the facts on race and intelligence turn out to be, they will not justify racial hatred, nor disrespect for people of a different race. Whether some are of higher or lower intelligence has nothing to do with that.’

Here having defined racism as an attitude of negativity he says that no facts can ever justify having hostile attitudes.  Now since society allocates resources according to certain principles and if university applications, senior positions in organisations are allocated on the basis of, among other features, ‘intelligence’ then not appointing a ‘fair share’ of a certain race to university and senior positions in society is no longer evidence of racism. It is simply a regrettable fact that certain people lack the required feature. Disabled people are not on top sports teams,  blind people are not chosen as referees. By ignoring the power relations between different sectors of society this approach potentially normalises  and sanitises massive social injustice. We know from history that oppressed groups are invariably perceived to be inferior in performance.

But here we have the ultimate absurdity  in that as long as Heydrich was not filled with personal negative feelings about Jews, according to this view, he cannot be considered a racist, no matter what he does.

But the more important point is that according to this widely held view by Western philosophers:  no matter what I say or do as long as I have no hostile feelings (and only I can affirm to this) I cannot  be a racist. It should be now clear that the entire point of this definition of racism was to exculpate Western academics from ever being called ‘racists’ at any price to reason.


1.  (Ladimeji 2020)

2.  (Singer 2007)


Ladimeji, Dapo. 2020. “Joshua Glasgow: Confusing Genocide and Racism.” African Century Journal. October 1, 2020.

Singer, Peter. 2007. “Should We Talk About Race and Intelligence? By Peter Singer – Project Syndicate.” Project Syndicate, November.