Background of Racial Bias against African-Americans
On 28 February 2016, renowned African-American comedian Chris Rock was the official host of the 88th Oscar Academy Awards. During his opening speech, Chris Rock delivered a monolog in which he sought to answer the often-asked question about whether Hollywood depicted racist elements. In his response, Rock described Hollywood as “union xenophobic.” In essence, Chris Rock was bemoaning the inability of African-American actors and actresses to have equal access to the same opportunities that are available to their white counterparts. This feeling is shared by the majority of the African-Americans. Gone are the days when African-Americans would be paraded and shot by the Ku Klux Klan. However, outright racial discrimination has given way to systemic racism. Although this form of discrimination is hard to detect, it prevails in many countries, including the US. For instance, organizations often pass African-American job applicants during recruitment, not based on their qualifications, but based on the color of their skin.
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The criminal justice system is regarded as one of the most notoriously racist institutions in the United States. Many instances of unarmed black males who have been shot dead by police may confirm this assertion as shown in the graph below.
Besides, the number of African-Americans in prisons has been a point of discussion regarding whether the justice department indeed practices racism against the black community. This paper addresses the subject of racism against African-Americans basing its argument on the works of Immanuel Kant and John Stuart. This topic upholds the theme of “Do the Right Thing.” Hence, the paper will be seeking to answer the question of what is the right to do regarding the subject of racism. The writer’s interest in this topic arises from his experiences whereby he has observed how many people tend to feel comfortable to the extent of associating only with individuals from their race, a situation that widens the racial gap.
Applying Philosophical Theories to Explain Racial Bias
Kant: Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals
Kant is one of the famous philosophers of the 18th century. His theory, the metaphysics of morals, has been employed in explaining many contemporary issues that touch the core of morality. Kant’s view of what constitutes morality became famous because it contrasted the prevailing thought of the day. According to Kant, the rightness of an action depends on the nature of the principle that a person decides to base his or her action (Schönecker & Wood, 2015). Kant termed this principle as the moral law. It was Kant’s contention that the moral principle should remain constant and that it should not be varied to suit a particular scenario. This assertion would in effect bring about the universality of the moral law. On the subject of people’s actions, Kant maintained that individuals must do whatever they wish to become the norm. Kant also established four propositions on which the moral duty ought to depend. The most important proposition is “goodwill.”
Kant took the view that all good, with the exclusion of goodwill, is qualified by the nature of its outcomes. Hence, an action can be termed as good only if it leads to a positive outcome. Relating this assertion to the subject of racism, one may wish to know whether racism is morally right. The apparent answer would be that racism is not ethically right because it brings about suffering to those it is directed against (Stainback, 2014). For African-Americans, it is nearly impossible to identify any positive aspect of racial bias. Conversely, some white people may see nothing wrong with racism. They may even make excuses for it. Indeed, slavery, a brainchild of racism, was believed to be morally right since it was a common belief that the black race was inferior. This myth has since been dispelled. It is now understood that no race is more superior to the other (Schönecker & Wood, 2015). Are white and black people racially equal? What is the basis for the racial bias that is propagated against African-Americans today? Clearly, racism cannot be right if it only leads to the suffering of the African-Americans, regardless of whether or not the white people benefit from it.
Kant goes further to argue that true reason should produce goodwill. Racial bias is believed to emanate from people’s natural thought processes (Stainback, 2014). Hence, individuals who exercise racial bias must bear some conviction that it is the right thing to do, regardless of the fact that it results in unfairness on the subject against whom it is propagated. For instance, police officers who decide to shoot defenseless black males may do so because they believe that they (police) are under immediate threat. While it would appear reasonable for the officers to defend themselves, their decision to shoot the suspects nevertheless results in an undesirable outcome for the shot individuals and their families. It is evident that the unarmed individual poses no threat to the officers.
Kant also differentiates inclination from reason. Three scenarios emerge regarding the distinction between partiality and reason. The first scenario is where a person acts merely out of duty. An example would be where an institution admits an African-American student because the local education policy requires a certain level of diversity. The second scenario involves an action that is in accordance with duty while it is not influenced by motivation. Another illustration may involve the same institution’s move to admit an African-American student for fear of being sued for discrimination. According to Kant’s assertions, these two scenarios do not carry moral worth. Therefore, while they do not constitute racial bias, they neither regard it as morally wrong. According to Kant, the third scenario is where duty intersects with an individual’s action, although such an action is also motivated by reason. Using the same example of an institution that admits an African-American student, in this case, it would be doing so out of the desire to achieve diversity and/or empower the particular group of students.
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John Stuart’s Utilitarianism
John Stuart Mill is renowned for popularizing the gratification (utmost delight) principle where he argued that human beings only seek to perform activities that bring them contentment. In the same light, people tend to avoid activities that may result in pain. Mill was in effect arguing that morality is utilitarian. People regard any issue that conforms to the greatest happiness principle as right. Mill’s assertions can be used to explain why racial bias occurs. According to Harel and Segal (2014), discrimination by whites against the African-Americans results from a dislike that the whites have towards black people. This aversion makes it costly for whites to relate with blacks as compared to relating with their fellow whites. Harel and Segal (2014) compare this additional outlay with the transportation costs involved in international trade.
Individual preferences drive people to act in a manner that is most favorable to them. Therefore, according to the utilitarian argument, people expect to reap the maximum benefit (delight) from associating with others who are similar to them (Fallace, 2016). Hence, companies will be inclined to hire white individuals since most of the management is white. They trust white employees to be more ‘employable’ whether or not more qualified African-Americans have applied for the same positions. Similarly, colleges that are predominantly white may simply decline to admit African-American students because they do not believe in their academic capabilities. This case happens, regardless of the fact that black students could be more qualified compared to their white counterparts.
The utilitarian argument has been used to explain the racial bias that is present in the American criminal justice system. According to Harel and Segal (2014), racial profiling occurs because it is (mistakenly) assumed that members of the black community are more likely to break the law compared to their white counterparts. As such, profiling against members of a certain community is seen as helpful and justified. Indeed, profiling may not be a bad concept by itself since it helps the police to zero down on a few suspects as opposed to searching a large number of suspects. If an action brings forth a desirable outcome, such an act can be said to be right. The problem arises where racial bias clouds the minds of the police to the extent that the profiling clearly takes a racial angle. An example is where officers screen African-Americans beyond the goals of an investigation. Not only would this case be illegitimate but it also leaves the affected person with a feeling of being unfairly targeted.
An often-ignored aspect of racial profiling is the sense of hurt that it brings about with respect to minorities. Professor Randall Kennedy, an expert on race issues, argues that the feeling of resentment that builds up in the profiled individuals is enough to disqualify profiling as anything positive (Chin & Vernon, 2015). The only problem with this assertion is that resentment may arise not from the profiling itself but from other issues of racism such as socioeconomic disadvantages. Nevertheless, utilitarians must consider how profiling augurs with the targeted individuals, especially against the backdrop of historical injustices that are committed based solely on race. Arguably, in communities where racism is not a prominent aspect of daily relations, profiling should not raise any serious concerns. However, the United States has sustained a bitter history of one race taking unfair advantage of the other(s). This situation makes racism such a painful yet relevant issue. Therefore, profiling that amounts to racial bias or police abuse is a question of ethics on the part of the officers involved. However, no laws can separate objective profiling from racial bias and/or police abuse.
From the utilitarian argument, a system is unjust if it subjects people to differential treatment for no good reason. As observed earlier, what constitutes a ‘good reason’ will differ based on the particular scenario. Nevertheless, it is commonly accepted that racial bias is unjust because it does not result in any useful outcomes across the board (Chin & Vernon, 2015). Obviously, racist people will have a justification for why they commit bigoted acts. However, such justification cannot be valid since it is based on the already debunked assumption that other races are inferior. It is immaterial that people who share the same race as the xenophobic person may agree with him or her that people from the oppressed race may naturally feel inferior. The truth is that the racist lacks objective and sound evidence to show that racial bias can yield the common good.
What is the Right Thing to Do?
After confirming that racial bias is unjustified in every possible context, it suffices to consider the right thing to do. What emerges from the previous discussion is that utilitarianism is wrong since it subjects people to differential treatment depending on their capacity to achieve happiness. Thus, people who have no means to happiness are taken advantage of by those who do. Racism would appear justified since it maximizes happiness for those who have the capacity (majorities) at the expense of the disadvantaged (minorities). However, Mill’s utilitarianism calls for equality in society. For instance, while he lived during an era of women’s subordination, he advocated for gender impartiality. He regarded as foolishness the practice of treating women as inferior , arguing that it hindered human development (Arat, 2015).
Mill’s assertion that inequality only hinders human development can be extrapolated to the issue of a racial bias today. By denying African-Americans the opportunity to express their capabilities, society inhibits social and economic development. Some of the most talented individuals in the world today are African-Americans. Therefore, it would appear that society is no longer justified in denying people a job opportunity or treating them unfairly in the workplace based on the color of their skin. The same assertion holds for the justice department. For instance, research has indicated that more whites are arrested with drugs compared to African-Americans (Harel & Segal, 2014). However objective it may seem, racial profiling should not be encouraged if it raises resentment and a feeling of being unfairly targeted.
A slight contradiction may be observed since Mill supported imperialism in his theory of humanitarian intervention. According to Mill, barbarians had no rights except the universal rules of morality that administrate relationships between people (Harel & Segal, 2014). If this argument would be in support of racial bias today, it remains subject to debate. However, many scholars regard Kant as having been racist at least. According to Allais (2016), Kant referred to Africans as stupid and incapable of any education other than how to be slaves. Although this claim may not be relevant to this topic, the revelation may still go a long way in explaining why some people regard racism as legitimate, especially given Kant’s influence on modern education.
African-Americans continue to face racial discrimination not only in the workplace but also in justice systems. The paper presents such racial bias as an unjustified move since it only leads to the unfair suffering of those it is directed against. Both Kant’s (metaphysics of morals) and Mill’s (utilitarianism) seem to be in agreement with this assertion, despite the large number of scholars who hold the opinion that utilitarianism encourages racism. Notwithstanding, racial bias is wrong and that it should be eliminated for maximum social progress to be achieved.
Allais, L. (2016). Kant’s racism. Philosophical Papers, 45(2), 1-36.
Arat, Z. (2015). Feminisms, women’s rights, and the UN: would achieving gender equality empower women? American Political Science Review, 109(4), 674-689.
Chin, G. J., & Vernon, C. (2015). Reasonable but unconstitutional: racial profiling and the radical objectivity of Whren v. United States. George Washington Law Review, 83(3), 882-942.
Fallace, T. D. (2016). Educators confront the ‘science’of racism, 1898–1925. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 48(2), 252-270.
Harel, A., & Segal, U. (2014). Utilitarianism and discrimination. Social Choice and Welfare, 42(2), 367-380.
Mapping Police Violence. (2015). Police killed more than 100 unarmed black people in 2015. Web.
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Schönecker, D., & Wood, A. W. (2015). Immanuel Kant’s groundwork for the metaphysics of morals: a commentary. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Stainback, K. (2014). Book review: the American non-dilemma: racial inequality without racism. Urban Studies, 51(9), 1995-1997.