Racism is not a factor of the heart, according to Tommie Shelby in “Is Racism in the ‘Heart’?” He writes “the ‘heart’ does not have to be involved in order for an action or institution to be racist” (483). Instead, Shelby argues that racism is based on the effect of a person’s actions on deepening racist institutions or promulgating the oppression of a particular group of people based on their race. The individual intention of a person or the “purity” or his or her heart does not take precedence over the effect of his or her actions. Shelby’s argument is constructed as follows: Individual beliefs can be true or false but not inherently immoral. Therefore, it is not appropriate to morally condemn someone for holding a particular belief. However, when the particular belief leads to “race-based hatred...actions...or institutions” that is when it becomes appropriate to hold the individual with the belief morally culpable for racism.
Shelby suggests that Jorge Garcia presents an inadequate conception of racism, hence a new, more nuanced concept of racism is necessitated. Garcia contends that “racism is always wrong” and that it is an “individual moral vice” (479). Garcia’s “infection model” explains that an “act is racist insofar as a racist heart infects the conduct of the racist; and an institution is racist insofar as it is rooted in the racist attitudes and the resulting racist-infected actions of its founds and/or current functions” (479). Shelby’s response to this is that an action can be racist even if it is separate from racist intentions. Shelby perceives that Garcia holds the idea that “racist beliefs are a secondary and an inessential feature of racism” since “race-based non-cognitive attitudes are the key ingredient, an...
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...Shelby argues that this belief is not a valid excuse for behaviors that ultimately propagate racist norms and institutions (480).
Are racist attitudes necessary for racism? This is not the case according to Shelby. It is not the intention of an action that makes the action racist. It is the fact that the action contributes to the oppression of an “other.” While racist beliefs are more nefarious than intentions, Shelby only considers beliefs racist if the inner belief contributes to racist ideology. He ultimately argues that a person is racist if his or her actions promulgate racist institutions, despite the person’s original intentions or condition of the heart.
Shelby, T. (2002) “Is Racism in the Heart?” In G. L. Bowie, M. W. Michaels, and R. C. Solomon (Eds.), Twenty Questions: An Introduction to Philosophy (479-483). Boston, MA: Wadsworth.
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