As America and the Western world struggles with the sordid elements of our heritage, the study of racism (and other “–isms”) has become a staple topic of debate. It is by no means a flyweight issue. Now, there are those that believe that racism is a one-way street – that is, that racism goes down the power ladder, but not up. The argument is that prejudice alone is not sufficient to constitute racism – prejudice plus power is the formula for a harmful “-ism”. Therefore, while prejudice against the historically disadvantaged members of a given society is morally horrific, there is no cause for moral outrage – and perhaps even cause for laud – for prejudice against the perceived ruling class. In America’s case, the ruling class is white males.
The premise is not difficult to understand, or find in popular culture. In fact, it is just a form of populism – the same political and social sentiment that made Bernie Sanders and the Occupy movements seem like a good idea, and the same political social sentiment that resulted in one President Donald Trump. Populism is the belief that a malicious ruling class is secretly manipulating the masses to preserve and enhance their power, and the solution is for a “revolution” or popular uprising against the ruling class. So the Prejudice-Plus -Power (which I’ll refer to as P3 from here on out) belief is neither unique nor particularly compelling in its own right, because it is built on a preexisting and rather persistent theme. The only thing that changes between P3 and say, the French Revolution, is the designation of a ruling class against which the oppressed must rebel.
I am a competitive person. I’ve competed in Crossfit, jujitsu, cross country and distance running, and I try to live a strenuous life. Ask anyone who competes and they will tell you – when you see yourself as disadvantaged, you have already lost the battle in your mind. I have lost bouts because I believed I would, and I have won bouts by disregarding my fears and remaining focused on my task. From a great deal of personal experience and the experience of others, I can say that the kind of victim mentality I see in some folks is in itself enough to prevent them from moving forward. This is not to say that some people are not legitimately disadvantaged – but mindset is everything.
That’s just an aside, though – I want to address the academic problem with P3.
We have to get down to the very core of the issue here, and that is – as it often is – a sociopolitical battle for moral authority. Prejudice is an ugly thing, a result of our sinful nature. Prejudice is our mind’s way of taking a short-cut to what it thinks is a given. It is an untested and unverified system of beliefs that subconsciously form our opinions. In the past, great leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. decried all prejudice, calling for unity between groups. P3, however, does not. Instead, P3 is a system of justifying certain kinds of prejudice. This is an argument that one person’s ugliness is morally sound while another’s is not, simply because of a historical reality (or, in many cases, a false perception of history.) So when one makes the P3 argument, one is simply asserting a double standard fallacy, and then presenting the P3 argument as an ad hoc justification. The intent is to maintain moral authority without addressing one’s own prejudice. In child’s terms: “He started it!”
The basis of P3, however, is actually true, and that is that everyone has prejudices. As I’ve mentioned, it’s a rather nasty reality of how our brains are wired – much less our socialization and experiences, all of which is the product of a sinful universe. P3 rightly recognizes that it is not possible to eliminate prejudice from society.
P3’s solution to this problem is to establish moral authority inside the context of prejudice, by differentiating between power levels of the actors. This is where the populist mythology of the noble underdog plays a central role. But “power” doesn’t solve the problem. In fact, adding that qualifier compounds it.
We learn from Nietzsche’s Zarathustra and Beyond Good and Evil that it is the intrinsic desire of every living organism to exert power onto their environment and the actors within. This concept, known as “the Will to Power,” permeates Nietzsche’s works. Every person, in speaking, in acting, in failing or refusing to act, is in fact exerting their power. Even seemingly altruistic acts have the subconscious effect of indebting others (perhaps a cynical interpretation, but bear with me.)
Elsewhere we learn that voting, arguing, debating, and narrating a story are all powerful tools in the Will to Power – persuasion by whatever means. So this begs the question – if prejudice plus power equals “-ism”, and every being exerts power, especially through persuasion and appeals to emotion, how is it possible to differentiate between which power is appropriate and which is not?
The problem for the P3 argument is that it begs the question. The challenge is, “We are all prejudiced,” but the response is to introduce another universal factor. And the challenge remains the same and unanswered: “We are all prejudiced and powerful.”
The first objection to this would be that merely having power is not the same as having a position of dominance. Proponents of P3, I’m sure, will interject that it is unfair to equate the two because the power that white males possess in American society is dominance of the political or social capital. However, Foucault and Derrida have shown us the power in discourse, and how linguistics is used to govern social behaviors. It is no surprise then to learn that the narrative is a powerful tool to control – more powerful, I would argue, then residual sociopolitical capital from previous generations. In fact, the power of shame against racists, homophobes, etc., has been wielded like a bat by P3 proponents for years, most especially in the previous four. I do not think it is unreasonable, then, to recognize the power that discourse has, and to recognize that P3 fails to address how widespread and universal this power is between groups.
But for the sake of argument, let us assume that power must only refer to the social and political capital that white males apparently possess. What is the conclusion? Let us imagine that all wrongs were righted and – choosing a disadvantaged group at random – Native Americans wielded supreme power over the perceived social bourgeois, the white males. Would P3 still apply, and Native Americans be chastised for wielding their power with the same prejudices they had prior to gaining power? Of course not – the argument only works when one is the underdog, and it only bears weight – or should I say, power – when it is used in the struggle for moral authority.
Fundamentally speaking, this is the problem with P3. The argument does not solve the problem it sets out to solve precisely because solving the problem is contrary to the greater project of wielding that moral authority against the opponent. The real answer – the one that is simple, obvious, and satisfies Occam’s Razor – is difficult because it requires humility. It is precisely what Martin Luther King, Jr. said to begin with: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” P3 is hate, trying to drive out hate, and it cannot succeed.