The Moral Psychology of Racist Brutality

Kate Manne (Cornell) writes in The Stone in The New York Times that the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, and the events that have occurred in its wake, suggest that a traditional understanding of racism is mistaken:

One possibility is that people are treated brutally because those who mistreat them fail to grasp their common humanity — or, similarly, their personhood. The idea is that seeing another person as a fellow human being is not only a prerequisite for ethical relations with her, but also strongly disposes us to treat her as we ought to….

I used to be a humanist in this sense of the term. But I am fast losing my religion. Dehumanization increasingly seems to me to be merely a symptom of the problem. The problem being precisely that black people are being seen as people — and they are seen as being threatening, and taken down, because of it. The humanist line on Ferguson is unduly optimistic, and rests on a psychologically dubious assumption. Namely, that when people who have historically enjoyed a dominant position in society (in this case white men) come to recognize historically subordinated people (racial minorities, women) as their moral and social equals, they will welcome the newcomers.  But seeing others as similar to ourselves can lead to hostility and resentment under certain conditions….

Over time, as the fight for equality has allowed some advancement and social mobility for racial minorities, as well as for women, toward what we might call the inner circle of humanity, white men have experienced a relative loss of status. And they now have more rivals for desirable positions. Add to that the fact that they may find themselves surpassed by those they tacitly expected to be in social positions beneath them, and we have a recipe for resentment and the desire to regain dominance.

Read the rest here. There was some previous discussion of Ferguson and philosophy here.

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9 years ago

Presumably both things can come together: a person witnessing a person whom he sees as an ‘inferior being’ having higher wealth, status, power than him makes him doubly resentful and doubly keen to take her down, and this is coupled with him at the same seeing himself as ‘entitled’ to do because the usual norms do not apply to ‘inferior beings’.

9 years ago

Just wanted to chime in, a bit late, that I really enjoyed Manne’s piece. It’s to the point, philosophically interesting, and socially relevant. I myself find it very difficult to communicate my work to broader (non-philosopher) audiences. Well done!