No doubt there are racists out there, whether they are bosses at a big firm, or security guards at night clubs. Surely, many bosses have fired people on the grounds of their race. Racial discrimination is alive and kicking, and there are some urgent measures to be taken against it. But, the perennial epistemological question soon arises: how does one know when one is, in fact, facing racial discrimination?
There are, of course, people who explicitly support discrimination on racial grounds. In fact, apartheid and the Jim Crow era were cases in point. But, nowadays, racial discrimination is far more subtle. Few people dare fire an employee on the grounds that she is a nigger. However, even without calling someone a ‘nigger’, discrimination may occur. Yet, again, how do we know when this in fact happens?
The usual method to answer this question is by appealing to statistics. One may take a look at the list of fired employees that, allegedly, were competent. If one sees a racial pattern among the members of that list, then one may apparently infer that such firings were in fact racially motivated. But once again, the problem arises: how do we know there is in fact a racial pattern?
Let us suppose that 95% of the competent fired employees had dark to very dark skin color. Is that a racial pattern? Most people would agree that indeed it is. But, why must skin color be the selected trait to establish the racial pattern? If, let us suppose, we evaluate the blood type of the fired population, perhaps we’ll find out there is no discrimination.
Race is a social construction. Skin color is not the only way to classify human beings. We may very well classify humans according to their blood type (or foot size, or attached earlobe frequency, etc.), and perhaps surprisingly, we will find out that those classifications do not match. The fact that they do not match makes race a meaningless biological concept.
Now, it is true that, historically, the criterion to discriminate people is, basically, skin color. Apartheid-era bathroom signs were “Colored; Whites”, not “Attached earlobes; non-attached earlobes”. And, if on the basis of skin color we see a racial pattern, but we do not see a racial pattern on the basis of blood type, then we may suspect that, indeed, racial discrimination is going on.
But, then again, how do we know that, for the suspected racist boss, skin color is indeed relevant? The fact that historically, skin color has been the relevant racial trait for discrimination does not imply that, for this particular boss, skin color is relevant. Perhaps the boss is genuinely colorblind, and we are projecting on him a pattern that only concerns lawmakers and judges obsessed with race. As philosophers of mind have long acknowledged, we simply have no access to other minds. In such a manner, in the absence of clear behavioral evidence (e.g., an explicit remark such as “I want to fire all niggers from my company!”), we simply do not know whether people are really racist.
Racial discrimination is, alas, extremely difficult to prove. Jurisprudence has long taught in dubio pro reo: in case of doubt, the accused person must be given the benefit. Unless there is a clear conduct manifested in explicit remarks, there will always be room for doubts regarding racial discrimination. And, for that reason, I am somewhat pessimistic about laws against racial discrimination. The benefits of prosecuting racial discrimination may be outweighed by the unfair accusation of people who, simply, have had no intention to discriminate.
This is, of course, no easy matter. Racism does go on, and something must be done about it. But, I believe the adoption of a colorblind policy is much more effective than the monitoring of racial discrimination through the recording of dubious statistics. When we confer little importance to the arbitrary physical traits that have traditionally been used to classify human beings, racism will hopefully go away.