Mises Wire

The Fallacy of “Racism Equals Power Plus Prejudice”

A position that has gained popularity on the Left in recent decades is a push to redefine racism to prevent the term from encompassing racism against whites. According to this position, “racism equals power plus prejudice.” And while whites can experience racial prejudice, there exists a prowhite and anti-non-white bias in western institutions, which is what is meant by the term “power.” Accordingly, it is argued that the term “racism” should be reserved for instances of racial prejudice against a nondominant racial group, which assumes an added dimension of institutional reinforcement not present in “mere” antiwhite prejudice.

Now aside from the blatant attempt to push a particular narrative in the “culture war,” this redefinition implies the organicist assumption that racial groups behave toward each other as monolithic special interests and that, consequently, public institutions could never be biased against the dominant group. In other words, it is inconceivable to the supporters of such a worldview that whites could encounter systemic antiwhite bias in American institutions.

Those who find themselves arguing with a proponent of this position will have a difficult time convincing him of the fallacy of this assumption by pointing to the myriad antiwhite discriminatory policies in modern-day institutions. For one thing, potential counterexamples purporting to show prowhite discrimination have been touted by the woke and their fellow travelers for years, but more importantly, individuals are likely so entrenched in their attitudes toward our institutions that arguments against their views will fall on deaf ears.

A way around this problem is to point to a historical example of institutional discrimination against a dominant racial or ethnic group that is far enough removed in time and space to allow for disinterested treatment by all parties. Fortuitously for us, Ludwig von Mises observed just such a phenomenon in the last decades of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In his book Nation, State, and Economy, he insightfully describes the discrimination of the German-Austrians by the institutions of the Hapsburgs, and much of what he noticed then can be applied just as well today, mutatis mutandis:

Although the Austrian government in the last forty years of the existence of the Empire was, with a few transitory exceptions, more or less anti-German and often draconically persecuted relatively harmless utterances of German national sentiments, while far sharper speeches and deeds of the other nationalities enjoyed benevolent toleration, the state-supporting parties among the Germans always kept the upper hand.

Thus, the institutions that served the interests of the German-Austrian emperor actively discriminated against German-Austrians. As Mises explains, this situation resulted from an attempt by the government to maintain its power in a multiethnic state whose nondominant nationalities wanted nothing more urgently than to establish their own sovereignty and escape from under what they considered, correctly or incorrectly, the yoke of the German-Austrians. The government’s courting of non-Germans’ ressentiment swayed the latter to put their irredentism aside for the time being:

All non-Germans in the country longingly awaited the day that would bring them freedom and their own national state. They strove to get out of the “married-together” state. Many of them made compromises. . . . They came to terms with the provisional continuation of the Austrian and Hungarian states . . . [but never] did irredentism seriously disappear from the program of any of the non-German parties. It was tolerated that official circles did not openly show the ultimate goals of their national strivings in Vienna; at home, however, people thought and spoke, with formal attention to the limits drawn by the paragraphs on high treason of the penal law, of nothing other than liberation and shaking off the yoke of the foreign dynasty.

In summary, it is shown by historical example that a society’s institutions can, indeed, be biased against the dominant group, which suggests the sociopolitical insight that those who wield the power of the state will sacrifice the interests of any group in pursuit of their own. With the fall of the assumption that a society’s institutions must reflect the biases of the dominant racial or ethnic group, the entire “power plus prejudice” edifice collapses into well-deserved meaninglessness, and the juxtaposition of supposed institutionally backed racism with “mere” supposed institutionally unbacked racial prejudice dissolves into a distinction without a difference.

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