By Grant J. Silva
In his Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, Jean-Jacques Rousseau posits an important distinction between self-preservation (amour de soi) and self-love (amour-propre). As he puts it, self-preservation “is a natural feeling which leads every animal to look to its own preservation, and which, guided in man by reason and modified by compassion, creates humanity and virtue.” Self-love, by contrast, is a “purely relative and factitious feeling, which arises in the state of society, leads each individual to make more of himself than of any others, causes all the mutual damage men inflict on one another.” For Rousseau, corrupt forms of social organization are at the root of many of humanity’s maladies—the emergence of “self-love” is but one example. It is the desire not simply to stay alive but to persist as that “self” enabled by extant forms of inequality. In its more vicious manifestations, self-love leads an individual to want to appear better than others, to outdo others, and to demand to be recognized for their social standing, wealth, privilege, and so on.
Rousseau’s distinction provides a useful framework for rethinking the nature of racism today. The most pressing reason for such reconsideration has to do with racist appeals to “self-preservation” exemplified in the manifesto of Patrick Crusius, who on August 3 shot and killed 22 people and injured 24 others at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. “I am simply defending my country from cultural and ethnic replacement brought on by an invasion,” wrote Crucius, who targeted Latino shoppers. “My motives for this attack are not at all personal.” Similar lines of thought also motivated the mass shooters behind the July 29 garlic festival massacre in Gilroy, California; the April 27 synagogue attack in Poway, California; and the March 15 assaults on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Thinking about racism as a form of Rousseauian self-love, I argue, can shed light on these cases and current race relations in the Unites States. It can appropriately describe the rationale and reason for why many “goodhearted” Americans support President Trump’s policies and attitude. It can also help snap us out of our ideological slumber when it comes to thinking about racism.
Although there is much philosophical debate on what makes an action or utterance “racist,” popular conceptions associate it with negative emotions such as hatred, malice, envy, and perhaps even callousness or indifference. While “hatred” (generally speaking) often inspires racism, the idea that racism is essentially a form of hatred or that it boils down to the intent to harm nonwhites is rather comforting thought for many people. This view projects racism onto the past or places it at the feet the KKK or Neo-Nazis holding tiki-torches. This distancing effect is paramount to conceptualizations of racism taking place in societies shaped by white supremacy.
The racism-as-hatred view oversimplifies the problem. First, it allows for a world in which there is obviously structural inequality along racial lines, but no or very few racist persons; only a “racist” person (read: a “hateful” individual) can lend support to a racist social structure. Thus, racist social structures persist despite the reportedly benign intentions of those of positions of racial privilege. Such thinking, while obviously held in bad faith, sheds responsibility for the implicit and unconscious biases that contribute to racial inequality. Those negative thoughts coming from without, as opposed to arising within an agent, cannot be ascribed moral blame. Behind most popular conceptions of interpersonal racism is the notion that one ought to be held accountable only for the crimes that they, as a locus of moral agency, bring into the world. Most Americans believe that being held accountable for the sins of one’s fathers and mothers is wrong (unless, of course, you’re the child of an immigrant desperately trying to enter the United States in which case being locked in a cage is appropriate). When it comes to responsibility and racism, one can thereby inhabit an unjust social structure and not bear personal responsibility for it.
Second, racism-as-hatred enables moral evasion by virtue of the fact that we lack access to an individual’s heart and mind. “I’ve also refrained from consistently characterizing him as a racist,” says House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.) about President Trump. “Because at the end of the day, I don’t know what’s in his head, and I don’t know what’s in his heart.” This tendency provides an easy means of defense to Trump: To achieve doubt about one’s purported racism, all one has to do is generate enough second guessing, blame others for willful misrepresentation, or simply state “that is not what I meant” and the power of the charge of racism dissipates. (“How dare you claim to know what’s in my heart!”) Although this is obviously not what is intended by internalist approaches to racism, the reality of racism festers within such a framework. Insofar as the accused can claim that they do not maintain negative feelings towards an individual on account of their race, skepticism about this charge abounds. In a society like our own, where the presumption of innocence is interwoven with white identity, this skepticism is enough to get a white person off the hook.
If that’s not enough, in response to charge that his words evoke racism, President Trump, and Republicans more generally speaking, have eagerly commandeered the discourse of “hatred.” They castigate Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Ilhan Omar (Minn.), Ayanna Pressley (Mass.), and Rashida Tlaib (Mich.)—all women of color—for allegedly hating “America” and everything it stands for. A person who loves their country doesn’t criticize it as they do, so the rhetoric goes, especially when the President is trying to protect America with his tough laws and policies. For this reason, these representatives are “un-American,” should leave the country, and return to wherever they came. This attitude holds that there is an essential racial group, cultural attitude, political view, or moral demeanor that is central to national membership. At bottom, it articulates a logic of belonging and nonbelonging that serves white supremacy.
In my opinion, the best philosophy seeks out and questions ideology lending support to an unjust status quo. In order to snap us out of our ideological slumber, philosophers and social theorists must be prepared to challenge preconceived notions and ideas, even if this means identifying “love” rather than hatred as the source for racism, as strange as that might sound. My theory of racism as self-love gets to the heart of many morally questionable actions today, such as police shootings of black Americans, anti-immigrant sentiment, and unabashed white supremacy. In all of these examples, the need for self-preservation (either individual or collective) motivates racist behavior. Fear and uncertainty drive human behavior in ways that make appeals to self-preservation and the politics of security attractive. It pushes many Americans to ethical compromise and reveals the limits of their so-called morality.
The absence of intentional hatred or ill will is not enough to avoid the charge of racism. People can be racist for loving themselves too much, especially when such self-love requires maintaining or preserving the social conditions that result in the continual denigration of racialized others. Self-love racism is partly a consequence of an agent being insufficiently motivated to think in “non-racist” ways about racialized minorities on account of an overriding concern for the self. They deliberately abide by racist stereotypes and harbor racist expectations while navigating the social world, showing little to no concern for the oppressive, totalizing, and dangerous nature of such ways of thinking. In another sense, self-love racism amounts to the desire to maintain a specific socioeconomic and racial status quo insofar as this perpetuates the economy of value and social privilege attached to racial identities; it is the protective attachment to the racialized dimensions of one’s social status, esteem, wealth, privilege, and identity.
The current immigration debate provides an excellent example. One the one hand, you have migrants who are desperately trying to enter developed nations like the United States. Their actions are generated by self-preservation (amour de soi). On the other hand, you have the anti-immigrant movement desperately trying to keep migrants out as a threat to their way of life. If we let them all in, the argument goes, will this not bring down the rights, goods, and quality of life that the United States uniquely provides for its citizens? Won’t it destroy or tarnish the American Dream? This second sense of self-preservation (amour propre) finds value in maintaining global inequality. It also finds a parallel in attacking those who promote racial equity, since this would detract from the socioeconomic, cultural, and political value of whiteness in the United States. Thus, “make America great again” works on two fronts both of which speak towards egoism. It’s the desire to maintain the elevated status attached to being “American” (in a global context) and being white (in a domestic context).
Most philosophical analyses of racism explore how it is introduced into the world—that is, the ways an agent freely chooses to serve as the source for racist behavior. Racism as self-love, by contrast, works at the intersection of the interpersonal and structural by offering an account of moral complacency in racist social structures. As example, take the debate over reparations. As Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) put it, slavery took place in the past and most African Americans who would benefit from reparations didn’t personally experience it. Similarly, those whites who profited from slavery are long dead. By granting reparations, so the thought goes, we’re punishing one underserving group in favor of another underserving group. Racism as self-love is made for this maneuver. It does not seek to allocate responsibility for the creation of racism or racial oppression but instead focuses on the maintenance and preservation of racial injustice and privilege.
This is why promoting racial equality and combating racial privilege is perceived as a personal attack on white America. But this is not an attack on white people but an attack on white supremacy. For many white nationalists, there is no difference between the two. For those enamored and influenced by the myth of “the great replacement,” whiteness cannot thrive if white people are a minority. They believe that the United States and other white-majority nations are fundamentally altered and lessened if whites do not play the role they have in these countries today. Changing demographics pose an existential threat to them. “It’s nothing personal,” the El Paso shooter wrote in a statement, implying that he was not motivated by hatred of individual Latinos, per se. But he targeted Latinos because he felt his identity was under threat. He believed he could not continue as the person he is absent the social conditions that makes his identity possible, revealing a pernicious conflation of the community and the individual. Without white supremacy and the exceptionalism that undergirds it, he cannot be himself.
I hesitate to use these white nationalist terrorists as example. It’s easy to project “self-love” onto them, much like its easy to find examples of racist hatred in the past. The difficult question my theory poses is how to confront the myriad forms of investment many white people (and nonwhites too) have in the status quo today. I think that a majority of those in racially dominant positions love themselves aplenty. Proof lies in the unwillingness to take steps that would contribute to racial justice at the risk of losing some of their privileges. Racial justice cannot be cost-free. Most of the positive gains associated with white identity require the denigration of nonwhite peoples. They cannot, therefore, simply be redistributed equally to everyone. Disparities in salary and wage earnings, employment rates and opportunities, health care and general wellbeing, access to nutritious food and education, disproportionate incarceration rates, life expectancy, and more, would all be affected by efforts at engendering racial justice. Such a thought suggests that while glaring disparities in social, economic, and political statuses remain in place, perhaps “all lives [don’t] matter [in the same way].”
Is this to say that white people “shouldn’t matter” as much? Is the solution for white people to hate themselves? No. Self-hatred will get us nowhere. It is, however, a chance for white people to articulate what it means to be white absent any notion of supremacy. I have no idea what that looks like or if it’s possible, but I hope that by asking the question we are better off. On top of all this, it’s a chance for many poor whites, the overwhelming majority of America’s impoverished citizens, to reevaluate the value of white supremacy. Many poor white people would stand to do a lot better if they voted with their wallets or the future of their children (in terms of the environment) in mind and not from a standpoint of racial anxiety. Welfare platforms that benefit nonwhites would benefit them as well. But people are reluctant to let racial “privilege” go. What would it mean for them to “self-preserve,” in Rousseau’s sense of amour de soi, which, as he put it, can lead to “humanity” and “virtue” and learn how to love others, not only the self? We need to find an answer if we wish to confront the reality of racism today.
Grant J. Silva is associate professor of philosophy at Marquette University. The essay version of “Racism as Self-Love” was published in Radical Philosophy Review (Vol. 22, No. 1, 2019). He is currently finishing a monograph with the same title. You can find him on Twitter @elprofesorsilva.
Photograph: First Lady Melania Trump holds the two-month-old son of Jordan and Andre Anchondo, as she and President Donald J. Trump pose for photos and meet members of the Anchondo family Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2019, at the University Medical Center of El Paso in El Paso, Texas. Jordan and Andre Anchondo were among the 22 people killed in a mass shooting Saturday at a Walmart in El Paso. (Official White House Photo by Andrea Hanks)