Racial Identity and Racialization

Published 11 Jan 2017

Lawrence Blum’s I’m Not a Racist But… opts to (1) fight against racism and racial injustice by proving that the notion of ‘race’ is both descriptively false and morally inimical, and replacing it with the more accurate and useful notion of ‘racialized group’ and (2) to enable and promote productive dialogue about racism and racial inequality [what he refers to as racialized groups]. It is important to note that in relation to the aforementioned claims, Blum is merely explicit about the second aim mentioned above. Blum notes, “If we agree that racism is so important, don’t we need to know what it is? How can we talk intelligently, especially across racial lines, unless we do?’ (2002, p.viii).

Despite the lack of explicit mention of the first aim mentioned above, it also important to note that the first aim is implicitly evident in the structure and content of the aforementioned text. In both cases, however, Blum suggests that language is a key feature that may be used in fighting against injustice and promoting cross-racial dialogue about racism and other racial ills. He suggests that if we analyze and clarify what we mean by certain words that are often used too loosely [e.g. racist and racial discrimination] it is possible for us to recapture other terms that have inappropriately been pested of moral weight [e.g. prejudice] and hence in the process abandon the language of ‘race’ altogether because its history of use has made it inherently misleading.

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Blum, in this sense, may be seen as opting for an analysis of the concept of race as well as the ensuing politics behind the term through the analysis and critique of the ‘language of race’ by showing that the aforementioned term [as well as the ensuing meanings that have been continuously] associated with the term are mere social constructions. This, as I see it, is the main argument [structural argument] of Blum’s aforementioned text. In relation to this, what follows is an analysis of his arguments with a specific emphasis on his conception of the correlation of racial identity and racialization.

In the initial part of the book, Blum provides a deft historical, moral, and conceptual analysis of the concepts ‘racist’ and ‘racism’. He is concerned to construct a definition that preserves the strong moral opprobrium that attaches to ‘racism’ while avoiding the ‘conceptual inflation’, ‘moral overload’, and ‘categorical drift’ that have come to characterize the terms ‘racism’ and ‘racist’ [ i.e. the indiscriminate application of these terms to a wide variety of categories] encompassing any and all ‘racial ills’ from bigotry to prejudice to racial discomfort, as well as even to non-racial ills such as discrimination based on age, religion, nationality, or physical appearance.

By contrast, Blum limits the application of ‘racism’ to things stemming specifically from antipathy and/or an inferiorizing attitude toward a racial group. He shows why antipathy and inferiorizing are both sufficient and necessary to his explanation and he argues persuasively that all other examples of racism could fit into one or both of these broad categories. Hence, Blum shows, although racism can be attributed to motives, acts, people, symbols, beliefs, images, epithets, remarks, attitudes, inpiduals, societies, and institutions; each attribution must be independently justified; one cannot just assume that a person who displays a racist symbol is a racist.

In this respect, Blum is sensitive to the issues of inpidual ignorance, unreflective adoption of social norms and behaviors, and unconscious attitudes, any of which may cause an inpidual to appear but not to be racist, or alternatively to be racist in fact, but to have adopted these racist attitudes subconsciously or even unconsciously. In the later part of the book, Blum gives significant attention not just to racism’s definition but also to its particular moral character. He argues that racism is morally evil not just because it violates ‘general moral norms’ [e.g. equality, respect, and good will] but also because of its ‘integral tie’ to historical ‘race-based systems of oppression’ that were clearly evil.

Blum notes that racism draws its moral valence from this historical context in two ways: (1) historical basis of the concept and the system of racism (2) continuous adherence to the aforementioned system (2002, p. 27–8). He notes that no matter what preconditions one places on racism there will be some black people [as well as members of other minority groups].

Blum deduces four reasons that discrimination may be wrong: (1) it unfairly excludes a qualified inpidual on the basis of a characteristic irrelevant to the task for which selection is being made, (2) it is done out of prejudice, (3) the prejudice is pervasive, and (4) the discrimination helps to sustain the group whose members are discriminated against in a subordinate position (2002, p. 89). Hence, he argues, the term ‘racial discrimination’, which automatically carries with it the implication of moral condemnation, should be confined “to forms of discrimination involving race that either stem from race based prejudiced that disadvantage an inferiorized or stigmatized group” (2002, p.95).

In contrast, he argues that forms of racial differentiation that avoid the aforementioned instances of discrimination above may be tolerated or even embraced. An example of this is evident if one considers racial egalitarianism, which does rely to some extent on racial differentiation but not on discrimination as defined above. Blum, in this context, may be seen as providing a proposal to replace the concept of ‘race’ with ‘racialized group’. He argues that the aforementioned term [racialized group] is preferable as a way of acknowledging that some groups have been created by being treated as if they were races, while also acknowledging that “race” in its popular meaning is entirely false (Blum, 2002, p. 160).

Blum further justifies use of the term ‘racialized groups’ as he presents arguments as to why it is necessary to “give up race” (2002, p. 170). He argues that racial justice and even a positive sense of racial identity can be promoted by the term ‘racialization’ as “its recognition supplies a more accurate understanding of the character of the racialized social order, encourages a stronger recognition of commonalities of experience and of political and moral commitments across ‘racial’ lines, and, arguably, would in the long run be more politically effective in mitigating racism and racial injustice than would a belief in the reality of race” (Blum, 2002, p. 170).

However, Blum recognizes that merely transforming our language is not enough since this act will not itself transform the unjust social structures that inform and shape our language. He notes that, “In the real world, ridding ourselves of the myth of race can not be severed from the politically more challenging task of changing the structural relationships among racial groups” (Blum, 2002, p. 178). Hence, he concludes by implicitly urging a two-pronged approach to promoting racial justice and equality. This approach involves (1) altering our language and (2) engaging in direct social action [specifically in the form of integrationism] with other inpiduals.

At this point it is important to consider the merits of Blum’s aforementioned argument. The importance of Blum’s argument lies in his recognition of the linguistic social construction of the concept of race and racism as well as the entailing results of such a linguistic social construction in relation to the “moral quandary” of issues regarding race. Such a recognition has thereby enabled him to explicitly outline the effects of language (re)construction in enabling the occurrence of social change.

As I reckon, however, a problem exists in relation to Blum’s claim if one considers that although Blum opts for the necessity of ensuring racialized identity as it will enable the development of “a black consciousness” and hence less social pision in society which will thereby lead to the minimization [if not total eradication] of social and moral ills stemming from the misconceived conception of the concepts racism and race itself; Blum fails to provide a reason as to how this will enable and hence in a sense sustain the development of ‘black pride’. The importance of Blum’s aforementioned text, however, is evident if one considers that it provides a thorough analysis of the historical, social, and political foundations of the concepts of race.


Blum, L. (2002). I’m not a Racist But…: The Moral Quandary of Race. New York: Cornell University Press.

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