Does Defining Racism Help Overcome it?
Forthcoming in Antisemitism, Islamophobia, and the Politics of Definition, eds.David Feldman and Marc Volovici (Palgrave Critical Studies of Antisemitism and Racism)
25 Pages Posted: 1 Apr 2021
Date Written: November 25, 2020
I argue that the overlapping consensus, as theorized by political philosopher John Rawls, which constrains the legitimate scope of any definition of racism in public domains, is a necessary but insufficient condition for deliberating racism within liberal democracy. Public, state-backed definitions of racism must adhere to the limits imposed by the overlapping consensus. Any proposed definition that violates this consensus—such as both the IHRA definition of antisemitism and the proposed APPG definition of Islamophobia do—undermines the foundations of liberal democracy. Yet it is not enough to simply reject such definitions due to their violations of freedom of expression. Beyond the act of rejection, which is necessitated by respect for human freedom, we must proactively engage in thick description, in the sense elaborated by anthropologist Clifford Geertz to describe the ethnographic method, in order to fill in the gaps left unresolved by the overlapping consensus. Only by respecting the overlapping consensus—and especially its limits—in legal domains and by simultaneously practicing the methodology of thick description in our everyday lives can we hope to systematically undermine the racist foundations of our political existence.
Keywords: racism, Rawls, Geertz, definitions, antisemitism, Islamophobia, language, politics, anthropology, institutional racism
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