Circular Arguments in Racism, Sexism, and Other Forms of Discrimination

The myths which supported slavery were hard to eliminate in part because they created environments for circular arguments and vicious circles. The myths created situations where black people were discriminated against, and the outcome of that discrimination became a justification for the discrimination. Yuval Noah Harari describes the lasting impact of such circular arguments generations after the civil war in his book Sapiens by writing, “trapped in this vicious circle, blacks were not hired for white-collar jobs because they were deemed unintelligent, and the proof of their inferiority was the paucity of blacks in white-collar jobs.”

This type of circular thinking is common in many arenas of discrimination. We see an outcome that likely has a long history of cultural norms, discrimination, and bias yet fail to recognize the context. We see the end result and assume that it is not a cultural biproduct of discriminatory views and practices, but somehow reflective of the true nature of the universe. Examples go beyond the lack of black business owners and CEOs in the United States. Women historically have been shut out of math, computer science, and engineering fields on discriminatory grounds. However, the same circular argument around their inability to do the work as evidenced by their low representation in such fields is used to justify their absences from STEM and computer industries. The biased and discriminatory explanation is that women are not good at math and science, and that is why women are not represented in such fields, but this argument fails to recognize the cultural factors at play.

In the instances above, with specific attention called out to the circular thinking, the role of unjust bias and discrimination can be obvious and infuriating. But it is often harder to see and recognize circular arguments in the real world. Asians are viewed as being good at math and the evidence is the high proportion of Asians in math and science fields in American Universities. White people are not viewed as being as good at sports as black people, with representation in major American sports being used as evidence for the argument ā€“ although quarterbacks in college football and the NFL are more white than the rest of the teams, often supported by the circular argument that black athletes are not smart enough to play the position as evidenced by the fact that so few quarterbacks are black. Quite often some sort of bias, discrimination, or other cultural factor is at play, but American’s have an easier time attributing outcomes to individual factors and hazy notions of biology than to cultural biases, discrimination, and other factors. Circular arguments may ultimately be vacuous, but they are hard to always recognize and denounce ā€“ especially when the results of discrimination and bias are in our individual self-interest.

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