Racism & Culturism: Beliefs in Western Superiority

Racism & Culturism: Beliefs in Western Superiority

I have spent a decent amount of time thinking about the racial disparities we see in American society. I think there is pretty clear evidence that we generally underrate the historical importance of blatant racism and discrimination in the outcomes of people’s lives today, and that has created substantial racial challenges that many people fail to acknowledge. Red-lining had a serious impact of people’s ability to build wealth through home ownership. Andre Perry at Brookings has argued that black business to this day are still undervalued due to segregation, difficulties in accessing the best locations, and continuing implicit racism. Issues which seem like they belong in or only took place in the past still have influences that linger today.
Many people discount these historical factors and turn their argument toward the nebulous construction of “culture” when explaining racial disparities in the United States. This feels uncomfortably close to blatant racism to me, but is hard to argue against, especially with people who are smart and wise enough to avoid explicitly racist and discriminatory language. It is not hard to hide arguments that may be racist in nature behind a veil of cultural critiques. Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens suggest that this has been an important aspect in the ideology of many Western societies. He writes,
“Racist theories enjoyed prominence and respectability for many generations, justifying the Western conquest of the world. Eventually, in the late twentieth century, just as the Western empires crumbled, racism became anathema among scientists and politicians alike. But the belief in Western superiority did not vanish. Instead, it took on new forms. Racism was replaced by culturism. Today’s elites usually justify superiority in terms of historical differences between cultures rather than biological differences between races. We no longer say it’s in their blood. We say it’s in their culture.”
I think that what is key to recognize is that both racism and culturism is used to explain and demonstrate the superiority of one group over another. That means both become a justification for discrimination and disparities. Racial discrimination and disparities are dismissed through a lens of culturism. After-all, we are accepting that black, brown, or other people could be just as good as white people (or whoever is in the majority) but they simply choose not to be as good for peculiar cultural reasons. Culturalism in this way seems to be a form of supercharged racism with a shield.
However, the result is the same. One group is celebrated over another with discrimination and disparities justified and even praised. Culture is a broad term, and it is hard to argue against. It is hard to see where modern cultures have roots in historical inequalities and discrimination. It is hard to understand why cultural practices that deviate from – or deliberately eschew – the dominant culture persist when you yourself are part of the dominant culture and have found success through such practices. It is easy to use culture as a shield for arguing that you and your group is better than another, even when your argument is essentially a lightly cloaked racist argument.

A New Social Responsibility

“A Brookings Institution study has pointed out that millennials are much more concerned about corporate social responsibility than any previous generation, and as employees, they want “their daily work to be part of, and reflect, their societal concerns.””


Peter Singer ends one of the chapters in his book The Most Good You Can Do with the previous quote to show the ways in which people’s ideas about social responsibility are changing, especially with younger generations. In The Most Good You Can Do Singer explores the ideas behind the movement he has titled Effective Altruism. The movement involves finding ways to make donations (financial or time) that do the most to help other people and make lasting impacts in the lives of those who need it most.  The movement centers on the philosophy of living modestly and using ones personal resources to assist others. It is a movement away from consumerism, away from self-centered thought, and away from traditional views of leisure and the American Dream.


Singer seems to be describing effective altruism throughout his book as a movement that has been sparked and mostly practiced within younger generations.  He has focused on college students (since he is around them at Yale) and young adults who are just starting off or have been on their own for just a short period of time. The people he focuses on, those who can adopt the ideas of effective altruism, are those who want to see themselves make a difference in the world  and want to see the world become a happier and more equal place.  Their focus is generally not contained within the United States, but on the global good, and easing the global suffering of those who are the most disadvantaged.


When you look at the new professionals entering the working world with an effective altruism approach to life, the quote above becomes apparent. The mindset and ideas shared by many within the Millennial Generation, the desire to change the world for the good and make a positive impact during our lives, is what has given rise to Effective Altruism, and it is no surprise that those shared ideas are beginning to shape the way that professionals look at the companies they work for.


When you are focused on doing the most good you can do, you wont settle in a position where your work actively harms others or where those around you actively exploit others.  When effective altruists and millennials bring their ideas about social responsibility to the workplace they expect the structure around them to respond and move in concert with their beliefs. If the system around them does not, then they will look for new opportunities with socially responsible companies that are moving in a direction that aligns with their beliefs.