Punching Up, Punching Down: Racial Punching Isn’t Directional

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Is all racism equally bad or does racial discrimination’s moral status turn on who is (mis)treating whom?

The question has acquired timeliness recently, with the ascension to power of those taking the latter stance (whether in the Biden Administration’s embrace of “equity” as a goal across government, in place of equal treatment for all; countless school districts’ adoptions of critical-race-theory curriculums; or universities and corporate leadership adopting likely-illegal, race-based hiring polices to achieve desired levels of “diversity” in particular workforces).  But the question isn’t new;[1] Ibrahim Kendi and Ta-Nehisi Coates didn’t invent it.  For decades, racial supremacists of many stripes have claimed that racism is only racism (or only bad racism) when exhibited by the other guy.[2]

But we needn’t straw-man this argument by assigning those boogiemen to one side of the debate as mascots.  As well-intentioned, and generally admirable, a public figure as John McWhorter is “fully on board with the idea that racism is about who is up versus down.”[3]  Professor McWhorter “see[s] th[e] ‘racism’ [of hypothetical black teens beating a white peer because of his race] as different from white racism and yes, I find it lower on the reprehensibility scale[.]”[4]  He even grounds this moral intuition in a perfectly understandable particular: his mother grew up in the Jim Crow South and, as a result, “wasn’t crazy about white people.”  Can we really blame her and lump her into the same moral category as Khalid Mohammed and David Duke, much less Bull Connor?  And, if we don’t feel comfortable doing so, is that because “punching up” is inherently different and less morally objectionable than “punching down?”

With all the respect in the world for Professor McWhorter (whom I’ve followed for decades) and for his mother (whom I can only assume is or was a wonderful person), that can’t be right.

To see why, shift gears for a moment to a “micro” focus.  Imagine a Lord of Flies scenario, with a small handful of children, alone and self-governing.  When, inevitably, someone gets tagged as the group’s “Piggy” and others start to bully him, without knowing anything about any of the children’s ethnicities, how will they think of themselves in that moment?  Will the other children think that they’re “punching up” or “punching down?”

A normal Lord of the Flies reader will likely answer “punching down,” as Piggy was weak, slow, and overweight.  But would the children?  They viewed Piggy as thinking of himself as better than everyone else and bossing everyone else around with that justification.  So the book itself suggests pretty clearly that the answer is “no,” but we needn’t leave this in the land of fictional analysis.  There’s a whole literature on bullying out there, which fairly well establishes that most bullies don’t conceive of themselves as bullies.[5]  However clear such labels might look to outsiders, bullies almost invariably think that they are the put-upon party, fighting back against others that look down on them for whatever reason.  In other words, you have to assume that every bully thinks he’s “punching up.”  Those kids in our Lord of the Flies scenario?  They almost surely think they’re the ones without power, sticking up for themselves against that bully Piggy.

Zooming back from the micro to the macro, that pattern abides.  Think of pretty much any ethnic atrocity and you’ll find that whoever seems to have clearly been the aggressor claimed to be the put-upon side.  So claimed the “redeemers” as they created the Jim Crow South, in their own heads “fighting back” against lawless Reconstruction governments, their black neighbors alleged abuses of power, and the power of the North and the Union government.[6]  So claimed the Hutus as they launched the Rwandan genocide in 1994, nominally against Tutsi privilege and revanchism.[7]  So claimed the Turkish forces in the Armenian genocide, asserting that they cleansed Anatolia of their neighbors only to prevent the dismemberment of their people and the imposition of foreign rule.[8]  So claimed the perpetrators of every pogrom in history, from ancient Alexandria,[9] to Kishinev in 1903,[10] to the Holocaust,[11] to the Crown Heights riot of 1991,[12] and the JC Kosher Supermarket shootings in Jersey City in 2019.[13]  So claim the Chinese Communists today, as they annihilate the Uighurs, nominally in self-defense of their state against a threat of otherwise undetected Muslim extremism and terrorism.[14]

The moral freight for condemning racism can’t turn on whether the perp is “punching up” or “punching down,” because that would let literally every racist off the moral hook (or, at best, devolve every argument from one over the principal of race-based “punching” to one over who’s right about facts on the ground).  If that counsels that we need to uncomfortably tell the Mrs. McWhorters of the world that, while we understand their intuition, they can’t act on it and should try not to think that way, then we should listen to that counsel.  However uncomfortable, the alternative of unilaterally disarming our moral argument against racism and racist atrocities is infinitely worse.


[1] See, for example, “Can Blacks be Racist,” by Cornell West, appearing as Chapter 2 of I’m Not Racist, But…, Lawrence Bloom et al., Cornell University Press (2002).

[2] For example: (a) Khalid A. Muhammed, a man condemned in 1994 for his racism by Congress, with the support of the Black Congressional Caucus (https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/CREC-1994-02-23/html/CREC-1994-02-23-pt1-PgH32.htm), asserting “Black people have never been racist.” – https://soundcloud.com/soulpower-productions84/7dr-khalid-muhammad-why-black-people-cant-be-racist; (b) former Grand Wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan David Duke, asserting he has never been a racist – https://www.nola.com/opinions/article_1efb4c40-f4d2-54e9-b952-9859f788306c.html.

[3] https://johnmcwhorter.substack.com/p/can-black-people-be-racist.

[4] https://johnmcwhorter.substack.com/p/racism-punching-down.

[5] “Bullies tend to see themselves as victims, so the conversation has to focus on them taking responsibility for their behavior.”  https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/what-to-do-if-your-child-is-bullying/.

[6] The Bloody Shirt: Terror After the Civil War, Stephen Budiansky, Penguin Group (USA), Inc. (2009).

[7] https://www.hrw.org/legacy/backgrounder/africa/rwanda0406/rwanda0406.pdf.

[8] Ataturk: The Biography of the Founder of Modern Turkey, Andrew Mango, Harry N. Abrams Paperback (2002).

[9] http://www.yorku.ca/pswarney/4102/Articles/Bell-1941.pdf.

[10] https://www.hadassahmagazine.org/2018/04/30/pogrom-lingering-effects-kishinevs-darkest-days/.

[11] Mein Kampf, Adolph Hitler, Franz Eher Nachfolger GmbH (1925).

[12] https://forward.com/news/403109/what-were-the-crown-heights-riots/.

[13] https://www.northjersey.com/story/news/2019/12/20/jersey-city-shooting-exposes-tensions-greenville-neighborhood/2697926001/.

[14] https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/chinas-repression-uyghurs-xinjiang.

Published On: April 12th, 2021Categories: BlogBy