White’s Anti-Black Racism and the Attitude of Tolerating Racial Differences

  • Polycarp IkuenobeEmail author
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Part of the Handbooks in Philosophy book series (HP)


This chapter critically examines the nature of racism and the appropriateness of white’s attitude of tolerance toward blacks. I argue that the claim that tolerance is a universal moral virtue for living a good moral life is questionable, especially in the context of racial differences and racism between white Europeans’ claimed superiority and the supposed inferiority of black Africans. I argue that if tolerance has any value, it is instrumental because merely tolerating other races may be moral or immoral, depending on the context. For instance, merely tolerating another race could perpetuate racism, because the attitude of the tolerator is considered morally praiseworthy simply for refraining from mistreating “others” regarding their racial difference, instead of getting rid of one’s negative false racist beliefs. Perhaps, being a “tolerant racist” is morally superior to being an “intolerant racist” who mistreats, oppresses, or exploit the other race. Thus, being a “tolerant racist” should not vitiate the condemnation for one’s racist attitudes. Rather, the attitudes of respect for persons and acceptance of racial differences is conceptually distinct from, and more appropriate than, the attitude of tolerance.


Racism Racial differences Tolerance Intolerance Respect Acceptance Recognition 


Racism is deemed inherently bad or immoral because it indicates that one race is different from and superior to another and the superior race can treat the inferior race badly and without any moral consideration. There is also a commonplace view that tolerance is intrinsically a morally good consideration for, or attitude of restraint toward, various racial differences. According to Barry Barnes: “Tolerance is in truth a universal and a necessary virtue, always implicated in efforts to live a good life” (2001, p. 233). Thus, tolerance is considered an acceptable attitude for living a morally good life, especially in our dealings with others and racial, religious, and ethnic differences. When people are accused of racial, ethnic, or religious prejudice, they are usually quick to indicate their tolerance toward differences. This retort usually suggests that the intrinsic value of tolerance as a moral consideration for others could vitiate any putative negative accusation or attitude of racism, religious, or ethnic prejudice. However, it is unclear what is involved in the attitudes of racism and tolerance.

In this essay, I critically examine the nature of racism and the issue of whether tolerance is an appropriate moral attitude that whites should or ought to adopt toward blacks. I argue that Barnes’ (2001) claim that tolerance is a necessary universal moral virtue for living a good moral life is questionable, especially in the context of racism, racial differences between Europeans’ claimed superiority, and the supposed inferiority of Africans (and perhaps, ethnic, religious, and other differences). As Boxill indicates, European’s motivation for enslaving Africans and their negative attitudes toward Africans were devoid of any moral consideration. He indicates that “Delany never even suggests that Europeans had to overcome their moral inhibitions against slavery in order to make slaves of African. This was not because he thought Europeans are especially immoral; it was because he thought that most people were little restrained by moral considerations when they were dealing with those weaker than themselves” (Boxill 1997, p. 120). As such, if tolerance involves a moral attitude or consideration, then it is not applicable to the vertical relationship in a racist structure where white Europeans have power and see themselves as superior.

I argue that if tolerance has any value, it is an instrumental value because, merely tolerating other races may be moral or immoral, depending on the context. For instance, merely tolerating another race could perpetuate racism, because the attitude of the tolerator is considered morally praise worthy simply for refraining from mistreating the “other” regarding their racial difference, instead of getting rid of the negative false racist beliefs. Perhaps, being a “tolerant racist” in such a situation is morally superior to being an “intolerant racist” who mistreats, oppresses, or exploit the other race. “Tolerant racists” usually exhibit subtle forms of racism in their dealings with other races. For instance, many European colonialists who were racist were tolerant of Africans whom they considered inferior; many whites in Europe and the United States of America exhibit the same kind of attitudes today. I argue that being a “tolerant racist” should not vitiate the condemnation for one’s racist attitudes. Rather, the attitudes of respect for persons and acceptance of racial differences is more appropriate than, is conceptually distinct from, and not a subset of, the attitude of tolerance.

On the Nature of Racism

There is a commonplace view that transatlantic slave trade and colonization of Africa were motivated by racism, in terms of Europeans’ pejorative racial “othering” of Africans. Bernard Boxill’s analysis of Martin Delaney’s explanation and motivation for the enslavement of Africans in the United States would be illustrative and illuminating here:

[T]he Europeans who first arrived in America were “not of the common people, seeking in a distant land the means of livelihood, but moneyed capitalists, the grandees and nobles.” To take full advantage of the opportunities America offered, they decided to enslave another class. Two obvious alternatives occurred to them, the Indians they found in America, and their own subservient class in Europe. But neither class was satisfactory. On the one hand, while the Indians were sufficiently ‘foreign’ to their ‘sympathies’ to be exploited harshly without undue psychological penalty, they were “wholly unaccustomed to labor,” and being “unable to withstand the hardships,” died in great numbers. Besides, they had such meagre skills in mining and agriculture that enslaving them was often hardly profitable. On the other hand, while European workers had the requisite skills, they were not sufficiently foreign to the sympathies of their masters to be exploited with the severity which conditions in the New World demanded. Finally the Europeans decided to enslave Africans. Africans were “industrious people, cultivators of the soil,” and had “long been known to Europeans … as a long-lived, hardy race, subject to toil and labor of various kinds, subsisting mainly by traffic, trade, and industry … .” Moreover, they also possessed “distinctive characteristics” like “color” and “character of hair which strongly marked them off from Europeans and made them as “foreign to their sympathies” of the Europeans as Indians. …” This combination of characteristics sealed their fate. (Boxill 1997, pp. 119–120)

Europeans saw Africans as racially “other,” “different,” and “foreign to their sympathies” and as instruments to be used and exploited. Such “othering” of Africans and their perceived “difference” and “foreignness” were based on morphological features and the vertical power relationship arising from racism and colonialism.

Much of the discussions about racism have occurred in the context of the relationship between blacks (people of African descent) and whites (people of European descent) and white’s antiblack racism. There are debates, however, as to whether racist attitudes and beliefs exist with respect to other races or whether there are other races besides black and white. In other words, it is debatable whether Asians, Jews, and Hispanics constitute races or an ethnic, religious, or cultural group (Ikuenobe 2014, pp. 108–127). I will presuppose that the relations between whites and blacks all over the world, regarding whites’ beliefs about the inherent inferiority of blacks and the inherent superiority of whites, are a paradigm case of racism. This is my central focus. According to Lawrence Blum, “There is a great deal of confusion surrounding the meaning of ‘racism’ and ‘racist’. Yet one thing is clear–few people wish to be, or to be thought of as, ‘racists’” (2002, p. 204). The implication is that being accused of racism is a moral condemnation of a person or a relevant action or attitude, indicating that racism is morally bad. As Michael Philips also observes, “‘Racist’ is a moral pejorative. To say that an act is racist is to say that it is prima facie wrong” (1984, p. 75). A number of views exist regarding what constitutes racism and the conditions that must exist in order for a person, action, or belief to be racist or for racism to exist or occur.

According to Dinesh D’Souza, “In order to be a racist, you must first believe in the existence of biologically distinguishable groups or races. Second, you must rank these races in terms of superiority and inferiority. Third, you must hold these rankings to be intrinsic or innate. Finally, you typically seek to use them as a basis for discrimination, segregation, or the denial of rights extended to other human beings” (1996, p. 28). D’Souza’s view captures a commonplace view that, in general, racism presupposes racial differences, the belief in the superiority of one race over the other, and negative attitudes toward the inferior race. This commonplace idea of racism, which is located conceptually at the level of individual belief and attitude, could be illuminated by Kwame Anthony Appiah’s (1990, pp. 4–12) view of racism. In his view, racism has two elements. First, it involves a proposition about the existence of different races or racial essences; this he calls “racialism.” Second, it involves a disposition about the moral significance, prejudice involving the inferiority or superiority of a race. One can have racialist beliefs without having racial prejudice, but one cannot have racial prejudice without having racialist beliefs.

Based on the dispositional aspect of racism, Appiah distinguishes between intrinsic and extrinsic racism. Intrinsic racism differentiates morally between members of different races because of the belief that each race has a unique moral status, which implies a moral responsibility to one’s own race. Being white would imply a moral obligation to treat white people better than blacks, in the same way in which being black would imply a moral obligation to treat black people better than whites. Extrinsic racism makes moral distinctions between races because of the belief that one’s own racial essence implies some morally relevant qualities that make members of other races qualitatively different in certain respects to warrant negative differential treatment. For instance, a white person is an extrinsic racist if he believes that being white has the qualitative racial essence of superiority and being black has the qualitative racial essence of inferiority, and these essences imply that whites can oppress or mistreat blacks. Intrinsic racism is primarily about how one treats members of one’s own race, while extrinsic racism is primarily about how one treats members of another race. In Appiah’s (1990, p. 12) view, a person can be both an extrinsic and intrinsic racist.

However, racism in its paradigm case, which is my focus, involves a negative, vertical, and asymmetrical extrinsic racist relationship between a supposed superior (powerful) white Europeans and a supposed inferior (powerless) black Africans or people of African descent. This vertical relationship, according to Michael Omi and Howard Winant (1994, pp. 70–74), also involves and depends on a social institution of power by the superior race for oppressing the inferior race. Because for Omi and Winant, “racism equal prejudice plus power” (1994, p. 188), if one has the relevant belief of inferiority and superiority of races without the necessary social structure of the power of domination, then there is no racism, and one cannot be a racist. This assumption leads Omi and Winant to conclude that blacks cannot be racist because even if they have a belief about their own superiority, they lack the institutions or power within any relevant social structures to dominate whites. Paula Rothenberg underscores this view as follows: “racism involves the subordination of people of color by white people…. While individual people of color … may well discriminate against white people because of their color or ethnicity … strictly speaking, this discrimination does not qualify as racism” (1995, p. 68).

On this view, blacks cannot be racist toward whites because blacks do not think of whites as inferior. Blacks do not seek to oppress whites because of whites’ inferiority, and blacks lack the power and institutions to effectuate their attitude or oppress whites. Thus, not all forms of racial prejudice or discrimination constitute racism. One might argue that the negative attitudes by blacks toward whites in the context of their racism, slavery, and colonial are normal human responses of anger toward white racism, mistreatment, and colonial oppression. We could understand racism in two different but related ways: in terms of negative attitude based on false beliefs and a social institution or power structure in virtue of which the negative attitudes of superiority and inferiority are effectuated. Thus, we might see white racism in its primary sense, psychologically and morally, as negative false beliefs about the inferiority of blacks and the immoral attitudes of contempt and disregard for them. In a secondary sense, we may see racism as behavioral or institutional, in that the relevant beliefs or attitudes are manifested in people’s behaviors and social institutions.

The racist attitude of contempt, which is motivated by false beliefs about the superiority and inferiority of races, may be manifested differently in behaviors in various contexts or institutions. Sometimes, if and when, such beliefs or attitudes are manifested in behaviors, such behaviors might not be negative; they could be positive. This might explain some of the positive institutions and effects of colonialism in Africa, such as the schools and hospitals built by European colonialists in Africa. However, some institutions like the police were negative and used to oppress Africans. Thus, it is my view that we might see social institutions and power, simply as epiphenomena, instruments, or tools to translate whites’ attitudes of inferiority and superiority into actions or policies. People create social institutions and power because of their attitude of superiority in order to use them to dominate those they believe to be inferior and want to exploit. Colonial structures, institutions, and power made Europeans’ racist negative beliefs and attitudes of inferiority more insidious and potent for oppression and exploitation.

In my view, racist attitudes are logically prior to, and conceptually independent of, the social institution of power. Racism can exist even when people do not have the social institution of power to translate their racist beliefs or attitudes of superiority into concrete acts or policies of domination or exploitation. In the primary sense, a white person, say, in remote rural Ireland is racist if he merely believes that Africans are inferior, in spite of the fact that he has no direct interaction with Africans and he is not in any proximate situation to use colonial institutions or power to oppress or exploit Africans. Social institutions are tools or instruments that do not determine racism, and the primary attitudinal and doxastic sense of racism may not, in fact, be manifested in words or behaviors. A white person may have beliefs about the racial inferiority of blacks but could conceal them, as did some colonial Europeans. Some (obviously not all) of these Europeans, including missionaries, were benevolent toward Africans and used such benevolent behaviors to deceive and absolve themselves of their immoral racist beliefs, attitudes, and sometimes, actions.

The primary sense of racism, Ikuenobe (2011, pp. 169–176) argues, allows us to talk meaningfully about the idea of a tolerant racist who simply “puts up with” the race he considers inferior but does nothing to oppress or exploit them. He further indicates that because negative racist beliefs may not necessarily be manifested in negative actions but may be manifested in positive actions, it is possible to talk about a benevolent racist. One might explain these subtle forms of extrinsic racism based on Appiah’s (1990, pp. 13–17) view that racial beliefs and attitudes involve a kind of cognitive incapacity, which engenders one’s resistance to accepting the truth in the face of countervailing evidence. Many white racists accept false beliefs about blacks in spite of the overwhelming countervailing evidence that proves the falsity of their beliefs. The cognitive incapacity of white extrinsic racism is more insidious in the context of institutional racism, such as colonialism, where social institutions of power exist to perpetuate the false racist beliefs that give privileges to whites, to dominate and exploit blacks. The extrinsic racist is cognitively disinclined to accept the truth because that would strip him of the excuse or rationalization for his unjustified attitudes and privileges. It is my view that the supposed cognitive incapacity of extrinsic racism is a rationally self-interested, self-conceited, and self-induced incapacity solely for white advantage, exploitation, and power.

What Appiah calls cognitive incapacity, Lewis Gordon calls bad faith. According to Gordon, (1995, pp. 2–5), personal racism is bad psychologically because it is a form of self-deception involving the choice to believe the falsehood of one’s own superiority and the falsehood of other people’s inferiority. As a character trait, racism is a reflection of a character flaw or a defective psychological trait. He writes: “By racism I mean the self-deceiving choice to believe either that one’s own race is the only one qualified to be considered human or that one’s race is superior to other races” (Gordon 1995, p. 2). For him, racism is bad because the attitude and thinking, which arise from the relevant false beliefs, lead one to make immoral choices to engage in oppressive and exploitative behavior. This point is illuminated by Martin Luther King’s idea that racist segregation is bad partly “because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority” (King 1966, p. 468).

According to Gordon (1995, pp. 2–6), racism involves bad faith: the self-deceptive choice to believe what is false and to act immorally on such false beliefs. Such bad faith makes a racist to be stubborn: to ignore, deny, or resist the evidence that ought to convince her to change her beliefs (regarding her superiority and others’ inferiority). The white racists make morally bad choices and refuse to live the best moral life because of their oppression and exploitation of blacks. Thus, a racist is epistemically dishonest by refusing to accept true beliefs; he is morally dishonest by choosing to unfairly treat himself as superior and others as inferior. A racist is psychologically dishonest because he is involved in self-delusion. The dishonest choices lead a racist to create and use institutions to oppress those he believes to be inferior. Although racism as a negative attitude involves a form of self-deception, this attitude may not necessarily have negative outward manifestations. This allows one to capture conceptually Ikuenobe’s (2011, pp. 169–176) subtle forms of racism, in that a racist can be “tolerant,” “closeted,” “self-deceiving,” or “benevolent” in his efforts to be nice to or “put up with” blacks in order to deceive himself and conceal his racist attitude or belief.

However, J.L.A. Garcia argues that personal racism involves “what one does or does not wish, will and want for others in light of their race” (1996, p. 13). For him, racism is not the reason underlying one’s disregard but the disregard and its manifest action. Thus, he says: “Actions, beliefs, projects, hopes, wishes, institutions and institutional practices, remarks, and so on, are all racist insofar as they are informed by such racial disregard” (Garcia 1999, p. 13). The pertinent issue is the basis for racial disregard: whether one’s racial disregard informs racist actions or whether one’s racist beliefs or attitudes inform or motivate one’s racist actions. For Garcia, a racist’s disregard may be conscious or unconscious: it does not matter whether or not one is aware of the racist reason or beliefs underlying one’s disregard in order to be a racist. However, the problem I see is, if one does not have racist beliefs or is not aware of such beliefs that constitute the reason or motivation for one’s ill-will, then it is questionable how such ill-will may be characterized as racism and not something else.

Racism as ill-will is inherently immoral, according to Garcia (1999, pp. 5–7), because it is contrary to the moral virtues of benevolence and justice. If we focus on the concept of racism at the primary level, as a personal attitude or belief, it appears that black intrinsic racism is a form of solidarity, a response to, or a way to cope with white racism. We cannot characterize this as racism that violates moral virtue. Thus, we can justify Africans’ “othering” of, the attitudes toward the “difference” of white European colonialists, and some Africans’ negative treatment of, and violent resistance against, the colonialist during independence movements. As Boxill indicates, Delany thought that Africans had no alternative because moral persuasion or appeal to whites would not be effective. As Boxill indicates, “Delany thought that when the strong can profit from mistreating the weak, the only hope for the weak is the sympathy of the strong” (1997, p. 120). Africans could not rely on the consistent sympathy of Europeans; hence, Africans resorted to violent resistance. In my view, racism is bad not only because it involves ill-will, negative attitudes, and that it manifests bad behaviors and mistreatment, but also because of the bad psychological and epistemic bases for racist attitudes, which involve obvious false beliefs of superiority or inferiority about a race. Racists refuse to accept the obvious falsity of their beliefs, and they deceive themselves into accepting such beliefs based on specious reasons.

The Attitude of Tolerance toward Racial Differences

From the above views, we may see racism either as negative attitudes, thinking, and beliefs, or as the actions, choices, and behaviors that derive from them, or more robustly, a composite or combination of some or all these features. Such negative attitudes, beliefs, and actions are morally bad because they destroy one’s sense of self and prevent one from having a healthy sense of self and a good sense of morality in terms of how one ought to treat others or live a morally good life. My view of racism has the heuristic value of capturing, conceptually, a “tolerant racist” who has the requisite racist beliefs or attitude but is willing to refrain from acting on one’s false beliefs and an “intolerant racist,” who uses his power to oppress or exploit people belonging to another race. It allows us to show that although being a “tolerant racist” is not necessarily good, it could be better than an “intolerant racist.” Tolerance is understood to include the following elements: that X (the tolerator) disapproves of or finds Y (the tolerated) or Y’s difference, belief, or behavior to be objectionable. X has the power to oppress or victimize Y as a result of Y’s difference, belief, or behavior. However, X refrains from doing so; instead, X “puts up with” Y or Y’s beliefs, behavior, or difference.

Tolerance involves both (1) the negative attitude of disapproval of Y’s difference and (2) the passive attitude of forbearance from repression it. According to Galeotti,

Tolerance is the disposition to refrain from exercising one’s power of interference on others’ disliked actions and behaviours which are considered important for both the tolerator and the tolerated. If good moral reasons can be provided for suspending one’s convictions and for not interfering with what one dislikes or disapproves of, then tolerance appears to be a special value, since it implies sacrificing one’s moral beliefs for the sake of a higher principle. The tolerator overcomes a moral conflict, and the more important her sacrifice, the more valuable is her choice of tolerance. (2001, p. 274)

The idea of tolerance gives logical and moral priority to the tolerator’s attitude, regarding his disapproval and forbearance from repression, in terms of putting up with what he dislikes. Tolerance assumes a vertical and asymmetrical relationship between the powerful (tolerator) and the less powerful (tolerated). As such, someone without the power to repress what he dislikes cannot be said to be tolerant in a meaningful sense; tolerance does not apply and cannot exist when there is a horizontal power relationship of mutuality and equality. To simply “put up with” something that one is helpless about does not involve a moral virtue or a moral choice to forbear. Hence, Galeotti (2001, p. 279) argues that tolerance is a value only if the tolerator has good moral reasons for forbearance.

The pertinent issue is whether tolerance, which involves the passive and negative attitudes or stances of forbearance and noninterference, is appropriate morally for anyone to have in dealing with racial differences. Galeotti (2001, p. 275) argues that the issue of whether tolerance is an appropriate attitude toward racial differences is not a legitimate ethical issue because one can only be tolerant in a situation where it is questionable whether what is disliked is morally bad. Tolerance must involve something “that belongs to the grey area of things that can be regarded as morally objectionable, and not to things about which there seems to be a general agreement that they should be universally condemned, such as killing or doing wanton harm” (Galeotti 2001, p. 275). Galeotti (2001, p. 274) considers “ascriptive differences” that one cannot choose, such as sex and race, as categories that should not fall within the realm of what can be tolerated, in that they are facts about people that are not subject to moral evaluation and should not involve forbearance by others. She argues that only actions or practices that are voluntarily chosen, whose moral status is controversial, can be tolerated.

I disagree! In my view, it is reasonable to argue that we can tolerate things we do not voluntarily choose. We cannot exclude by fiat, as Galeotti (2001, pp. 274–276) wants to do, what we can and cannot tolerate. To do so is to beg the question regarding the issue of whether tolerance is a moral virtue. It assumes without argument what we can and cannot tolerate and then argues that tolerance is a moral value only because it operates within the ambit of what one assumes can be tolerated. The implication is that the value of tolerance is predetermined solely based on the kind of things that can be tolerated. It is unclear whether there is general agreement regarding all subtle forms of racism and whether they are universally condemned. Different subtle forms of racism exist and are pervasive because they are not seen as morally bad, and they are tolerated. Perhaps, tolerance is and could be a reasonable attitude toward racial difference in some situations. It makes sense to expand what can be tolerated to include ascriptive differences. As such, tolerance is not an absolute value but only a relative and an instrumental value, based on what is tolerated and the moral goodness of the reasons for forbearance.

Galeotti’s (2001) exclusion regarding what can and cannot be tolerated is problematic because, as she points out, many of the divisive issues in pluralistic societies that raise issues about the need for tolerance are ascriptive differences involving race, ethnicity, religion, sex, and nationality. Hence, some people commonly consider tolerance as the appropriate moral attitude in terms of living a good life involving dealings with various differences. This is the intuition behind the idea that we normally would judge a “tolerant racist” to be morally superior to an “intolerant racist.” Because racism is morally bad and tolerance is morally good, we would condemn an “intolerant racist” for being racist and condemn him separately for being intolerant. If this is reasonable, then it is unreasonable to say that tolerance cannot be applied to racial differences. The exclusion of racial differences from the ambit of what can be tolerated prevents us from morally characterizing many people within Ikuenobe’s (2011, pp. 161–181) broad spectrum of the different explicit and subtle forms of racism, based on attitudes and behaviors, and the various degrees of egregiousness of these attitudes and behavioral manifestations.

Galeotti’s (2001) view suggests a binary view of both racism and the moral approach to it: you are either a racist or non-racist; a racist is to be morally condemned, and a non-racist is to be morally praised. In my view, the attitude of tolerance applies to racial differences, and racism involves a spectrum, and it comes in degrees. Within the spectrum of racism, you may have tolerant, intolerant, benevolent, and other subtle racism, various degrees and manifestations of tolerant, and intolerant racism, such that we are able to characterize “tolerant racism” as morally superior to “intolerant racism” in some contexts. In the context of racial differences, tolerance is only a relative and an instrumental value, and such value depends on the circumstance. Within the liberal conception of morality, tolerance could be a morally adequate attitude toward racial, sexual, and ethnic differences. Liberal morality involves the idea that an individual’s autonomy is morally valuable and an individual’s rights, freedom, dignity, and ability as a moral agent, to choose voluntarily, a rational life plan, derive from such autonomy. As such, we have to respect one’s autonomy and respect one as a person.

We can use liberal morality to analyze and illuminate the relevance of tolerance to the dynamics of white-on-black racism, which involves a vertical relation between powerful whites who see themselves as superior racially and powerless blacks, who are deemed racially inferior. On this vertical power relationship, whites seek to oppress, exploit, and deny blacks of their autonomy dignity, rights, and freedom. Because blacks do not have power to repress whites, they cannot be racists or tolerant of whites by refraining from repressing them; only whites can be racists and tolerant of blacks. In this context, tolerance by white racists(as opposed to intolerance) is relatively valuable because tolerance allows, to some degree, blacks to have some rights, dignity, and autonomy. This is illuminated by Guy Haarscher’s view of the similarity between the attitude of the white’s “tolerant racism” toward blacks and the attitudes of passive tolerance toward “others” and their difference. “In both cases the ‘other’ is not really perceived as an alter ego; at most, one coexists with him, and at the very worst one crushes or deports him when one finds a way of doing it” (Haarscher 1997, p. 238).

While tolerance is valuable in some sense and context, it may not be valuable in another context. For instance, the fact that a “tolerant racist” has not acted on her dislike or disapproval does not by itself vitiate the immoral force of an illegitimate racist disapproval and the false beliefs or specious reasons for disapproving of what is tolerated. Usually, a racist has no legitimate basis for not seeing a member of the other race as an alter ego or someone equal to him. He has no justifiable basis to dislike a race as a group or someone simply by being a member of a group, bearing in mind that people have no choice in the matter of which racial group to belong. To say that the attitude of tolerance is a moral virtue as suggested by Barnes (2001, p. 233) is to indicate that mere forbearance, “putting up with what is dislike,” involves a virtuous moral choice. This suggestion is underscored as follows: “the assumption here must be that tolerance is right and intolerance is wrong, period, that is, whatever one’s moral beliefs or attitudes” (Brink 1989, p. 94).

This point by Brink implies the intrinsic moral goodness of tolerance and the intrinsic moral badness of its opposite, intolerance. This suggests that the moral value of tolerance is self-evident and ought to be accepted a priori without substantive justification. In my view, the liberal argument for the value of tolerance is the same argument against racism. It derives from the liberal idea of the moral respect for persons, in that tolerance and lack of racism are a way to respect persons by preserving individuals’ autonomy, dignity, rights, and liberty. The liberal moral idea indicates that forbearance from using one’s personal or institutional power to oppress “different others” is morally good because it involves respect for their autonomy, rights, or liberty to live life as they choose as persons. Thus, a tolerated person, usually an “other,” say a black person in the context of racial “difference” or racism, is able to live some semblance of a good life, pursue a rational life plan, maintain some sense of identity, hold beliefs or values, and act in ways that are consistent with his or her identity.

My argument for tolerance as a relative or instrumental value is that living an authentic life for blacks or any “other difference” is more difficult or next to impossible where personal and institutional tolerance is non-existent. While one may disapprove of the racial “difference” of the racial “other” persons in a relevant situation, one could show forbearance by putting up with them. Some elements of liberal morality and the attitude of tolerance could be an instrumental moral value or a standard of conduct toward racial or other differences in some situations. However, such instrumental moral value cannot vitiate the immorality of any prejudice toward differences – racial or otherwise. In order for tolerance to be an intrinsic moral value, there must be additional good moral reasons not only for the tolerator’s forbearance but also for his disapproval, which must be couched in universal and impartial moral principles. The reasons for a white-tolerant racist’s disapproval of blacks cannot be based on his own subjective or debased values or false beliefs. The same applies to ethnic, gender, and religious differences.

For a tolerator to rely on his own subjective or debased values or false beliefs is to beg the relevant question by presupposing what the tolerator needs to prove, which are that one’s disapproval and forbearance are justified or morally acceptable. We cannot assume without argument the value and belief (which could be false) of the tolerator or accept without proof their reasonableness as the basis for the tolerator’s disapproval. For instance, we cannot simply assume the reasonableness of the tolerant white racist’s false beliefs in his own superiority and the inferiority of blacks as the justificatory bases for his dislike, oppression, and exploitation of blacks. Although the idea of tolerance tells one to forbear with a “difference” and the “other” that one disapproves of, it does not place any moral stricture on the reason for one’s disapproval, in terms of having a morally justifiable reason for such disapproval. Moreover, the idea of tolerance does not require the tolerant white racist to critically examine whether she has morally good reasons for disliking and wanting to exploit blacks. Hence, a tolerant racist’s forbearance (compared to the intolerant racist) is not always morally good.

The Moral Value of Tolerance and Intolerance

According to Alasdair MacIntyre (1996), tolerance is a “secondary virtue,” in that it provides a guide for conduct only instrumentally, as a means for achieving some end. Tolerance does not assist us in identifying which specific ends to pursue or the moral value of that end, in terms of indicating what, morally, we should approve or disapprove of, legitimately. Once we identify such end, such as harmonious living or the respect of persons, tolerance might help in a particular context to achieve it. Thus, tolerance is a virtue only in a situation where there are conflicting values regarding how to achieve a chosen moral end. For a white racist, the immoral end is maintaining the supremacy of whites and the exploitation or oppression of blacks. This creates the conflict between whether to forbear with, repress, or exploit blacks. Tolerance helps the racist to resolve this conflict by prescribing that she should choose not to repress blacks, insofar as such a choice, which makes her a tolerant racist, does not prevent her from believing in white supremacy, inferiority of blacks, and their exploitation. The issue for her as a tolerant racist is how to achieve the end of white supremacy without overtly repressing blacks.

However, tolerance does not assist her in choosing correctly between whether or not it is true that blacks are inferior and whites are superior or whether it is reasonable to accept such beliefs. Perhaps, conflicts among beliefs or values are essential for individuals to engage rationally in the critical examination of their beliefs or values in order to arrive at the best beliefs or values. The virtue of tolerance resides in its ability to allow the best values or true beliefs to emerge rationally from among competing values or beliefs by not repressing preemptively and presumptuously any disliked value or beliefs without critical examination. Galeotti (2001, pp. 281–283) underscores this point by arguing that the value of tolerance resides in one’s willingness to sacrifice one’s own value of disapproval and the need to repress in favor of a higher inherently good liberal moral principle involving the respect for persons and individual autonomy.

The value of differences in society is that no view or belief is immune from critical examination. This assumes a semblance of a moral or epistemic vacuum or skepticism, value neutrality, and competition among various values and beliefs, such that when conflicting values or beliefs are tolerated, such tolerance could engender rational debates and critical examination of different values or beliefs so that the best can emerge. This indicates the instrumental methodological value of tolerating differences in general. This also implies that if a white racist is tolerant of blacks, and this leads to the ability of blacks to pursue their life plans and live authentically as blacks, then this could lead the white racists to critically examine their beliefs about white superiority and black inferiority. Such could lead whites to realize the falsehoods of their beliefs in order to modify them. Thus, tolerance has no intrinsic value; its value involves its ability, instrumentally, as a means to achieve the relevant moral and epistemic ends of rational debate, respect for persons, and harmonious living.

However, the problem with tolerance as an instrumental value is that it could prevent serious critical examination and rational debates among different beliefs and values. The idea of tolerance does not require the tolerator to take seriously or critically engage the tolerated, and it does not require the tolerator to critically examine the adequacy of his own views. The tolerator could have the false impression that his views are plausible simply because he is tolerant. The tolerated person is supposed to be satisfied or soothed by the fact that his view or difference is tolerated. In my view, the moral goodness of one’s forbearance cannot justify or vitiate one’s illegitimate disapproval or false-negative beliefs. The illegitimate dislike by a tolerant racist, even without repression, is not innocuous; it is substantively offensive, dehumanizing, invidious, insidious, and intimidating, especially if it exists in a context of institutional racism with a vertical power relationship.

The putative moral value of tolerance is based on a misplaced moral emphasis on the attitude of forbearance from acting to repress what is disliked. This misplaced moral emphasis is problematic because the attitude of passive restraint by a tolerant racist is morally bad in a situation that requires his active moral engagement, critical examination of his racist beliefs, and respect for “differences” and the “other” as persons. The relevant emphasis ought to be on:
  1. 1.

    The respect for all persons, values, differences, and beliefs.

  2. 2.

    The critical examination of all competing values and beliefs.

  3. 3.

    The examination of the moral adequacy of the beliefs of the tolerator, on the basis of which, the tolerated, his view, belief, or difference is disliked.

  4. 4.

    The moral adequacy of both the attitude of restraint in the relevant circumstance and its underlying reasons.


Because of the misplaced emphasis, the passive attitude of forbearance involving tolerance intolerance may encourage insidious forms of subtle racism, by justifying minimal “coexistence” with racial “others” or “differences.” Instead, the emphasis ought to be on the active, critical, and positive engagement that could engender acceptance, respect, or recognition of differences that could give “others” equal opportunities to live authentically with dignity and the ability to participate fully in the affairs of society.

In my view, the attitude of forbearance, which is manifested in subtle forms of racism, is the predominant attitude today by many white racists toward blacks in the United States and Europe. Such attitudes have neither helped blacks nor led racists to examine critically and to give up their racist beliefs. Instead, racists are able to use such attitude of tolerance to rationalize why their concealed, conceited, and racist beliefs are not bad. The implication is that tolerance engenders the racist’s avoidance and unwillingness to make the active and positive commitment to respect persons, accept true beliefs, or change her false beliefs, in order to use such true beliefs or the value of respect for persons to morally guide her conduct. John Rawls (1999, p. 395, 435) indicates that tolerance is an excuse to avoid a commitment to the value of respect for persons, true beliefs, and to make the difficult decision between two competing alternatives, such as those involving the false beliefs of the tolerant racist regarding the superiority of whites or inferiority of blacks and respect for blacks as persons. We must require the white racist to critically examine and jettison his false racist beliefs in order to accept and respect blacks as persons.

According to Newey, tolerance only requires that “the tolerator has to feel the competing pull of reasons for intervention and reasons for restraint” (2001, p. 317). Such pull does not require the tolerator to critically examine the basis for disapproval that could culminate in the active commitment to change or continue to hold one’s beliefs or withhold judgment. The idea that tolerance is a moral virtue derives, in part, from the falsity of the assumed logical relation between “tolerance” and “intolerance.” According to Peter Nicholson, “The opposite of toleration is intolerance” (1985, p. 158). Being opposites implies, logically, that they are contradictories. Brink’s words that “tolerance is right and intolerance is wrong, period” (1989, p. 94) indicate that tolerance is a moral value and its opposite, intolerance, is not. The underlying argument is that, if intolerance is inherently immoral, and intolerance is the contradictory of tolerance, then the moral unacceptability of intolerance implies logically the moral acceptability of tolerance.

In my view, this argument for tolerance as a value is unsound. It assumes the following false views: (1) tolerance is necessarily good, and intolerance is necessarily bad; (2) as contradictories, tolerance is the only relevant and logical alternative of intolerance; and (3) the moral unacceptability of intolerance implies the moral acceptability of tolerance. This argument has the following implications. First, white racists should tolerate blacks in order to avoid being morally condemned as intolerant. Second, one may tolerate racial difference that one ought to respect. The argument also relies on a false dichotomy between tolerance and intolerance, a controversial view about their moral status, and a false view of their logical relationship. Based on the assumption that intolerance is necessarily bad, a logical deduction is made that tolerance, its opposite, is necessarily good. This argument ignores other relevant and better alternatives such as acceptance, respect, and recognition.

In my view, tolerance is, logically, not a contradictory of intolerance. Logically, they are contraries. As contradictories, the moral unacceptability of intolerance logically implies the moral acceptability of tolerance and vice versa. However, as logical contraries, tolerance and intolerance cannot both be morally acceptable, but they can both be morally unacceptable. Thus, the unacceptability of intolerance does not necessarily imply the acceptability of tolerance, because in some situations regarding racial differences or racism, tolerance and intolerance are both morally unacceptable. In the situation where intolerance is the only alternative of tolerance, being a tolerant racist could be a relative value. However, intolerance is not the only alternative of tolerance. The more reasonable alternative attitudes toward racial difference are respect, acceptance, and recognition.

George Fletcher (1996, pp. 235–237) criticizes the false dichotomy between “tolerance” and “intolerance” by arguing that “acceptance” is another alternative of “tolerance.” This implies that “tolerance” is different from “acceptance.” “Acceptance,” “respect,” and “recognition” require active rational deliberation and critical examination to determine the moral rightness of one’s value, reasonableness of beliefs, or the fact that a racial difference should be accepted, respected, or recognized. Because the attitudes of respect, recognition, and acceptance are different from, and inconsistent with, the attitude of tolerance, the notion of tolerance cannot include the notions of “respect,” “acceptance,” and “recognition.” Hence, the tolerant racist is not motivated to make the important determination of whether, based on critical examination, he should give up or continue to hold his false conceited beliefs. By merely forbearing and continuing to hold his false beliefs and negative attitudes, he is indifferent to the effects of those beliefs and attitudes on the well-being of blacks and the need to respect them as persons. Moreover, once we accept the liberal value of the respect for persons as a moral end, then tolerance is not a legitimate or the best means for dealing with or attitude toward racial “difference” or “other.”

In making the distinction between “respect” (for persons) and “tolerance,” Amy Gutman (1994, pp. 20–23) indicates that “respect” as opposed to tolerance involves seeing an opposing idea as a candidate that one should actively engage in a critical and serious moral debate. Thus, “tolerance” and “respect” (which might lead to acceptance) are logically distinct because the negative judgment of disapproval and the passive attitude of forbearance regarding tolerance cannot engender the active and positive rational and critical elements of respect for persons, acceptance, or recognition. The rational and active elements of respect, acceptance, and recognition require a racist to transcend her false racist beliefs and dislike. However, the attitude of tolerance does not require a racist to transcend and get rid of her false racist beliefs or dislike; it only requires her to forbear or simply “put up with” a disliked race or persons, which involves self-conceit and self-deception.

The efforts to understand and arrive at a deliberate and rational judgment about the adequacy of one’s beliefs and those of others, and the ability to rationally transcend one’s false beliefs, are characteristics of a morally and an epistemically good life and a morally and an epistemically virtuous person. Being a tolerant racist may prevent one from leading a morally and an epistemically good life as Herbert Marcuse indicates: “When tolerance … serves to neutralize opposition and to render men immune against other and better forms of life, then tolerance has been perverted” (1965, p. 111). A tolerant racist could use the attitude of tolerance to neutralize blacks and prevent both black and white racist from living amorally and an epistemically good life. As Fletcher indicates: “One might say that a minority culture is entitled to more than tolerance. The minority’s language, religion, and lifestyle should be accepted, and respected” (1996, p. 238). The same applies to blacks. Victims of racism do not want to be merely tolerated; they are entitled to more than tolerance. They are entitled to moral respect as persons, recognition, and acceptance.


I have argued that racism involves a negative attitude usually arising from false beliefs about the superiority of the racist and the inferiority of the victim of racism. These attitude and beliefs maybe institutionalized into social, political, and legal structures and power to victimize and exploit a race and create a vertical relationship of domination. Tolerance, which is the idea of merely “putting up with” a value, belief, or difference that one dislikes, is not necessarily good in itself, and in particular, it cannot be considered an acceptable means for addressing racial differences and living a good life. Tolerance does not address the source of the racial belief or attitude; it only seeks to mask or hide the unjustified attitude or false beliefs. I argue that the better attitude toward racial differences is that of acceptance or respect for people of races as persons.


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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyKent State UniversityKentUSA

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