Can facts be racist? For example, is the fact that the median white family in the USA has a net worth of about 10 times more than the median black family in the USA, a racist fact? My view is that facts can never be racist. It may be an unfortunate fact, but that does not make it racist. But what have philosophers thought about this question?


4 Answers 4


Facts are just the state of reality, which cannot be racist in and of itself. But one might reflect on how we got to that state, and facts are also sought, discovered, and shared by humans. So:

  • The state of reality at a particular point in time can be the result of racism, as another answer mentioned.

  • Someone may analyse and present the state of reality in such a way to reach or promote some conclusion that seems to reflect poorly on a particular race. In such cases, that person may very well be motivated by racism.

    And it may not necessarily be "the state of reality". The conclusion may be misleading due to:

    • Cherry picking

    • p-hacking

    • Small sample sizes

    • Other bad science

    • Results that seem more significant than they actually are to laypeople.

      "Group A is on average more intelligent than group B" may sound significant, until you realise this would be true even if their intelligences are identical except for a single person of arbitrary non-average intelligence.

      And that's before we even get to fact that correlation does not imply causation: it can be really difficult to show a causal link.

  • Just plain irrelevant samples is probably significant here, which I guess you could pack into "results that seem more significant than they are". If you actually wanted to compare median net worth as a meaningful indicator of economic success by demographic, you'd compare median net worth at a particular age. Otherwise, since people accumulate more wealth as they get older (and often dip deeply into negative wealth from age 18 to 24 or so), much of what you're measuring isn't who has better economic prospects, it's who has more babies.
    – g s
    Aug 28 at 9:44

That particular fact isn't itself racist, it's an effect of racism. There has been a long history of many minorities having unequal access to education, criminal justice, jobs, etc.

One only has to look at the definition of racism to see that facts can't be racist. For example, the first definition of the term from Merriam-Webster's:

a belief that race is a fundamental determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race. also : behavior or attitudes that reflect and foster this belief : racial discrimination or prejudice

Facts don't have beliefs or attitudes, nor can they take any actions. Therefore, facts cannot be racist.

  • However, the way we present facts, and in particular statistics, can very well be racist. It's often very easy to take one piece of statistics and make it carry one message or its exact opposite.
    – Stef
    Aug 29 at 13:45
  • @Stef Yes, absolutely. This fact could easily be presented either way, in fact. In that case, though, it would be the person who was being racist, not the fact itself. Beliefs, attitudes, and behavior can be racist, not facts. A fact is just a fact. Aug 29 at 13:51

Correct me if I'm wrong, but as facts aren't people and can't have any intentions of their own, I'd rather interpret that question as "Can the statement of facts be racist?".

And spoiler alert: Yes it can. While the fact itself is neutral, THE ACT of stating a fact is not.

The thing is people aren't usually dropping facts at random, if you'd state meaningless facts all the time you probably end up in a mental health facility. Instead we prioritize some facts over other facts, we rate them as relevant or irrelevant with regards to the current context and we regularly use them as starting points of or evidence for a larger narrative.

So it's usually not just about the fact itself, but about the context and the speech act that you perform with that.

So if you scream "FIRE" it's usually not just a statement of fact, despite being a statement of fact, but you're intention is to alert people to either get away from it or to take measures to put it out. Or "He's got a gun", is similarly not just remarking that this person is in possession of a fire arm, but is indicating that this person is an active threat and that immediate action is warranted.

So depending on the intent, context of the situation and the person, such a statement can be racist. Such as if it is used to insinuate that black people are less productive and lack a good work ethic.

As others have pointed out already the fact alone doesn't tell you much about the how and why of that situation. Like it could just as well, and probably more likely given the history, be the result of discrimination and racism in the past.

So it's not the facts that are telling that story, it's the racist cherry picking facts to tell the story. Though an argument can still be fallacious even if it incorporates some facts.

  • Also, "statistics" is not synonymous with "facts", so not only can facts be cherry-picked, but descriptions of facts can be reworded and statistics describing a fact can be calculated one way or another to convey a different message about that fact.
    – Stef
    Aug 29 at 13:48

This is an obviously politically charged fact but no a fact cannot be racist. Only a person can.

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