A trend seems to be rising on spotlighting a particular race for the purpose of reducing racial inequality. One example published recently by a very large retailer:

"Shop and support <race>-owned businesses"

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I assume someone has put more thought into the idea than I have and that it potentially makes sense ethically in a way that I'm not understanding. Discussion about race, being a social issue, is often based on popular opinion and emotionally based thought. I sometimes wish I could find explanations of these topics framed in a more academic and formal manner. Could someone cite any studies on this or give such an explanation on the underlying ethics of this concept?

My very simplistic thought, looking at this advertisement, is that the whole idea behind fighting racial bias is to avoid distinguishing between races of people at all; to think of ourselves not as Black, White, Asian, etc people, but rather just as people. My thinking (again, lacking rigorous study of relevant literature) on this was inspired by an American actor's perspective on a similar topic, but I lack any academic or philosophically rigorous source to support my ideas.

On one hand I think of emphasizing race as a purchasing decision factor as an unethical and counter-productive approach to racial equality. It seems plausible that this approach could even be thought of as the manifestation of racism, since the unspoken half of "Shop and support <race>-owned businesses." is "instead of <other races>-owned businesses." given that purchasing a good or service from one company usually entails not purchasing it from a competitor.

On the other hand, I realize racism has affected and continues to affect purchasing decisions in the opposite direction, so this could be thought of as a balancing of the scales. But at what cost? it certainly seems a multi-faceted and complex issue.

Overall, based on my earlier premise, my own immediate conclusion was that this seems like a shift from the ethical principle of

"Racism is bad."


"Racism is bad except for when ..."

...which appears potentially counter-productive toward the goals of improving race relations, improving racial equality, and reducing racially-focused mindsets to prevent these biases in the future. Even if the scales are balanced, the principle used to get there seems to hold potentially negative long term consequences, perhaps building resentment between races rather than reducing it.

But I'm looking for alternative ways to think of it based on more well-reasoned thought than my own, even if not to resolve the conflict, to better understand the ethical considerations from a more philosophically rigorous perspective.

  • One can consider other social goods in addition to "avoid[ing] distinguishing between races of people" in making their ethical determinations.
    – Dave
    Nov 22 '21 at 15:30
  • Your hunch is right, this is thought as counterbalancing: if a rod is bent one way it takes bending it the other way to straighten it out. But you have to take it to the logical (and ethical) conclusion. This is not "racism is bad except for", this is consequences of (existing) racism are bad, therefore we must apply racial preferences (for the oppressed race) to mitigate them. It is perfectly ethical from the utilitarian perspective, and is also a rationale behind the affirmative action. Or you can see it as fairness, as a higher moral end, overriding lack of racial preferences.
    – Conifold
    Nov 22 '21 at 20:36
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    @Conifold Given we agree on the desire to straighten out the rod, some concerns come to mind based on the chosen method: 1) Would this approach not potentially build resentment in the races other than the (now counter-preferred) minority race, based on the seemingly reasonable frustration that they (the presently living members of other races) did not personally take part in any wrongdoing? And couldn't that resentment lead to negative relations in the future that outweigh the positives? 2) And what about children learning today to strongly embrace race as a meaningful identity trait?
    – J.Todd
    Nov 22 '21 at 20:42
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    Does it build resentment? Yes. Does it potentially entrench race-focused mindsets? Yes. But the presently living are arguably beneficiaries of past racism, say, in the economic and societal sense, hence ethically responsible. So this is a purely pragmatic issue of whether this works as intended, not an ethical one. For the rod analogy to hold the applied counterforce must gradually decrease as the bent diminishes, ideally vanishing at the end. This may or may not be compatible with human psychology and politics. As always, the utilitarian calculation hinges on some factual assumptions.
    – Conifold
    Nov 22 '21 at 20:55
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    @J.Todd - There's a tendency to talk about this as ancient history, but not only were many of the cases of "wrongdoing" committed in recent history, by some of the "presently living," some of them are still happening now. // Along those lines, it's also noting that small unconscious, unintentional acts of bias can have a significant impact in the aggregate --enough, perhaps, to justify attempts at redress. Nov 22 '21 at 21:39

There is indeed a lot of theory and literature around this topic, but it's just as often critical as affirming. The center of is an old debate in the Black American community, perhaps best traced back to Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass. Washington and Douglass were both born enslaved, and both became prominent speakers, philanthropists, activists and community leaders. But they had very different perspectives on what was best for Black Americans.

Washington believed in hard work, keeping a low profile, and advancing towards self-determination through economic achievement --in other words, by "supporting black businesses." His philosophy was instrumental in the creation of the Black American middle class, and in the founding of Black businesses, colleges, business associations and other similar institutions. However, he was criticized by Douglass and many others for his willingness to embrace the status quo, for what was seen as advocating a servile, placating and ingratiating attitude towards whites, and for his unwillingness to take controversial political stands. Douglass, on the other hand, was an early forerunner of the later Civil Rights Movement, who insisted on full equality and the protection of voting rights for Black Americans. Douglass' fears about the accomodationist stance would prove prescient. When Black businesspeople and politicians became too successful, they were often targeted for attacks, as in the formation of the Ku Klux Klan, and in incidents like the Tulsa massacre, where a thriving Black financial hub was destroyed, and its owners murdered, largely because they were outcompeting their white neighbors.

In terms of modern day politics, the ethical argument for "supporting Black businesses" is that the Black community, including the Black business community, has, and continues to experience open and hidden discrimination that places it at a continuing and artificially maintained disadvantage (for instance, redlining, the systematic undervaluing of Black-owned real estate, a now-illegal, but still persistent practice estimated to have transferred an average $212K per family worth of wealth from Black hands to white hands). From that point of view, supporting Black businesses, when practiced conscientiously, can indeed play a role in redressing past and continuing economic injustices. But it's a facile and superficial form of activism that does little to address larger societal issues. As such, it is vulnerable to the socialist critique that it is a capitalist subversion of the energy of a movement for social justice --the transformation of activism into a just another consumer choice.

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