Buddhist perspectives on society and culture


Buddhist perspectives on
society and culture

Was the Buddha an Antiracist?

Posted in: Politics
Abhaya Mudra

Yes, you guessed correctly: my title is a bit of a tease. Of course, the Buddha could not have been an antiracist. In the India of the fifth century BCE, the complex ideology behind the word would have made little sense, even to the formidable intellect of the ascetic Gautama. Had he been able to intuit the meaning of, ‘Are you an antiracist?’, I suspect he would have replied with one of his thunderous silences. At most, he might have commented, as he did in the Assalayana Sutta, ‘Purification is for all castes.’ Would that have been an affirmative answer to the question? Not exactly.

In my recent article ‘An Immoral Panic’, I said that the current hysteria over police racism in the USA is a manifestation of the antiracist movement. But what exactly is antiracism in the current usage of the term? The answer is not as simple as you might imagine, and any effort to delve into the question is hindered rather than helped by current media coverage of racial matters. Most journalists, along with many other well-meaning people, seem to assume that any opposition to racism must be a good thing. They have not yet woken up to the extreme ideology that underpins antiracism, or to its tendency to deepen rather than heal racial divisions.

Many well-meaning people have not yet woken up to the extreme ideology that underpins antiracism

In forthcoming instalments of ‘An Immoral Panic’ I will say more about the role of antiracism in demonising the police — the way it unnecessarily racialises valid concerns about police brutality. Those instalments will make better sense if we first get an outline answer to a larger question: ‘what is antiracism?’ And for Apramada readers, a more specific question looms large: what should we, as Buddhists, make of antiracism? It will take some time to get around to that second question though. First, we need to understand how antiracism differs from other ways of opposing racism. We also need to examine it critically on its own terms. Readers who follow the ‘culture wars’ will understand much of this already, but others will not. For the benefit of the latter, a sketch of the battleground is necessary. If you are in the former category, please be patient: my title will eventually vindicate itself.

As with my views on the police racism panic, what follows is based on the political landscape in the USA, where antiracism originated. However, there is much that also applies, mutatis mutandis, to the UK.

Non-Racism and Antiracism

Opposition to racism in the USA, together with the aspiration to improve the lot of the black minority, has taken divergent and sometimes conflicting forms. To understand the current controversies over racism, it is helpful to pick out two strands within this tangled history. Obviously, one of the strands is ‘antiracism’. We can conveniently label the other one ‘non-racism’. 1 In practice, the two strands may intertwine, even blending in one and the same individual. Nevertheless, they are essentially in tension with one another.

The non-racist strand is older. It is rooted in the idea that laws and institutions should be ‘colour blind’, which means indifferent to race. Non-racism focuses on fair treatment of individuals. As such, it is classically ‘liberal’ in the original political meaning of the word, although nowadays it is often seen as ‘conservative’. In the context of the USA, non-racism looks to the Constitution as a source and an inspiration. From the non-racist standpoint, racial equality means that individuals should enjoy the same rights regardless of their race. Access to opportunities for education, employment or public office should be based on objective merit, not on skin colour. Accordingly, racial discrimination in such matters is seen as an evil, and prohibited in law. It was mostly this ‘colour blind’ philosophy that underpinned the successes of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. In accordance with the colour-blind principle, non-racism hopes for an overall social integration of the races, without setting a deadline for it.

This does not mean that non-racism can be equated simply with the application of free-market principles in the sphere of racial justice. Non-racists are not necessarily opposed to policy initiatives targeted at improving the lot of disadvantaged racial minorities, but they are more likely to view such initiatives as limited and temporary measures on the way to an integrated and ‘colour blind’ society.

The second and opposite strand — currently called ‘antiracism’ — prescribes more radical political interventions. It demands racial equity. It is vital to grasp the implications of that word to make sense of what follows. ‘Racial equity’ means equal socio-economic outcomes not just for individuals but for racial or ethnic groups. In other words, all such groups must share power, wealth, privilege and status in proportion to their overall share of the population. By the way, I am here using the term ‘socio-economics’ in a sense that includes the workings of the criminal justice system.

Antiracism claims that if disparities between groups persist even after discrimination has been outlawed, that lone fact proves racism is still at work somewhere in the system, and has to be rooted out by more drastic measures. Alternative explanations for the disparities are rejected as themselves forms of racism. In practice, antiracism tends to focus (especially in the USA) on the relatively poor socio-economic outcomes of one racial group, namely the black minority — African Americans.

Whereas non-racism rejects racial discrimination, at least in principle, antiracism calls for positive discrimination — favourable treatment for disadvantaged minorities. This is not a new idea. In the USA, positive discrimination has been practised under the name of ‘affirmative action’ since the late 1960s. At that time, highly selective universities began to reduce their entry requirements for black students. That policy was accepted by many whose fundamental outlook was on the liberal, non-racist side of the argument, despite the obvious contradiction with their principle of ‘colour blindness’. However, the non-racists tended to think of affirmative action in terms of a temporary ‘leg-up’ rather than as a permanent structural remedy. But today’s antiracists want to extend the principle of positive discrimination much further. They call for a restructuring of society, tantamount to a revolution, which would bring us to the goal of equity in short order, and maintain it permanently.

Non-racism was the philosophy of the Civil Rights movement, which triumphed legislatively in the 1960s. But since that time, it has lost ground to antiracism. Critical Race Theory (CRT for short — the ideological underpinning of antiracism) has made almost a clean sweep of academia. From the universities, CRT has spread into the government bureaucracy and the media. 2 In the last few years, it has successfully invaded the corporate world. 3 Consequently, antiracism is now so entrenched that even elected leaders may have little power to stem its progress. But at the same time many ordinary people don’t grasp the extent of the transformation that is under way. Nowadays, as we hear more and more calls for ‘diversity’, we may not realise what those calls imply, or where the whole thing is going. The only logical endpoint of diversity is equity.

In the USA, perhaps the highest-profile exponent of antiracism at the moment is Ibram X Kendi. His book How to be an Antiracist was a bestseller in 2019 — fortuitously timed to serve as an ideological primer for the explosion of protest after the death of George Floyd a year later. In what follows, I shall be quoting Kendi to illustrate my argument.

Systemic Racism – A Three-Legged Stool

Antiracists scorn the idea that America has become a ‘post-racial society’. But it is fair to ask how racism can still be so powerful in an era when the great majority of white people — especially educated members of the middle and upper classes, who exert the most power and influence — disavow and condemn racism. To answer this question, antiracists invoke ‘systemic racism’. This is a complex notion that purports to explain why white racism persists, and how it maintains racial inequity, even when it is scarcely visible on the surface.

Antiracism tends to deny anything more than minimal scope for individual agency

I must interpose a few words on terminology here. Instead of ‘systemic’ racism, antiracists may prefer alternative terms, such as ‘structural’ or ‘societal’ racism. 4 These terms do have different nuances, but there is no space here to unpack all the possible definitions. Instead of defining the terms themselves, I will try to outline the ideas that underpin them. These fall into three groups, drawing respectively upon history, political ideology and psychology. We can think of them as a kind of three-legged stool on which every variety of antiracism must sit in order to formulate or justify its message


The strongest leg of the stool is historical. Because of past racial injustice, members of racial minorities today may find themselves trapped in holes too deep to climb out of. 5 In the case of African Americans, the history is particularly bleak: it includes not just slavery, but also the ‘Jim Crow’ era, and discriminatory practices such as ‘redlining’. 6 As a result of this sad chronicle, black people — even now, decades after the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s — are still much more likely to be born and grow up in areas of low quality and overcrowded accommodation, served by inadequate public amenities. This makes them far more vulnerable to health problems. Good jobs are few, or are located too far away. The schools available for their children are poorly resourced. In the face of such heavy disadvantages, ‘equality of opportunity’ is a remote ideal, nowhere near reality. Consequently, the disadvantage perpetuates itself from one generation to the next. We should not be surprised that a worrying large minority fall into crime.

By laying heavy emphasis on this historical perspective, antiracism tends to deny anything more than minimal scope for the individual agency of members of disadvantaged minorities in improving their lot. Antiracism is also highly sceptical of claims that white-majority societies, especially the USA, have really changed to become less racist. On both these points, antiracism is propped up by the other two legs of the stool.


The second leg is ideological. It reflects upon and interprets the historical leg. The main source of the interpretation is Critical Race Theory. CRT is Marxian in origin, but its key ideas have become common currency. 7 From this perspective, history is not just history, but an abiding system or structure. Racial inequalities are not just sad remnants of the past, fading away in a society that is growing fairer (as liberal non-racists would claim). Rather, the inequalities originate from — and even now are maintained by — a white elite pursuing its own material interests. Rather than frankly call this a ‘white elite’ (which might prompt accusations of reverse racism), Ibram X Kendi prefers to use the abstract term ‘racist power’. However, Kendi also identifies the beneficiaries of racist power as ‘superrich white men’, which rather gives the game away. 8 Antiracists such as Kendi believe that this white elite is not sincerely interested in racial equality. When it institutes policies that serve the aim of equality, it only does so because those policies also produce benefits for itself. This is called the principle of ‘interest convergence’ — a major pillar of CRT.9

For the antiracists, true equality is equity, and this will never be willingly granted by the elite, or by the large element of the white majority who believe (albeit erroneously, according to some antiracists) that they benefit from the dominance of the white elite. Racial equity can only be produced by political action to enforce a redistribution of resources and power more thoroughgoing than anything so far ventured by timid liberals. Such a redistribution is not just desirable but a moral obligation — an unpaid debt— because whites today are still the beneficiaries of the injustices committed by their forebears on other races. They have ‘white privilege’.


The third leg of the stool of systemic racism is psychological. It adds crucial support to the ideological leg, while making the historical leg seem even more sinister with hindsight. It understands racism as an immensely powerful force within white people — a force that has played a leading part in driving western dominance of the world through imperialism and colonialism. To reconcile this with what looks like the fading away of such racism, antiracism invokes the notion of the unconscious mind.

Since Freud, we have come to think of the unconscious as a kind of cellar, in which something noxious can be put out of sight, yet still pervade the whole house with its influence. In just such a way, ‘unconscious bias’ is supposed to persist in the minds of white people. Indeed, it is claimed that racial minorities themselves, living as they do in white-majority societies, cannot avoid internalising this bias. It drives them to blame themselves for their own disadvantage, and makes them passive in their subjection to an overbearing cultural ‘whiteness’. Antiracism requires that unconscious bias be rooted out from the minds of the young in schools, and from the minds of adults by mandatory workplace training.

These then are the three legs on which any version of antiracism supports itself. Not all antiracists put equal weight on all three legs of the stool. Ibram X Kendi, for example, has relatively little to say about the psychological leg, whereas Robin diAngelo (the author of White Fragility) makes it central. Nevertheless, most antiracists tend to make use of all three elements in varying degrees.

The Antiracist Critique of Non-Racism

Antiracism has steadily gained ground against non-racism in recent decades. There are many reasons for this, including its conquest of academia and its consequent influence on the minds of the young people, for whom livelihood and social status are ever more dependent on being processed through universities and colleges. But why has the liberal non-racist philosophy come to seem unsatisfactory to so many?

From the viewpoint of antiracism, colour-blind non-racism faces two weighty charges. Firstly, it has failed to produce racial equity. And secondly, this failure is inevitable because (according to the antiracists) non-racism is no more than a sham — a mask under which white racism conceals itself. The two charges are supported respectively by the ideological and the psychological legs of the stool.

With regard to the first charge, antiracists find no shortage of data to prove the persistence of unequal outcomes between racial groups. Indeed, they sometimes claim that racial injustice is as bad as it has ever been. 10 According to Census Bureau data, 18.8% of black Americans live ‘below the poverty line’, as against only 7.3% of whites. 11 And, of course, the criminal justice system is said to be strongly racially biased. Black males are imprisoned at nearly six times the rate of white males. (I will be looking into the topic of criminal justice in future instalments of ‘An Immoral Panic’, and so will make no comment here.)

For a sample of the second charge, we can turn again to Ibram X Kendi. In Kendi’s eyes, if you are a non-racist, you are probably more dangerous than an outright white supremacist:

The most threatening racist movement is not the alt right’s unlikely drive for a White ethnostate but the regular American’s drive for a “race-neutral” one. The construct of race-neutrality actually feeds White nationalist victimhood by positing the notion that any policy protecting or advancing non-White Americans toward equity is “reverse discrimination.”… There is no such thing as a not-racist idea, only racist ideas and antiracist ideas.12

The push for equity assumes that all racial or ethnic groups within a country are comparable

Non-racism is therefore not just to be politely disagreed with, but condemned as an evil. With the growing influence of antiracist views, people who advance non-racist views are often denied a platform, stigmatised and ‘cancelled’, especially in universities.13

To justify its claim that liberal non-racism is a sham, antiracism attacks some of the ideas that underpin classical liberalism itself. The idea of meritocracy, for example, conceals the truth that access to the best opportunities in education or careers depends much less on merit than on ‘access to the social networks, mentoring, patronage and power that whiteness brings’.14 The implication is that it is unfair to judge everyone by the same standards.

The Non-Racist Critique of Antiracism

Racial Equity as a Goal

For non-racists, the main question that hovers over antiracism is whether its central aim of racial equity — understood as equality of socio-economic outcomes between racial groups — is a just and feasible goal, even in the absence of racism. The push for equity assumes that all racial or ethnic groups within a country are comparable and will achieve similar outcomes in the absence of racism on the part of the dominant group. But this is a simplistic assumption. In relation to any single socio-economic measure, there are a variety of reasons why two racial or ethnic groups may have different outcomes.

This can be illustrated in relation to Ibram X Kendi’s prime example of inequity. Kendi cites the disparity between US racial groups in terms of home ownership. He tells us that ‘71 percent of White families lived in owner-occupied homes in 2014, compared to 45 percent of Latinx families and 41 percent of Black families.’ Having imparted this information, Kendi quickly moves on without pausing to acknowledge anything that might complicate this simple comparison, with its implicit lesson of persisting racism. 15

But complications there certainly are. To expose them, we can look at three demographic variables, namely patterns of age distribution, inheritance and marriage rates. Let’s start with the age distribution. Very few people, whatever their race, can afford to buy a first home before they reach their late twenties. A report based on US Census data indicates that homeowners (of any race) under the age of 29 amount to less than 4% of the total. In fact, the average American homeowner is 56 years old, and the highest rate of home ownership is in the age group 65-70. 16

So, if the age distributions of white, black and ‘Latinx’ Americans were comparable, you might have one reason (though only one) to expect comparable rates of home ownership. But they are far from comparable. The most common age of whites in the USA is 58. For blacks the most common age is only 27 (and for Hispanics it is as low as 11). It is worth pausing to take a look at the graph of age distribution (see the link in the endnote) to appreciate how stark the difference is. The line describing the white population bulges sharply near the right side of the distribution, where older age groups are represented. The biggest reason is the post-war ‘baby boom’ in the white population and the subsequent tail-off in white birth rates. 17

The second demographic variable is patterns of inheritance. White homebuyers are much more likely to receive an inheritance that allows them to make a down payment. Again, the difference is quite stark. In the year 2019, for example, nearly 30% of white persons surveyed had received an inheritance, as against just over 10% of black and 7% of Hispanic persons. Approximately a further 17% of whites surveyed were expecting a future inheritance, as against about 6% of blacks and 4% of Hispanics.18

The scale of social engineering required to achieve racial equity would be truly mind-boggling

Thirdly, there is the matter of marriage. Home ownership is more common among married couples than among single people for obvious reasons, such as the ability to pool two incomes and share costs over a long period of time. 19 But there are differences between racial and ethnic groups in marriage and divorce rates. African Americans have significantly lower rates of marriage and higher rates of divorce than other ethnic groups. 20

So here we have three demographic reasons why home ownership is lower for blacks than whites: age distribution, inheritance and marriage. None of these three factors has any direct or necessary connection to present racism. Of course, the argument could be pushed backwards in time. For example, could the relative weakness and instability of the black family be a lingering after-effect of slavery, or of the Jim Crow era, and hence attributable to historic racism? The main problem with such claims is that US census data show that throughout the first half of the twentieth-century (when racism was much worse than now) marriage rates were actually higher among blacks than among whites (both were very high) though separation rates for black women were already somewhat higher. Since then, marriage rates have been falling and divorce rates increasing for both races, but in both cases much more steeply among blacks. 21 In absolute terms, all races were poorer in the first half of the century than in the second, so it is hard to attribute the decline in marriage to growing poverty.

Of course, although all races have got richer overall, it would be wrong simply to ignore the fact of income inequality between races. Indeed, this offers itself as the most obvious explanation of disparities in home ownership. Why then did Kendi not choose income, rather than home ownership, as his prime measure of racial inequity? We do not know, but it is not hard to guess. The racial group with the highest median income in the USA is not whites but Asians. In 2020, the median income of Asian households was $94,903. For white households it was $74,912. 22 Whichever way one tries to spin it, this fact cannot sit comfortably with the antiracist view of a society where everything is determined by white racist policies and white racist ideas for the purpose of keeping whites on top.

The most important point we can take away from such demographic data is that the scale of social engineering required to achieve racial equity would be truly mind-boggling. What measures would a government be required to take in order to bring the age profiles of all the races into line? How would resources be reallocated so as to eliminate all disparities in inheritance? How would a government compel racial groups to have comparable rates of marriage and divorce?

Systemic Racism — a Wobbly Stool

Of the three legs of the stool of systemic racism, none can be nonchalantly kicked away. Without an element of truth, they would not have the power — which they have amply demonstrated in the wake of George Floyd’s death — to mobilise large numbers of people. However, on examination, each of the legs turns out to be wobbly. You can put some weight on it, but too much and it collapses.

Of course, the facts of the historical leg are well documented. The horrors of slavery and the bitter injustice of Jim Crow in the South are beyond dispute. Likewise, the persistence of its effects through generations need not be doubted. Being born and growing up in a poor, unhealthy and dangerous neighbourhood is clearly unfavourable to subsequent life outcomes for members of any race. And undoubtedly, a higher proportion of black Americans than of any other racial group suffer this disadvantage.

However, a relentless focus on the past can be misleading. This is especially true when the focus is exclusively on the bad side, even if that side looms larger in the balance. While slavery was indeed a great evil, it should not be forgotten that the northern states abolished slavery before the Civil War. There was an active and often militant abolitionist movement — aimed at ending it in the whole country — from the end of the eighteenth century. Some white radicals, led by the famous John Brown, even engaged in a guerrilla war against slavery. In the Civil War, something in the region of three hundred thousand white soldiers died fighting a war that everyone understood was essentially about ending slavery.

When trying to outrage his readers with some egregious examples of anti-black racism, Kendi’s book again and again cites documented events and utterances from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But when it comes to the late twentieth century and the present day, he is hard-pressed to find anything comparable. In their place, his best expedient is to echo the exaggerated media accounts of police or vigilante racism. Kendi dwells particularly on the death of Trayvon Martin, which triggered the birth of Black Lives Matter in 2013. Yet anyone who delves deeply into that case with an open mind will find there is ample reason to doubt whether the media picture of it bears much relation to the reality. 23

How is one to explain the fact that Asian Americans are now on average more successful than whites in terms of academic success and income?

Few people nowadays would entirely reject the basic premise of the psychological leg of the systemic racism stool. Most of us know that we may be motivated by ideas and emotions of which we are only dimly aware, or prefer not to face. Granting this, a further consequence ensues. It is credible that a culture of racism might exist within an institution ‘under the surface’. Values and attitudes can be largely tacit and even (to some degree) unconscious. In this sense — and to my mind, in this sense alone — some legitimate meaning can be attributed to the idea of ‘institutional racism’. Even on this point though, the term obscures more than it reveals. It would be more precise to speak of a ‘tacit racist culture’.

But how typical is such a culture of real-world institutions today? The education system, law and popular culture have been working to stigmatise and even prohibit racism for decades. The result, ironically, is that white people are far more likely than black people to blame the problems of the latter on white racism. 24 What is more, insofar as antiracists make sweeping assertions about the power and prevalence of unconscious ideas, they rest their argument on speculation. Nobody can authoritatively claim to know the contents of the unconscious minds of whole populations. This is precisely why antiracists so frequently appeal to evidence of inequity, as if any disparity in racial outcomes could only be explained by racism.

Even the ideological leg of the stool is not wholly without truth. Who could doubt that those who are privileged and powerful like to hold on to their privilege and power? However, this leg is the weakest of the three. Firstly, it suffers a weakness of principle. There is a plausible school of thought that when inequality becomes too extreme it can have negative effects not just on those at the bottom but on those at every level of the socio-economic hierarchy. 25 But if there is to be redistribution, it is clearly preferable in principle not to base it directly on race. Socio-economic disadvantage may be concentrated among the black minority, but it is not found only there. Using race as a criterion is likely only to deepen racial divisions. Vaddhaka’s recent article ‘Resisting the Tyranny of the Tribe’ (here in Apramada) was in part an exploration of this theme.26

But the ideological leg faces serious challenges not just in principle but in terms of empirical data. If the whole of American society is driven by white supremacy, how is one to explain the fact that Asian Americans are now on average more successful than whites in terms of academic success and income? Or that a black President was elected not once but twice by a white-majority electorate? Or the widespread implementation of affirmative action programmes in favour of the black minority (by mainly white administrators), both officially and unofficially, since the 1960s? Or that black Americans’ presence in the middle-income groups is now in proportion with their overall share of the population? 27 Or that, amid an alleged ‘second pandemic of racism’, the number of black American billionaires increased from just one in 2014 (Oprah Winfrey, if you are wondering) to seven in 2021? 28 Or the curious fact that young white people are nearly twice as likely as young black people to say that the problems faced by blacks are caused by white racism? 29

Racial Inequity and Culture

Present racial inequity is partly attributable to past racism, but there are other factors, as we saw in relation to homeowning. What is more, the claim that present racism plays a major part in the inequity is weak, depending as it does on the wobbly three-legged stool of ‘systemic racism’. Despite all this, a serious question remains about the relative slowness with which black socio-economic outcomes have improved, as compared to those of other minorities. There is something that needs to be explained here. The weakness of antiracist arguments is clear, but those arguments are likely to creep back unless a more plausible alternative explanation is offered.

It may come as a surprise to some readers that disparate outcomes for racial groups could result from anything other than racism. Many people today imagine that the only other cause to which one might attribute such differences in group outcomes is genetics, and this idea is taboo for nearly all participants in the debate. But the choice between racism and biological determinism is a false binary. It overlooks the role played by culture.

Culture means ‘the total of the inherited ideas, beliefs, values, and knowledge, which constitute the shared basis of social action’.30 I am not suggesting there is or could be such a thing as a ‘racial’ culture. But it is hardly controversial to say that subsets of races — inhabiting particular places and shaped by a particular history — have distinctive cultural features. And of course, such a subset may be further divided by class. Might not some of these cultural configurations have consequences for socio-economic outcomes?

John Ogbu, a Nigerian-born American anthropologist, developed a cultural theory to explain the gap in educational attainment between black and white youths. He noted that African Americans are an ‘involuntary minority’, and argued that for that very reason an ‘oppositional culture’ had developed among black urban youth, basing itself on a rejection of the ‘mainstream’ values of their historic white oppressors. Ogbu noted that young black people would often stigmatise those of their peers who did well at school, accusing them of ‘acting white’. The influence of the theory has waxed and waned, but for a relatively recent and authoritative take on the question, we can turn to the eminent Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson. 31

Professor Patterson emphasises that it is wrong to speak of a single black American culture. In the urban ghetto, he finds no less than three classes, each with its own culture. These he calls ‘the ghetto middle class, the black working class, and the disconnected street people.’ Patterson’s marvellously sensitive and detailed account finds plenty to honour and celebrate in these cultures. He emphasises the power of mainstream values in the middle and working classes. But he does not mince words with regard to the negative character of the street culture. Citing a wealth of references, he describes it as ‘disconnected, socially alienated, and disproportionately delinquent’. With regard to its scale and impact, he tells us, ‘…although they constitute, on average, no more than a quarter of the population of the inner cities, their cultural configuration and behaviour create a virtual state of siege for all others who live in the ghetto.’ 32

In the case of the word ‘racism’, there is more than ordinary reason to be wary of illegitimate attempts to stretch the meaning

What does Patterson mean by ‘cultural configuration’? His point is that the street culture is not just confined to the street. Individuals often straddle cultures. Conversely, cultures may cross classes. Thus, the ‘street people’ are not just a separate class but also an unhealthy influence on the other classes, especially the working class. Patterson says, ‘Among the things African American working-class women pray hardest for is to be spared what haunts them (especially mothers) daily; the prospect of their children falling prey to the cultural configuration of the street.’ 33

Patterson lists various characteristics of the street configuration, and these include ‘surviving and living with pervasive violence, ‘hegemonic masculinity’, a ‘near nihilistic rejection of mainstream educational values, especially among those still at school’, and ‘identification with a threatening vision of blackness acknowledged as “thug life”…’ 34

If we are seeking a cause for unequal socio-economic outcomes between races, it would be absurd not to take the street configuration of urban black youth into account. Patterson does not deny the importance of structural factors — primarily poverty — in generating socio-economic disadvantage and crime. Indeed, it is a vital part of his message that the structural factors emphasised by other sociologists — the impoverished, overcrowded and quite literally toxic environment of the ghetto — constantly interact with cultural factors. The resulting patterns of behaviour are not statically fixed, but reproduce themselves through ‘dynamic stability’. In a nutshell, it is wrong to say of the problem that it is either ‘all structure’ or ‘all culture’.

Still, a reductive attribution of behaviour patterns simply to structural poverty does not work. Regarding the proletarian cultural configuration, Patterson notes important findings in relation to the importance of parenting relative to poverty:

Parenting strategies can make all the difference, not so much in whether their children make it to the middle class (very few do) but in whether they avoid the pitfalls of the ghetto…

…Regardless of economic background, youth whose parents transmitted more mainstream values and took a nontolerant view towards deviance ended up being more competent. 35

Antiracism and Buddhism

It is time to consider how Buddhists should make sense of the complex picture sketched above. I think there are seven perspectives that ought to shape our response to antiracism.

1. Racism is a View, not a Socio-Economic Outcome

Most people understand racism as a settled belief in the intrinsic superiority of one race over another, perhaps in intellect, moral character, vigour or some combination of all three. Dictionary definitions confirm this everyday view of the term. The key word here is ‘belief’: racism is essentially a mental phenomenon. This is how everyone understood racism until the concept of systemic racism took hold.

On this point, Buddhism is at one with common sense and the dictionary. Racism is only intelligible in Buddhist terms if it understood as a view (diṭṭhi). In other words, racism is intentional (in the wide philosophical sense of that word). We need to be on guard when anybody tries to extend the meaning of a word. In the case of the word ‘racism’, there is more than ordinary reason to be wary of illegitimate attempts to stretch the meaning. Nowadays, the word comes burdened with a stigma that can crush careers and poison reputations.

Antiracists define racism in a way that includes not just the view itself, but also — or even primarily — the supposed social and economic consequences of that view: namely, racial inequity, which may in fact have little or nothing to do with present racism. By the coining of the term ‘systemic racism’, the stigma-bearing category of ‘racism’ can be applied to the white majority as a group, regardless of the actual views of the millions of individuals who compose the group. This should be seen for what it is: a rhetorical sleight of hand, and indeed a slur, rather than a genuine insight.

2. Inequity in the light of Dependent Origination

What of antiracism’s claim that racial inequity is necessarily the result of racism — whether individual or systemic? To translate this claim into Buddhist terminology, we would have to frame it roughly as follows: ‘In dependence upon systemic racism arises racial inequity.’ But the oddity of such a formulation is obvious. In the various canonical examples of dependent origination, most links (nidāna) in the causal chains are robust because the result is by definition part of the cause, or because the result is something that can clearly be seen to depend on and emerge from the cause. 36Either way, the link is not only strong but also visible: its emergence out of the preceding link can be witnessed directly in experience.

But the arising of inequity cannot be witnessed directly. We cannot ‘know and see’ how inequity arises. Abstract generalisations about whole populations belong to the realm of opinion rather than of knowledge. As Ratnaguna has pointed out here in Apramada, there is nothing wrong with opinions as long as you remember that they are opinions, not knowledge. 37We can only have more or less well-founded opinions about the prevalence and power of racism.

The positing of a single cause is not consistent with a truly Buddhist understanding of how things arise

The idea that racial inequity arises in dependence upon systemic racism posits a single cause. But the positing of a single cause is not consistent with a truly Buddhist understanding of how things arise. In his recent exposition (here in Apramada) of A Survey of Buddhism, Vidyaruchi emphasises Sangharakshita’s teaching that ‘any link…in any causal chain will be the result of not one but many conditions — infinitely many in fact.’ 38 Likewise, in ‘The Path of Purification’, Buddhaghosha explains: ‘Here there is no single or multiple fruits of any kind from a single cause, nor a single fruit from multiple causes, but only multiple fruits from multiple causes.’

Buddhaghosha acknowledges that the Buddhist canon often appears to expound the arising of a single fruit from a single cause (as for example, in the arising of ‘formations’ (saṅkhāra) from ‘ignorance’ (avijja). Why? ‘For the Blessed One,’ Buddhaghosha tells us, ‘employs one representative cause and fruit when it is suitable for the sake of elegance in instruction and to suit the idiosyncrasies of those susceptible of being taught. And he does so in some instances because it is a basic factor, and in some instances because it is the most obvious, and in some instances because it is not common to all.’ 39

In the specific case of the relative socio-economic disadvantage of African Americans, one could plausibly argue that racism is the most basic and the most obvious cause of such inequalities, but to do so is to admit that there are other causes, and intellectual honesty would oblige us to identify other causal factors, and to weigh up their relative importance. The first step would be to distinguish between the after-effects of historical racism and the operative effects of present racism. The next would be to identify the other causes, both past and present, that contribute to disparate group outcomes. This is the necessary but exacting task that antiracism refuses to undertake.

3. Buddhism and Culture

I know of no word in the Buddhist lexicon that closely corresponds to ‘culture’, but all the elements that make up the concept of culture are present in Buddhist teaching. The whole aim of Buddhism is to inculcate certain ‘ideals, beliefs, values and knowledge’ — those that will lead individuals towards Enlightenment. Buddhism also recognises that these ideals etc. need to be ‘shared’, ‘transmitted’ and ‘reinforced’ (as the dictionary says is the nature of ‘culture’). The primary method of transmission is through spiritual friendship (kalyāṇa-mittatā ) though when Buddhism becomes established in a place, its values can also be transmitted through all the ordinary networks of human association, such as the family, the local community, and public institutions. In this way, they become ‘the shared basis of social action’.

While there might be many beliefs and values in a culture that are morally neutral, moral values are the only part of a culture that Buddhism is interested in. Buddhist ‘ideals, beliefs, values and knowledge’ concerning behaviour are crystallised in the five precepts or, more fully, in the ten precepts (kammapatha), and in virtues such as faith (saddhā) and patient forbearance (khanti).

Is it permissible to say that one culture is more or less moral than another? Nowadays, we hate making any such value judgements about whole groups. We know to our cost and shame where that can lead. Yet to be born in a land where the Dharma has arisen is a great good fortune, and the necessary corollary is that other lands are necessarily less fortunate. This point must immediately be qualified so as not to overstate the uniqueness of Buddhism. In terms of morality and virtue, there is much common ground between Buddhism and other universal religions. The Dharma may only be perfected in the Buddha-sāsana, but it is not confined to it. Other systems likewise teach us not to kill, not to take the property of others, to practise patient forbearance, and so on. The question to be asked of any culture is the extent to which these values prevail.

Anyone who has spent years living amid a foreign culture, as I have, knows that there are indeed differences in morality between cultures. But the differences cut both ways, with strengths and weaknesses on either side, making totalising comparisons between cultures very difficult, perhaps impossible. However, comparisons on specific points may be feasible. All the more so if one narrows the focus from the culture at large to specific subcultures. And what if one sets aside for a moment all censorious thoughts of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, and simply looks at the conditions on which certain types of behaviour arise?

Viewing the matter from this angle, why should any Buddhist deny that what Orlando Patterson calls the ‘street culture’ of the ‘disconnected’ black youth is terribly counterproductive in terms of socio-economic outcomes — undermining their education, wreaking havoc with their employment prospects, and propelling them into collision with the system of criminal justice?

4. Individual Moral Agency

For Buddhists, personal agency is absolutely central to individual human destiny. Human existence has its unique and precious status precisely because, more than any other, it allows agency, which we may define as the ability firstly to see (and foresee) the consequences of an action for good or ill, and secondly to preferentially choose good actions. The decisive factor in shaping the character of that agency is the presence or absence of the Dharma (understood as including more than Buddhism). And the Dharma is disseminated — or not disseminated — through culture.

For Buddhists, personal agency is absolutely central to individual human destiny

The antiracist view is very different. Ibram X Kendi, for example, recognises only racism as a cause of inequity. (More precisely, he recognises only a socio-economic structure created by the ‘conjoined twins’ of racism and capitalism.) Viewed from Kendi’s position, ‘the cultural configuration of the street’, with its ‘disconnected’ youth and high rates of violent crime, is seen simply one of the by-products of white racism. Kendi quite explicitly rejects the idea that anything in black culture might have anything to do with inequity. In his view, the only solution to the problem of inequity is ‘antiracist policies’, which will enforce the redistribution of wealth and power.

But Orlando Patterson’s work suggests that any such redistribution could only be beneficial if accompanied by a change in the cultural configuration. How might such a change be brought about? How can the portion of black youth that is ‘disconnected’ become connected? As Patterson points out, the disconnection reproduces itself in a process of dynamic stability: poverty generates bad choices, but bad choices perpetuate and aggravate the poverty. Those choices are made by individuals — a fact that should bring us back to the reality of agency and the power of the Dharma to turn that agency in the right direction.

A proper discussion of this conundrum would take up another article even longer than this one. For the present, we can be sure about this much: any view that emphasises socio-economic structure as causality, almost to the point of eliminating individual moral agency, is bound to be in tension with Buddhism. Yet this denial of individual agency is intrinsic to the ideological leg of systemic racism. Why then have some western Buddhists embraced the ideas and rhetoric of antiracism? The answer lies in the way that we understand compassion.

5. Compassion and Wisdom

Buddhism urges us to cultivate loving-kindness (mettā) and compassion (karuṇā) for all beings. It also speaks of sympathy (anukampā). For many Buddhists, East and West, this aspect of Buddhism is central. But compassion needs to be balanced with wisdom. Wisdom arises when we start ‘seeing things as they really are’. In the Enlightened mind, wisdom and compassion are inseparable: true wisdom is compassionate, and true compassion is wise. To emphasise one at the expense of the other is to risk misunderstanding both.

A lot of antiracist discourse appeals to our sympathy, and seeks to direct it towards the suffering of racial minorities. In practice, the tone of such discourse often excites outrage and guilt at least as much as compassion (Kendi’s work is a case in point). But even if a discourse stirs genuine sympathy for somebody’s suffering, that sympathy does not substantiate the causal explanation of the suffering offered by the discourse. Views about causes (such as theories of systemic racism or unconscious bias) should be subject to the same critical examination as any other type of view. In particular, Buddhists should be wary of complicated and tendentious ideological explanations of suffering, which are vitiated by exaggeration and falsehood. The fact that such views have become orthodox in many institutions and across swathes of the media should not cow us into accepting them.

Let me put this point in more technical Buddhist terms. Suffering is a feeling (vedanā). Physical painful feeling (dukkha) can usually be attributed to a physical cause. However, painful mental feeling (domanassa) is more complex. It is tied up with our interpretation (sañña) of our experience, and our habitual volitional response to it (saṅkhāra). Such interpretations and responses are often clouded by craving, aversion or ignorance.

Ideology may skew our interpretation of individual ‘lived experience’. It can make us misinterpret our own suffering. It can be even more dangerous in shaping our understanding of things beyond our direct experience, such as history or the lives of communities other than our own.

6. Extreme Views and Clinging

Political ideologies, whether of the left or the right, tend to be extreme views, offering simplistic and divisive accounts of society’s ills, playing on the distrust or resentment of one group for another. Buddhism warns us to be wary of extreme views, which tend both to spring from and to produce unwholesome mental states. We need the warning because we are naturally inclined to cling to views. They offer us a way of denying responsibility for our unskilful actions (or inaction). Buddhism explicitly identifies view as one of the potential objects of clinging. And clinging (upādāna) is what keeps us circling upon the endless round of rebirth and suffering.

We therefore need to ask whether antiracism as a view tends towards the Middle Way or towards an extreme. As I have tried to show, several things about antiracism are extreme: a sweeping cynicism about the motivation of white people, a one-sided view of history, a refusal to recognise progress away from racism, the manipulation of language, an unrealistic obsession with equity, and not least the denial of individual moral agency.

7. Amicable Dialogue

In various canonical discourses, the Buddha engages in courteous exchange with adherents of rival philosophies. The Buddha brings them round to his view with supreme dialectical skill. Sometimes he points out things that undermine his interlocutor’s position; sometimes he asks questions that bring them to acknowledge the incoherence of their own position. There are certain things the Buddha does not do in these discourses. For example, he does not stigmatise his interlocutors with slurs, or threaten to destroy their reputation, or try to ‘cancel’ them.

Equity — equal socio-economic outcomes for different ethnicities — does not feature in Buddhist teaching

Of course, some of these dialogues might have been devised in later times as instructional tools by disciples. Even so, they established for subsequent eras a model of amicable dialectic as the quintessential Buddhist method of discourse. Buddhism is tolerant of divergent opinions and does not seek to coerce others into acceptance of its teachings. It engages in vigorous reasoned debate, but does not seek to win by verbal coercion or manipulation.

Was the Buddha an Antiracist?

Nothing remains but to return to my original question. If we could travel back through two and a half millennia, and explain antiracism to the Buddha, what would he think of it?

Drawing political lessons for the modern world from the Buddhist canon is not easy. Society was very different at that time. Still, it is fair to say that equity — equal socio-economic outcomes for different ethnicities — does not feature in Buddhist teaching. We certainly find there a duty to relieve poverty — a duty that falls explicitly upon a ‘righteous king’ and perhaps by extension on others of great wealth. And this seems to be important because, in one canonical discourse, a general collapse into anarchy starts with the failure of a king to realise this duty. 40

On the other hand, the organisation of society into a hierarchy of classes is taken for granted at every turn. Individuals from any class may practise the Dharma and achieve ‘purification’, 41 but we do not find the idea that different groups as groups are (or should be made) ‘equal’. The householder is urged to treat his subordinates well and reward them properly, but is not required to share out his property equally among them. 42 In short, there is nothing in the Buddhist canon to support the radical social engineering of antiracist ideology.

Racism is best understood as an unwholesome and extreme view because it is associated with unskilful mental states such as hatred and conceit. The Buddha would no doubt have condemned it as such. But would he have accepted the extension of the meaning of the word required by antiracists such as Ibram X Kendi? Let us imagine the Buddha transported from ancient India to the present, and brought to a deep acquaintance with our complicated twenty-first century western world. I think that the Buddha, the supreme seer of things as they really are, would see the disparities in racial socio-economic outcomes as complex phenomena, not to be attributed to a single cause, especially if the putative cause were such a questionable conceptual artifact as ‘systemic racism’. He might also notice that some minority groups were actually achieving better average outcomes than those of the white majority.

The Buddha would also have no trouble grasping the role of past racism, especially in relation to the relative poverty and high crime rates among the black minority in the USA. But he would also understand — with patience and compassion — the role of cultural factors in perpetuating that socio-economic disadvantage even when its historical causes have vanished.

Not least, with his incomparable grasp of the fact of impermanence, the Buddha would notice that the situation of the races in 2022 has changed vastly from that in the period preceding 1863 (the date of the Emancipation Proclamation, which ended slavery), or in the period from then until 1964 (the date of the Civil Rights Act, which ended the Jim Crow era). He would see that while racism is by no means extinct, western white-majority societies, including even the USA, have in reality never been less racist than they are today.


  1. See for example G Thomas Burgess: Anti-Racist Structuralists and Non-Racist Culturalists (quillette.com)
  2. Ironically, antiracism’s domination of the broadcast media is even more complete in the UK than in the land of its birth.
  3. For a very insightful critique of how CRT entered the corporate world, dubbed ‘corporate woke’, see The Problem with the Diversity Dividend (quillette.com)
  4. The original such term, ‘institutional racism’ is now generally less favoured, perhaps because it seems insufficiently sweeping in its application. This is regrettable as it is the only one that might — in some cases — justify the use of the word ‘racism’.
  5. For a representative and well written summary of antiracist views on the injustices of the past, see Ta-Nehisi Coates, ‘ The Case for Reparations’, in The Atlantic, at: The Case for Reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates – The Atlantic
  6. ‘Redlining’ was the practice on the part of financial institutions providing mortgages and insurance of ‘drawing a red line’ around certain districts on maps of urban areas, and refusing to provide services relating to addresses in those areas. These areas were often largely inhabited by ethnic minorities.
  7. In a video interview, Patrisse Cullors, one of the founders of Black Lives Matter, describes herself and her co-founder Alicia Garza, as ‘fully trained Marxists’. The declared aim of BLM on its website is to overthrow ‘White Supremacy Capitalism’. In ‘How to be an Antiracist’, Ibram X Kendi describes racism and capitalism as ‘conjoined twins’.
  8. Ibram X kendi, ‘How to be an Antiracist’, published by Vintage (a division of Penguin/Random House), 2019.
  9. For example, Kendi (drawing on the work of legal scholar Mary L Dudziak), argues that the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960 was motivated less by a desire for genuine reform than by American imperialism: the government realised as early as 1946 that the global reputation of the US was harmed by mistreatment of racial minorities at home. This hampered the US in its efforts to fight communism internationally, and to establish its hegemony over decolonising nations in Africa and Asia. The general idea (i.e. that white elites only make changes in favour of equality when those changes also bring a benefit to themselves) originated with Derrick Bell, one of the founders of Critical Race Theory. Bell called this the principle of ‘interest convergence’. See Bell’s article: ‘Brown v. Board of Education and the Interest Convergence Dilemma’, republished in Crenshaw et al. (eds), ‘Critical Race Theory: the key writings that formed the movement’, The New Press (1995).
  10. Ibram X Kendi, for example (in ‘How to be an Antiracist’) equivocally acknowledges some ‘antiracist progress’ (‘away from chattel slavery and Jim Crow’), only to balance it against ‘racist progress’ (‘advancing police violence…voter suppression…widening racial inequalities in areas ranging from health to wealth’).
  11. Poverty Rates for Blacks and Hispanics Reached Historic Lows in 2019 (census.gov)
  12. Ibram X Kendi, ‘How to be an Antiracist’, p.20
  13. A well-known case is that of Bret Weinstein at Evergreen College. An account of this and other cases can be found in chapter 3 (‘Race’) of Douglas Murray, The Madness of Crowds, Bloomsbury (2019)
  14. Kalwant Bhopal, White Privilege: The Myth of a Post-Racial Society, Policy Press (2017) p.5
  15. Ibram X Kendi, ‘How to be an Antiracist’, p.17
  16. Homeownership Rate By Age: Facts, Figures, & Trends (ipropertymanagement.com)
  17. Most common age of whites in U.S. is 58. For minorities, it’s 27 | Pew Research Center
  18. See data from the Federal Reserve at The Fed – Disparities in Wealth by Race and Ethnicity in the 2019 Survey of Consumer Finances (federalreserve.gov)
  19. [In 2014 (the year cited by Kendi), the home ownership rate for married couples in the USA was 80.3%. But for males and females with ‘no spouse present’ the rates were much lower, at 54.5% and 46.2% respectively. See Homeownership rate in the U.S. by family status 2018 | Statista
  20. The Growing Racial and Ethnic Divide in U.S. Marriage Patterns (nih.gov)
  21. Ibid. See the graph for ‘Percentage of US Women Aged 40-44 Years Who Had Ever Married, by Year, Race and Ethnicity’. The trend of decline began in 1950, but accelerated sharply from 1970 and again from 1990.
  22. Median household income by race or ethnic group 2020 | Statista See also historic census data at fig01_2018 (census.gov) Readers in the UK should note that in the USA, the category ‘Asian’ comprises mostly people of East Asian descent.
  23. See Joel Gilbert’s film ‘The Trayvon Hoax’ and the accompanying book of the same name. Gilbert’s track record as a documentary maker is controversial, but in a conversation available online, Glenn Loury and John McWhorter, two distinguished black scholars and critics of antiracism, find Gilbert’s investigations of the Trayvon Martin case thorough and his conclusions credible. See their conversation at Revisiting the Trayvon Martin Case | Glenn Loury & John McWhorter [The Glenn Show] – YouTube
  24. See note xxix below
  25. Among influential writings on this idea, one might point to Thomas Piketty’s ‘Capital in the Twenty First Century’, or Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s ‘The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone’.
  26. Resisting the Tyranny of the Tribe – Apramada
  27. 2020 report by the Brookings Institution. The black share of the middle class (defined as the middle 60% of the income distribution) has grown from 9% in 1979 to 12% in 2019. It therefore now nearly matches the black share of the population as a whole (13%) The middle class is already racially diverse (brookings.edu)
  28. Wikipedia: ‘Black Billionaires’ (citing data from Forbes Magazine)
  29. Orlando Patterson: lecture at Case Western Reserve University, 14 Sep. 2016, available at What Have We Learned About Culture, Disadvantage and Black Youth? – YouTube See the slide at 46.67. About 31% of white youth blame white people, as against only 16% of black youth.
  30. Collins English Dictionary, 6th edition, 2003.
  31. The following account draws on Orlando Patterson’s The Social and Cultural Matrix of Black Youth, published as Chapter 2 in Orlando Patterson with Ethan Fosse (Eds), The Cultural Matrix: Understanding Black Youth, Harvard University Press, 2016.
  32. Ibid. p.78
  33. Ibid. p.78
  34. Ibid. p.78
  35. Ibid. p.66
  36. An example of the former is the dependence of the sixfold sense base upon mind and body (the senses are aspects of mind and body). An example of the latter would be the arising of craving in dependence upon feeling (a universal experience nobody could sanely deny).
  37. In Praise of Uncertainty – Apramada
  38. See The Transcendental Principle and Dyads of the Understanding, Apramada website, posted 18 Feb. 2022.
  39. Chapter xviii, verses 105-107, Bhadantacariya Buddhagosa, The Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga), translated from the Pali by Bhikkhu Nyanamoli, Shambhala (1976)
  40. Cakkavatti-Sihanada Sutta, DN 26.
  41. Assalayana Sutta, MN 93.
  42. Sigalaka Sutta, DN 31.

Subhamati has been a member of Triratna Buddhist Order for thirty-one years. He has led a varied career as a university administrator, a language teacher, and a teacher of meditation and Buddhism. He has worked as an editor or co-author (with Dharmachari Subhuti) on several books, including Buddhism and Friendship and Mind in Harmony: the psychology of Buddhist ethics.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

More by this author

Many people, including some Buddhists, now believe that black lives are 'systematically and intentionally targeted for demise' by the police. In the second instalment of 'An Immoral Panic', Subhamati examines the evidence.
Posted in: Politics
An Immoral Panic
An investigation into truth, delusion, justice and race in the USA
Posted in: Politics


Is unconscious bias training free from bias?
In this article - the first of a three part series - Ratnaguna examines the nature of tribe.
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x


Subscribe to Apramada. You’ll receive an email when new content is published.