Ayn Rand on Racism

The cover of a pulp magazine, FAMOUS FANTASTIC STORIES listing Ayn Rand's Anthem on the cover.

I’ve been purposefully avoiding discussing Ayn Rand on this blog. The reasons are entirely personal. I, like many of you I’m betting, had too many pointless discussions with Rand devotees when I was in my twenties. Like arguing with a three-year old, it was all very tiresome. Still, some of those emotionally and intellectually stunted Rand devotees are now ruining the country for us all. But, it is a New Year and all, so I decided to start things off by holding my nose and discussing Rand. Hold your nose if you must.

My topic is Rand’s 1963 essay on “Racism” which is often held up as proof that libertarians can’t be racists! This is usually accomplished by taking some choice quotations from the essay, most often the opening paragraph:

Racism is the lowest, most crudely primitive form of collectivism. It is the notion of ascribing moral, social or political significance to a man’s genetic lineage—the notion that a man’s intellectual and characterological traits are produced and transmitted by his internal body chemistry. Which means, in practice, that a man is to be judged, not by his own character and actions, but by the characters and actions of a collective of ancestors.

Strong stuff! Rand has never been criticized for being insufficiently provocative. Reading the rest of the essay, however, shows how deeply flawed Rand’s thinking about racism was.

Rand Defined “Racism” Incorrectly

People bowing down to a pig walking on two legs with a walking stick and fancy hat.

The basic thrust of Rand’s notion of racism is that it grants to a “man” a status “he” has not earned. If you have to claim status because of the accomplishments of your “race” that means you probably haven’t earned anything as an individual. She wrote, “To ascribe one’s virtues to one’s racial origin, is to confess that one has no knowledge of the process by which virtues are acquired and, most often, that one has failed to acquire them.” Good point.

Beyond this sentiment, however, trying to pin her down on just what exactly she means by “racism” proves more difficult. Early in the essay she claimed:

Racism claims that the content of a man’s mind (not his cognitive apparatus, but its content) is inherited; that a man’s convictions, values and character are determined before he is born, by physical forces beyond his control. This is the caveman’s version of the doctrine of innate ideas—or of inherited knowledge—which has been thoroughly refuted by philosophy and science.

This definition is extremely idiosyncratic and did not reflect any common understanding of racism prevalent in 1963. Rand’s distinguishes the content of the mind from the capacity (“cognitive apparatus”) of the mind. Rand appears to be saying that it would NOT be racist to say, “Black people are better at singing and dancing than white people” because that is a mere statement about the musical capacity of each race. To be racist you would have to say something like: “Black people are born with Suwanee River hardwired into their brains.” (My example here is discussed by anthropologist Alfred Kroeber in 1923.)

It is certainly true that one could find the occasional racist in Rand’s time that held that the actual content of the brain results from one’s racial ancestry. Earnest Sevier Cox’s belief that the Constitution and democracy are biological products of Anglo-Saxon heritage is one. But the far more common racist position was, and is, the one that Rand rules out: the “cognitive apparatus” of races are different. Psychologist Henry E. Garrett was the most outspoken advocate for the idea that racial segregation was justified because the cognitive apparatus of black people just was not equal to white people. He testified in many court cases and in front of Congress to this “fact.” Yet, such testimony was not racist by Rand’s definition because it only concerned the capacity of a mind, not its content. Like Gary Becker’s definition of discrimination, Rand’s definition of racism showed no knowledge of how racists argued or defended the racist social order.

Rand Was Hypocritical Regarding Racism

Rand’s essay is marked by its condemnation of Jim Crow. “The persecution of Negroes in the South was and is truly disgraceful” she wrote:

The policy of the Southern states toward Negroes was and is a shameful contradiction of this country’s basic principles. Racial discrimination, imposed and enforced by law, is so blatantly inexcusable an infringement of individual rights that the racist statutes of the South should have been declared unconstitutional long ago.

Before we get all excited by Rand’s condemnation, let’s ask a simple question: Where was she during the fight to destroy Jim Crow? What contribution did the queen of individualism make against the South’s “shameful contradiction of this country’s basic principles”? Where are her powerful essays and arguments against things like the white primary, Little Rock, and the Montgomery bus boycott? Where are her condemnations of the murders of Emmett Till or Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney? When a riot broke out at Ole Miss because of the admission of a black man, James Meredith, or when George Wallace stood at the schoolhouse door to preserve “segregation forever!” where was Ayn Rand?

She was sitting in her Manhattan apartment, holding court with her sycophantic groupies who thought every word she uttered was gospel. While the deeply religious socialist Martin Luther King, Jr. was putting his body on the line and leading a movement against Jim Crow, Rand was chain smoking cigarettes and churning out novels that glorified genocidal sociopaths. I say this without reading every word of Rand’s oeuvre, but when you visit the websites of Rand fans and see what they post about Her Words regarding racism pretty much the only thing that turns up are the juicy quotations from the 1963 essay I am discussing here. We don’t have to guess why, after all this time, Rand finally writes about racism. It is the imminent danger of “racial quotas:”

Instead of fighting against racial discrimination, [racial minorities] are demanding that racial discrimination be legalized and enforced. Instead of fighting against racism, they are demanding the establishment of racial quotas. Instead of fighting for “color-blindness” in social and economic issues, they are proclaiming that “color-blindness” is evil and that “color” should be made a primary consideration. Instead of fighting for equal rights, they are demanding special race privileges.

Rand was objecting to what later came to be called “affirmative action.” She specifically points to quotas in university admissions and employment which, up until about that time had been used to exclude, for example, Jews from Ivy League institutions. No doubt, such restrictive quotas were unjust. Rand, however, claims that such “Racial quotas have been one of the worst evils of racist regimes.” Well, forgive me, but perhaps such quotas do not rank up there with the Holocaust, racialized American slavery, or the Tulsa massacre. And, of course, if they are as bad as such horrific events, as Rand believed, why did she not discuss such things until 1963? Because, not until 1963, were such “racial quotas” used against white supremacy instead of in service to white supremacy. Like nearly every other libertarian, they were silent on racial issues until the nation moved to pass the Civil Rights Act in the early 1960s. It was only then when libertarians, including Rand, had a new-found recognition of the importance of racial justice. Only when white folks were “endangered” by affirmative action, did libertarians start complaining about what they perceived as racism.

Rand’s Philosophy Was Inegalitarian

A fat rich man pointing an accusing figure at a starving poor man.

Rand’s essay typifies two problems we have encountered before in this space. First, that the thing that united (and unites) right wing thinking is its commitment to inegalitarianism: right wing thought simply rejects equality as an important value or embraces inequality as a positive good. Second, that the libertarian reduction of all rights to property rights makes them unable to adequately respond to white supremacy. Both of these aspects of Rand’s thinking are evident in her essay and in some of her subsequent writings.

For someone who claimed to reject any thinking of “groups” as dangerous “collectivism,” Rand was happy to contrast “the poor white trash” with “their intellectual betters.” She also indulged in some dime-store anthropology and wrote of “tribal warfare of prehistorical savages.” Such judgments were not aberrations from Rand’s philosophy of individualism and property rights, they were products of it. Her ignorant statements about the relation of capitalism and racism, which mirrored those of Milton Friedman, were the products of a fanciful history; the way libertarians wished the past was rather than the way it actually was. Rand, however, was happy to endorse not only the fictional genocide of John Galt of Atlas Shrugged but the actual genocide of those who simply did not understand that property was the only basis of their rights.

Remember how European settlers destroyed the lives and cultures of American Indians on the basis of Lockean notions of property rights? Since they claimed (falsely in many cases, it turns out) that American Indians had not “mixed” their labor with the land, American Indians had no rights to the land and could be moved out. In 1974, Rand fully endorsed the this view: “The Indians did not have any property rights — they didn’t have the concept of property,” she said, “they didn’t have any rights to the land.” So, too bad for the weak who inevitably die at the hands of Rand’s Galt-like conquerers. This was the result of her own philosophy and she was happy to admit as such. The same view informed Rand’s views of the Middle East:

The Arabs are one of the least developed cultures. They are typically nomads. Their culture is primitive, and they resent Israel because it’s the sole beachhead of modern science and civilization on their continent. When you have civilized men fighting savages, you support the civilized men, no matter who they are.

Rand wrote one essay (to my knowledge) speaking out against racism. But her anti-racism was more concerned with attempts to ameliorate past racism than racist actions themselves. Her property-based individualism was not only completely inadequate to deal with racism, but led her to actively endorse racist actions. She actually believed that the world was the world she created in her potboiler novels. The tragic thing is, many people, including people in power, believe that too.

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One thought on “Ayn Rand on Racism

  1. Pingback: Objectified Inegalitarian Objectivism | Head Space

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