Will the Real Tolerant Racist Please Stand Up?



One of the most perplexing paradoxes of toleration concerns the ‘tolerant racist’. According to most current definitions of toleration, a person is considered tolerant if, and only if, 1) he refrains from interfering with something 2) he deeply disapproves of, 3) in spite of having the power to interfere. Hence, a racist who refrains from discriminating against members of races he considers inferior despite having the power to do so, should be considered a tolerant person. Moreover, a person can apparently become more tolerant by increasing the range or degree of his racist disapproval, just as long as he continues not to act against the objectionable object.

This paper examines this strongly counterintuitive implication of the standard concept of toleration, by considering in full the meaning and nature of racism(s) and focusing on the power component of toleration. It explores both an exclusive solution and an accommodating solution to the paradox. The first part of the paper shows that none of the standard agent-oriented views of racism — doxastic, dispositional or volitional — adequately supports either solution. The second part of the paper turns to another, structural account of racism and toleration. It suggests that taking into account an institutional interpretation of toleration as non-domination and adopting a more socio-political perspective on racism provides an accommodating solution to the paradox.