6. Sartre on Racism

It is a great misfortune and embarrassment that the history of Western philosophy has little to say about why racism—the belief that different races have different qualities and abilities, and that some races are inherently superior or inferior—occurs.  One of the few exceptions is Jean-Paul Sartre’s (1905-1980) Anti-Semite and Jew: An Exploration of the Etiology of Hate, written in 1946 (see the Schocken 1995 reissue). In this work, Sartre uses some of the central ideas in his existential philosophy to illuminate a central cause of racism and certain inadequate ways of dealing with it. Let’s begin with an overview of some of these central ideas.

In his work Being and Nothingness Sartre describes two fundamental types of beings in the world:

  • The “in-itself” is the kind of being that is what it is: it has no possibilities, no consciousness, no choice, and no sense of time.  A stone is simply a stone and it has no sense of emptiness, experiences no lack, and is full. All objects fall into the category of the in-itself.
  • The “for-itself” is the kind of being that is what it is not and is not what it is. This means the for-itself can define itself by what it is not yet: a student sees herself as what she is not yet—a graduate—and acts in accordance with that projection of possibility (i.e., is what it is not).  Moreover, at any moment the for-itself can say “I am not what I currently am” and move beyond present facts and circumstances by negating them (i.e., is not what it is). Sartre thinks consciousness is a power of negation, of nothingness, that allows a for-itself to freely make choices and give meaning to an otherwise meaningless world of objects.

Sartre then introduces two other terms that help clarify the dynamics of the for-itself, namely, “facticity” and “transcendence”:

  • Facticity represents all those facts we need to face about ourselves: where we were born, our color, our gender, our race, acts committed, etc.  In general, facticity is our past. To deny facticty is to remove a necessary condition for freedom.  Freedom is not abstract and indifferent; it is always freedom from something to something.
  • Transcendence represents our ability to not be reduced to our facticty.  We can give new direction and meaning to past events.  We can, as conscious beings haunted by possibilities, see ourselves differently and choose new courses of action not determined by the past. So transcendence is future-oriented. To deny our ability to transcend is also to remove a necessary condition for freedom.

We can begin to approach racism by noting that Sartre, following an insight from Soren Kierkegaard in his Concept of Anxiety (1844), claims that humans typically try to escape freedom because of the anxiety it causes. It is overwhelming to face all the possibilities that bubble up and threaten the so-called solid obligations, practices, and beliefs that make up ones facticity.  Indeed, existential anxiety differs from fear insofar as it is not directed toward a fearful object but towards the very notion of being able to do something else. But the trouble doesn’t stop with transcendence: for it is obviously painful to take responsibility for one’s facticity as well.  We conveniently forget deeds we are ashamed of and we are happy to stress the good and overlook the bad in ourselves. Taken together, this gives us a formula for what Sartre calls “bad faith” or any attempt to escape existential freedom:

  • “Bad faith” occurs when we seek to run into total transcendence and deny facticity OR when we seek to reduce ourselves to our facticity and deny that we can transcend.

The strategies of bad faith cannot succeed since freedom through transcendence is integral to the human condition. But we can choose to act more authentically or, in Sartre’s terms, in “good faith”:

  • Authentic action or action in “good faith” occurs when we accept facts AND we don’t reduce ourselves to facts: we take responsibility for the past and accept that as free beings we can transcend into a new futures with new possibilities.  

How does the above analysis relate to racism?  Well, Sartre argues that racists are in bad faith since they attempt to reduce both themselves and others to beings with no transcendence. They seek to see themselves as having a fixed essence of some sort, some essential nature that entitles them to a job, power, wealth, land, prestige, etc.  They fear change (often socio-economic and cultural) and the anxiety that a free person’s reaction to change brings.  So they seek to deny their freedom by reducing themselves to beings—really objects, the in-itself—with a superior nature set in stone. However, in order to maintain this image of a fixed superior nature, they need to create a being that is inferior by nature.  So they need to see some other group or groups as beings with no transcendence as well.  For example, the anti-Semite sees Jews with a fixed inferior essence and thereby tries to reduce Jews to the in-itself.  Consider these powerful passages from Anti-Semite and Jew

“Many anti-Semites—the majority, perhaps—belong to the lower middle class of the towns; they are functionaries, office workers, small businessmen, who possess nothing. It is in opposing themselves to the Jew that they suddenly become conscious of being proprietors: in representing the Jew as a robber, they put themselves in the enviable position of people who could be robbed. Since the Jew wishes to take France from them, it follows that France must belong to them.  Thus they have chosen anti-Semitism as a means of establishing their status as possessors.  The Jew has more money than they?  So much the better: money is Jewish, and they can despise it as they despise intelligence….Thus I would call anti-Semitism a poor man’s snobbery. And in fact it would appear that the rich for the most part exploit this passion for their own uses rather than abandon themselves to it—they have better things to do. It is propagated mainly among the middle classes, because they possess neither land, nor house, nor castle, having only some ready cash and a few securities in the bank….Anti-Semitism is not merely the joy of hating; it brings positive pleasures too. By treating the Jew as an inferior and pernicious being, I affirm at the same time that I belong to the elite. This elite, in contrast to those of modern times which are based on merit or labor, closely resembles an aristocracy of birth. There is nothing I have to do to merit my superiority, and neither can I lose it. It is given once and for all.  It is a thing. We must not confuse this precedence the anti-Semite enjoys by virtue of his principles with individual merit. The anti-Semite is not too anxious to possess individual merit. Merit has to be sought, like truth; it is discovered with difficulty; one must deserve it. Once acquired, it is perpetually in question: a false step, an error, and it flies away. Without respite, from the beginning of our lives to the end, we are responsible for what merit we enjoy. Now the anti-Semite flees responsibility as he flees his own consciousness, and choosing for his personality the permanence of rock, he chooses for his morality a scale of petrified values.  Whatever he does, he knows he will remain at the top of the ladder; what ever the Jew does, he will never get any higher than the first rung. We begin to perceive the meaning of the anti-Semite’s choice of himself.  He chooses the irremediable out of fear of being free; he chooses mediocrity out of fear of being alone, and out of pride he makes of this irremediable mediocrity a rigid aristocracy. To this end he finds the existence of the Jew absolutely necessary. Otherwise to whom would he be superior?” (25-28)

Thus Sartre claims “the anti-Semite is in the unhappy position of having a vital need for the very enemy he wishes to destroy” (28).  Anti-Semitism is essentially a self-defeating position born out of a fear of freedom. In Being and Nothingness Sartre discusses the self-defeating strategy of sadism and masochism. He points out that the masochist wants to be an in-itself, an object, but tragically wants to know himself as an object.  But such knowledge would imply that he be a for-itself and an in-itself at the same time—a contradictory task which is impossible. Similarly, the sadist seeks to possess another’s freedom by reducing this other to a mere object.  But he also wants the person so reduced to be aware of their humiliated state.  But this is yet another absurd attempt to make a for-itself into an in-itself at the same time.  So racists are sadists insofar as they are trying to reduce others to things with a fixed inferior essence.  And, since they want to see themselves as things with a fixed essence, they are also masochistic.  Both strategies are considered evil by Sartre insofar as they freely seek to destroy freedom; and both, as we have said, are self-defeating, doomed efforts to escape inescapable freedom.

Consider one more powerful passage that links his analysis to other forms of racism:

“We are now in a position to understand the anti-Semite.  He is a man who is afraid.  Not of the Jews, to be sure, but of himself, his own consciousness, of his liberty, of his instincts, of his responsibilities, of solitariness, of change, of society, and of the world—of everything except the Jews. He is a coward who does not want to admit his cowardice to himself; a murderer who represses and censures his tendency to murder without being able to hold it back, yet who dares to kill only in effigy or protected by the anonymity of the mob; a malcontent who dares not revolt from fear of the consequences of rebellion.  In espousing anti-Semitism, he does not simply adopt an opinion, he chooses himself as a person.  He chooses the permanence and impenetrability of stone, the total irresponsibility of the warrior who obeys his leaders—and he has no leader. He chooses to acquire nothing, to deserve nothing; he assumes that everything is given him as his birthright—and he is not noble. He chooses finally a Good that is fixed once and for all, beyond question, out of reach; he dares not examine it for fear of being led to challenge it and having to seek it in another form. The Jew only serves him as a pretext; elsewhere his counterpart will make use of the Negro or the man with yellow skin. The existence of the Jew merely permits the anti-Semite to stifle his anxieties at their inception by persuading himself that his place in the world has been marked out in advance, that it awaits him, and that tradition gives him the right to occupy it. Anti-Semitism, in short, is fear of the human condition.  The anti-Semite is a man who wishes to be a pitiless stone, a furious torrent, a devastating thunderbolt—anything except a man.” (53-54)

Now it is crucial to see that it is also self-defeating to try and run into transcendence by denying facticity. Sartre notes that certain reformer Jews may try and leave their traditions aside in order to become rational citizens of the world. Consider this passage:

“Recall the portrait of the philosopher that Plato sketches in the Phaedo: how the awakening to reason is for him death to the body, to particularities of character; how the disembodied philosopher, pure lover of abstract and universal truth, loses all his individual traits in order to become a universal look of inquiry.  It is precisely this sort of disincarnation that certain Jews seek.  The best way to feel oneself no longer a Jew is to reason, for reasoning is valid for all and can be retraced by all. There is not a Jewish way of mathematics; the Jewish mathematician becomes a universal man when he reasons.  And the anti-Semite who follows his reasoning becomes his brother, despite his own resistance. Thus the rationalism to which the Jew adheres so passionately is first of all an exercise in asceticism and of purification, an escape into the universal.” (111-112)

This clearly relates to many who, however well-meaning they may be, seek to eradicate racism by advocating color blindness or race blindness. This solves nothing since it denies facticity in its call to see everyone as human beings, children of God, persons with dignity, etc. Rather than grasping the important facts about the differences we share, differences which must be honestly faced if progress is to occur, this approach seeks to annihilate those differences. As such, it is an inauthentic response to racism which is bound to perpetuate the very oppression it seeks to eradicate. Again, we don’t want to go to the other extreme and reduce ourselves and others to facticity. The goal will be to acknowledge facticity and recognize that we can all transcend. 

To conclude, we see that Sartre’s perceptive account of anti-Semitism can be generalized and allows us to see that an authentic and genuinely free response to racism of all kinds requires: (1) an effort to avoid reducing others and ourselves to mere facticity with no transcendence and (2) an effort to avoid denying the facticity of ourselves and others by proposing we see everyone through the lens of transcendence alone. 

Go here for some notes on Sartre’s existentialism.

Go here for my overview of Soren Kierkegaard’s philosophy.

  1. Camilo on

    I couldn’t agree more. Great conversion of using Satre work as a lexicon for a compelling argument.

  2. Vanessa on

    Thank you very much! My Existentialism teacher failed to discuss these topics in class/in general, yet we have questions in regard to racism on our final. Welcome to college kids!

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