Law in Contemporary Society

Is Familyism Any Different Than Racism?

-- By JeffreySchatz - 15 Apr 2010

A pair of conversations

Imagined Interview with a white supremacist

Interviewer (I): What does it mean for you to be a racist?

White Supremacist (WS): It means I think whites are better than blacks.

I: In what way?

WS: In every way. . . we’re smarter, kinder, you name it.

I: But do you really think that every white person is smarter and nicer than every black person?

WS: It’s true on average, but there are exceptions to every rule.

I: So you acknowledge that there are at least some black people who are just as smart and nice as white people.

WS: Sure, there are always exceptions. There are also dumb white people. But, on average, whites are better in these ways.

I: So you don’t have a problem with these black people?

WS: Which black people?

I: The ones who you think are just as smart and nice as whites.

WS: Of course I still have a problem with them! They’re black.

I: But they’re just as good as whites in all the ways you mentioned: intelligence, kindness--

WS: But that doesn’t matter.

I: But just before you were saying that these were the reasons whites are better than blacks.

WS: No, there are other reasons too.

I: Like what?

WS: Whites are just better than blacks.

I: Better at what?

WS: Just better. Like good is better than evil. They’re just better.

And between a parent and child

Child (C): But why not?

Parent (M): I’m not just going to go and buy her a bike.

C: But you bought me a bike.

P: Yes, because you’re my child.

C: So? She needs one too.

P: But you’re my child and she’s not. Parents don’t buy bikes for other peoples’ children.

C: But her parents can’t afford to. I told you this already.

P: It’s just not the same. She’s not part of our family.

C: So she’s worse because she’s not part of our family?

P: Not worse. There’s just a different relationship. When someone is part of your family you do things for them that you wouldn’t do for other people.

C: But I still don’t get why. She’s smarter than me, she runs faster. A lot of people even think she’s nicer.

P: None of that’s true.

C: If it was, and I could prove it, would you buy her a bike?

P: No, it’s not about that. You just have to treat family members in a different way than you treat others. It’s just the way things work. I can’t explain it. You’ll understand when you have children.

Value Groups

The above conversations are not exactly the same, but they do share a key feature. Both situations involve an individual who places different values on people based on whether or not they are members of the individual’s group. Both the parent and the white supremacist have constructed a value group, a group whose members the individual values more highly than those outside the group.

Is there any real difference between a value group based on kinship and one based on race? Both racism and familyism involve prioritizing those within your group over those outside of it for no reason other than the simple fact that they are in your group. However, we view racism as "bad" and familyism as "good." While the effects of racism are arguably more detrimental to society, the underlying principles of both are similar, and praising one while condemning the other is fundamentally inconsistent.


Racism has served as a motivation for violence, genocide and war. This is not true for familyism, which generally manifests itself in non-confrontational and non-violent ways. Additionally, familyism arguably has some benefits. It could be difficult for children to survive to adulthood if their parents didn’t give them special treatment. More importantly, the interaction between different family members and expressions of love is a source of great joy. It would be difficult to argue that racism either saves lives or creates happiness for the vast majority.

But, familyism carries some negative consequences too. Families devote more resources to their members than to other individuals, leading to a disparity of wealth between different family units. Parents may, and often do, use their income to help their own child go to college or buy a car rather than help another’s child eat. While there is some distribution of wealth within the family unit and beyond to extended family members that would not be gained in a more individualistic society, the mitigatory effect is still limited.


However, as a society, we do not abhor racism solely because of its negative effects. Rather, we view any value judgments based on race to be fundamentally wrong within themselves. When Dr. King hoped that his children would “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” he was asserting that people should not be valued based on the groups they are in, but as individuals. This principle is not correct just because Dr. King said it, but because it actually makes sense. To judge someone by the group they were accidentally born into cannot be logically justified, and it hinders the development of a united society by slicing it up into differentiated sections. Avoiding these kind of value judgments is a good idea, but the familyist engages in them just as much as the racist does.


Webs Webs

r10 - 13 Jan 2012 - 23:34:26 - IanSullivan
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