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It doesn't matter if you're a racist

A couple of years ago I was asked to write a summary and response to two lectures about implicit bias, whose main questions boiled down to these - does having implicit racial bias make you a racist? And if your unconscious bias lies behind you doing something harmful, are you morally responsible for it? My blogged reply, as politely as I could, said: who cares? Professor Neal Levy, in turn, responded with a blank stare: well, of course it matters if people are racist.

That blank stare, with a healthy dollop of indignation, lies behind Nick Timothy's defence of the flagrantly anti-Semitic cover story in the Telegraph today. The story is that George Soros has been helping to fund an anti-Brexit pressure group. That was already well-known, and painting it as shadowy puppet-mastery is - at the very least - an awkwardly snug fit with the Jew-baiting smear campaigns against Soros in Hungary and Poland. But, Nick Timothy and his allies say, the story can't be anti-Semitic: he is a "consistent friend of Israel".

Of course there are the obvious problems with this kind of conflation of Jews and Israel, and that it's perfectly possible to have any combination of different attitudes to the two. (Have we so quickly forgotten Steve Bannon?) Even without those, though, this is a textbook example of a particular kind of gentlemen's politics obstructing any serious interrogation of racial prejudice and how it spreads.

Nick Timothy, we are angrily assured, is not a racist, and so his views can't be the views of a racist. The unhappy question that leaves is what it would take to show that he (or anyone) is, if it's out of the question that any of his views could be racist. The answer in practice seems to be to carve out some symbolic boundaries - dogs and firehoses, the n-word - and temporarily suspend people who cross them, like Anne Marie Morris did last year. This trick lets you hide the actual effect of this way of thinking about racism, which is that anyone who's broadly regarded as a good chap (and maybe has some black friends!) can say more or less anything without consequence, protected by the strength of that character reference.

Taking the research on implicit bias seriously makes it clear that just about everyone has some racial prejudices. Litigating who has the most, and how serious yours need to be before you count as 'a racist', is plainly a waste of time and intellectual effort. Racism is not primarily a sin that takes place in your soul; your actions don't get laundered by the claim that you're pure at heart. It's no comfort to George Soros, or Jewish people in the UK, that Nick Timothy didn't mean to spread prejudiced old caricatures of them, or that he harboured no personal animus to them as he did so.

What matters is the action, and the people affected by it. There are lots of racist actions and sources of racial disadvantage, in the UK and everywhere; not all of them are done by uncomplicated racists, and some of them are so deeply embedded that they're not really 'done' by anyone in particular at all. Trying to peer into someone's heart of hearts is an endeavour that could seem worthwhile only to someone more interested in figuring out whether it's still alright to invite them to a dinner party than in thinking seriously about how prejudice spreads and gets entrenched.