Acceptable racism?

The president of Brasil, Lula da Silva, at a joint press conference on the 27th of March 2009 with Gordon Brown, the UK prime minister, made the following statement: “This crisis was caused by the irrational behaviour of white people with blue eyes, who before the crisis appeared to know everything and now demonstrate that they know nothing.”

That statement is not merely ignorant and stupid.  That statement is racist.  As a white person with blue eyes, I am offended by it.  I am waiting for Mr. Lula da Silva’s apology to the entire population of white people with blue eyes.

Having a white skin and blue eyes is clearly not necessary for causing the crisis.  I am sure Citi CEO Vikram Pandit wants to claim at least some of the credit for the crisis.  His predecessor, Chuck Prince is white but does not have blue eyes.  He was named by Fortune Magazine In 2008 as one of eight economic leaders “who didn’t [see] the crisis coming”, and identified in January 2009 by Guardian City editor Julia Finch as one of twenty five people who were at the heart of the financial meltdown.  He also made the famous statement in July 2007 that : “When the music stops, in terms of liquidity, things will be complicated. But as long as the music is playing, you’ve got to get up and dance. We’re still dancing”.  E. Stanley O’Neal, the former chairman, president and chief executive officer of Merrill Lynch, is an African American (I don’t know his eye colour).

Having a white skin and blue eyes is clearly not sufficient for causing the crisis or contributing to it.  I will spare the readers of this blog the list of names of white people with blue eyes who did not cause this crisis.

President Lula da Silva may want to defend his racist remark by noting that white people with blue eyes were disproportionately represented among those who caused the crisis or contributed to it.  He would no doubt be right.  He also would be advised to take an introductory course on the distinction between statistical correlation/association and causation. Concepts like spurious correlation, omitted variables (wealth, class, education, gender to name but four of the most obvious ones), and common third factors driving a statistical association between two variables, would represent a welcome addition to the intellectual capital of the Brazilian president.

President Lula da Silva’s statement is an example of inappropriate racial profiling.  Wikipedia defines racial profiling as “the inclusion of racial or ethnic characteristics in determining whether a person is considered likely to commit a particular type of crime or an illegal act or to behave in a “predictable” manner.”

For the would-be defenders of president Lula da Silva, let me be clear about what I mean by racism.  I again use a definition drawn from Wikipedia: Racism, by its simplest definition is the belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race. People with racist beliefs exhibit stereotype-based prejudices towards individuals and groups of people according to their race.”

Note that I am condemning the sin, not the sinner.  I am not saying the president Lula da Silva is a racist.  All I am asserting is that the statement he made – that white people with blue eyes are responsible for the crisis – is a racist  statement.

To those who believe that a statement that is racist according to the definition quoted from Wikipedia is not really racist unless it is directed at a racial or ethnic group that is weak, oppressed or at the bottom of the social totem pole, I recommend a regular washing of the mind with soap and water.

The weak and the poor, and billions of others who are quite innocent of the mistakes, excesses and crimes that brought us the crisis are not helped by facile racist remarks attributing blame for the crisis coming from the leader of one of the key emerging markets.  Racial divisions and stigmatization according to eye colour will not help humanity crawl out of the hole it is in.  We have to pull together.  President Lula da Silva’s statement threatens to pull us apart.

Maverecon: Willem Buiter

Willem Buiter's blog ran until December 2009. This blog is no longer active but it remains open as an archive.

Professor of European Political Economy, London School of Economics and Political Science; former chief economist of the EBRD, former external member of the MPC; adviser to international organisations, governments, central banks and private financial institutions.

Willem Buiter's website