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Clarifying ambiguous words

20 January, 2016 - 15:59

An example of how the indexing technique can be applied to separate the different meanings of words can be seen in the following analysis of "segregation" and "integration", surely two of the most contentious terms in today's political vocabulary. Although clarifying the meaning of terms will not automatically bring conflicting political positions into harmony, clarifying what the various camps are fighting about may be an important step towards a mutually agreeable settlement.

The basic distinction I have found that is relevant to sorting out "segregation" and "integration" is that between a way of acting and a state of affairs or situation. Employing this distinction, we can generate the following Table 3.1:

Table 3.1 Distinction between segregation and integration
  Segregation Integration
State of Affairs segregation1 integration1
Way of Acting segregation2 integration2

Segregation1 is a state of affairs, a situation. It exists if in a place where the ratio of the races is 85 per cent white to 15 per cent black 1but in some smaller institution (a school, factory, office, club, etc) in that place the percentages of blacks and whites are very different from those in the general population, say white 95 per cent, black 5 per cent. This kind of segregation is sometimes called de facto, in itself an acknowledgment that the word does not always mean the same thing. Sometimes it is called "racial imbalance".

Segregation2 is a way or basis of acting. It is racially discriminatory treatment for the purpose of keeping the races separated. If a personnel officer or admissions director generally rejects black applicants with personal qualities such that they would be accepted if they were white, we have segregation2. This kind of segregation is sometimes called de jure.

Obviously, if segregation2, racially discriminatory treatment, is going on it will tend to produce the state of affairs that we call segregation1. But racial imbalance (segregation1) can exist even when there is no racially discriminatory treatment (segregation2) currently going on. It may reflect the fact that discriminatory treatment used to take place, or it may have entirely different reasons.

Turning to integration1, we find that like segregation1 it is a state of affairs. It is the opposite of segregation1.It is sometimes called racial balance. The ratio of the races in some smaller institution is roughly the same as it is in a larger general population.

Integration2 is a way of acting, but oddly enough it is not entirely the opposite of segregation1. Like segregation2, integration1 involves treating people on the basis of their race. Unlike segregation2, integration2 treats people on the basis of their race for the purpose of promoting racial togetherness. Its goal is to bring about integration1, racial balance, which is the opposite of the goal of segregation2. Words which appear to be connected with integration2 include "racial quotas", "bussing", and "affirmative action", in one of its possible senses. 2

An issue arises at this point as to means and ends and ultimate values. Is it segregation in its statistical sense, racial imbalance, segregation1, that is morally evil? Or is it segregation2, racially discriminatory treatment of individuals without regard for their individual merits that is the basic problem, with segregation1 being alarming only to the extent it indicates that racially discriminatory treatment is going on?

If segregation2, racially discriminatory treatment, is the basic evil here, then integration2 appears to be a perverse remedy, for it too entails treating people differently depending on their race.

This is where integration3, a third possible meaning of the term, comes in. It too is a way or basis for treating people, but unlike integration2 it does not treat anybody on the basis of race. Instead, integration3 is colorblind treatment; integration3 is thus the opposite both of integration2 and of segregation2.

Even if we assume that a society in which everybody treats everybody else in a colorblind way would be ideal, however, it does not necessarily follow that integration2—racially discriminatory treatment for the purpose of promoting togetherness (integration1)—is an unacceptable strategy. It is possible that only the degree of personal contact between people of different races made possible by integration1, the goal of integration2, can bring about the attitudes necessary ultimately to have a colorblind society. But it is also possible that techniques such as quotas and bussing will cause resentments among whites and self-doubts among blacks to such an extent that progress towards colorblindness is slowed rather than accelerated. Perhaps the only thing we can be sure about is that there is room for legitimate disagreement here as to the best possible strategies for exterminating racism.