Can someone who abuses ‘Lebs’ not be a racist?

Yesterday, Marcus Kapitza lost an appeal against a jail sentence for his part in the Cronulla riots. What seemed to have landed him in most trouble was this:

Kapitza threw punches at two Middle Eastern youths on the day of the riot, and was also at the Cronulla railway station when two other youths travelling on a train were set upon by a mob. Kapitza was hitting his hands against the windows of the train, shouting “f*** off, f*** off Lebs, f*** the Lebs”, which encouraged those carrying out the attack inside the train, Judge Peter Berman said.

The SMH version of the story also rather coyly tells us that on the day he was wearing a singlet with a “slogan that insulted Mohammed”, but in less Muslim Melbourne The Age tells us what it actually said, that according to Kapitza “Mohammed was a camel raping faggot”.

Curiously, one thing that concerns Kapitza about the media coverage of his words and actions is that:

“It has portrayed me as a racist, which I am not,” he told the court.

Perhaps, as several commenters think about Gary Anderton, Kapitza is just saying this in an attempt to salvage what little is left of the reputation of a person the judge said was “otherwise a man of good character”. But it depends what you mean by “racist”. There is a tendency to think of racists as people with a generalised dislike of the “Other”, as our friends in the Arts faculty would say. But the survey evidence suggests that specific likes and dislikes without any overarching theory of ethnic differences are more common – prejudices rather than “racism”, with its implications of a doctrine like liberalism, socialism, or even “anti-racism”. Kapitza, like many of the other Cronulla rioters, seems to have been angry at a “few things some members of the Lebanese community have said over the years”. The Australian way of life was under attack, he told the court, and he chose the slogan as an “eye for an eye”.

Recently I read Ian Buruma’s new book, Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance. As well as discussing van Gogh’s murder at the hands of an a Dutch-Moroccan Islamist, he writes about Pim Fortuyn, also murdered for his political beliefs (though not by an Islamist). Fortuyn was a populist opponent of Muslim immigration, but became angry when he was accused of being racist. His opposition to Islam began when Muslim youths broke the windows and threatened the clientele of a gay bar he frequented – even though he was a sociology professor, like Kapitza he was motivated by specific circumstances, not general theories. But he, like Kapitza, drew the conclusion that a way of life – the Dutch way of tolerance – was under threat.

I’m glad Kapitza has gone to jail; that we settle our disputes peacefully is fundamental to the “Australian way of life”. But I think it is plausible that he is not a racist in any general sense; that his views are inferences from the behavior of specific groups of people, rather than judging specific groups based on general theories. That Kapitza does not like ‘Lebs’ doesn’t tell us anything useful about what he thinks of any other ethnic group.