For the purpose of this post, let’s define a presumption Px as a deliberative advantage in favor of a finding that x is true based on supporting justification for Px, such that, in a dispute involving x, the person trying to show that x is false (x-opponent) bears the burden of proof and, if x-opponent offers no evidence, the person trying to show that x is true (x-proponent) succeeds. A presumption is a deliberative advantage, but not a required conclusion; an initial deliberative advantage may be overcome by sufficient evidence to the contrary.
Presumptions usually are based on some supporting justification. A very common example is the presumption of innocence. This presumption operates in favor of a finding that the x-proponent, a criminal defendant, is innocent and the x-opponent, the prosecutor, bears the burden of proof. The supporting justification is the value in American jurisprudence that it is better for nine guilty men to go free than for one innocent man to be wrongly convicted.
Here my supporting justification for a presumption of credibility for claims of racism is that, because whether one recognizes racism depends crucially on one’s first-personal perspective, the person claiming racism should be deemed credible, absent sufficient evidence to the contrary.
Claims of racism generally present unique challenges for proof. Consider the new movie, directed by Jeff Nichols, based on Loving v. Virginia (1967). The trailer for the movie (here) includes a scene where Virginia state police officers barge into the Lovings bedroom and, when Mildred Loving explains that she’s Richard Loving’s wife, one officer responds, “that’s no good here.” The scene portrays well the racist attitudes that may have been prevalent at that time in certain places.
One thing to clarify here is that Virginia’s law and enforcement of its law in the Loving case is a separate wrong from the officer’s attitude toward the Lovings in the scene mentioned above. The case involved Virginia’s miscegenation law, but my focus here is the officer’s attitude in the movie scene.
If we were examining a charge of racism against the officer, it would be difficult to prove. You often can’t find racism from a professor’s armchair or a judge’s bench. In real life, the scene is not reconstructed for us exactly as it was. Instead, you have the words or actions, the features of the surrounding circumstances, and the accused racist before you in his best Sunday clothes (see Bannon).
Even if the scene was reconstructed for you exactly as it was, from a detached third-personal perspective, unless you yourself have experienced similar attitudes, you may not see racism. We may see the identical scene, but our perspectives are shaped by our prior observations and experiences. It is as if we see the world through our own theoretical lens, shaped by our past, which picks up certain features and ignores others.
But, for the person experiencing racism, the attitude expressed and the wrong left in its wake is as real as real can be. It's not about the exact words spoken or any particular feature of the circumstance. If we examined the words or actions, they could be interpreted as innocent. If we examined the features of the circumstance, they may seem morally insignificant. If we saw the person again in a different setting, he may appear to be the farthest thing from what we would expect from a racist. From the first-person perspective of the target of racism, the attitude conveys to its target: you don't belong here or there is something deeply wrong with you. From those with other perspectives: you’re just making the whole thing up.
If this is accurate and racist attitudes are seen differently from first-personal and third-personal perspectives, then this seems to be a good reason to presume the credibility of a first-personal claim of racism.
Again, a presumption of credibility is not proof of credibility or proof of racism. A presumption is usually defeasible. It simply places the burden of proof on the other party to prove otherwise.
Three objections come to mind. I’ll take them in the order from easiest to the most difficult, leaving the third for further discussion in the comments.
Next, what about innocent “racists”? People are accused of racism all the time and they’re merely good people who were brought up to view the world a certain way; they don’t intend any harm. As stated by Shelby and others, I don’t think racism requires specific intent. Racial bias and prejudice may be “subtle, implicit, or even unconscious.” Individual attitudes or behaviors usually are the product of institutional racism and, first and foremost, it is our institutions that require critical examination and reform.
Finally, the nature of racism and the fact that racist attitudes are seen differently from first-personal and third personal perspectives, for some, may not seem like sufficient justification for a presumption. My response for now is this: against the backdrop of our nation’s history of slavery, segregation, internment, and dispossession, the fact that the targets of racism are in a unique position to see the wrongness of racism, which may not be visible to others, again seems a good reason to give them the benefit of the doubt.
 Loving v. Virginia (1967) 388 U.S. 1.
 Tommie Shelby, “Race and Social Justice” (2004) 72 Fordham L. Rev. 1697, 1706.