What is the real definition of "racism"?
Accusations of racism abound these days. Hollywood and the Oscars are racist. Silicon Valley is racist. The Chicago police are racist. Algorithms are racist. Google search results are racist. College students who wear mustaches and sombreros to parties are racist. A New York Times writer tells liberal white folk to admit to the racist poison they harbor inside. The proliferation of accusations has watered down the term, and has lead some people to clarify that some offender is a real racist. House Speaker Paul Ryan describes a Donald Trump comment as being the “textbook definition” of racist. Conservative commentators denounce the racist hordes of the “alt-right”. Those on the alt-right deny being racist, and explain that only those fringe crazy storm-fronters and 1488ers are the real racists.
Despite being such a poorly defined concept, the charge of being a racist can be very serious. The word connotes being an odious, repulsive person. Esteemed African-American academic and linguist and John McWhorter notes that calling somebody racist is “about the worst thing you can call them.” It is like “calling somebody a child molester.”
If a racism charge sticks, the accused can face both social ostracization and real legal sanction. A racist view is beyond the protections of free speech. Rather, the law works to suppress such views. Every American company must obey the civil rights law and not allow a “hostile environment”. Employing a known racist could easily be construed as creating a hostile environment; the mere presence of a racist could be used as evidence against the company in a lawsuit. Companies thus face legal pressure to fire racists. Attempting to categorize someone as a racist is an attack on their livelihood.
Yet, in my opinion, when looking at the vast majority of accusations, the offending person or institution is not racist by a definition of racist that actually describes an evil, odious behavior. There is a motte-and-bailey tactic with definitions. The word connotes evilness under one narrow definition, but then the definition gets expanded so that it can be applied to any political enemy, thus associating them with evil.
Let us look at some of the expanded use cases where the word racism gets applied, and examine if the behavior is actually deplorable.
Consider ethnocentrism. Is it despicable if an Indian father wants his daughter to marry an Indian? Is it despicable if Chinese or Syrian shop owners hire employees from among their own ethnic groups? Is it bad if startups hire for “culture fit”, and want fellow employees to share enough of a culture so that they can spend their waking hours with people they like to hang out with? Is it bad if a white person wants to live in the SWPL/hipster/yuppie section of the city, a section that matches their own culture, and does not want to live in the black part of the city? Is it bad if a black student wants to sit at the lunch table with other black students?
Consider rational discrimination. Is it odious if a bar raises its beer prices on hip-hop night, because from past experience that bar has found the black customers on hip-hop night rarely tip? Is it terrible if a college somewhat discounts SAT scores for Asian applicants, because it does not want a campus with too many “grinds”? Should the Justice Department investigate and prosecute such colleges? Is it detestable if a white woman, living a few blocks from dangerous, all-black, low-income housing project, crosses the street at night when she sees two black men in hoodies walking toward her? Do we try to re-educate her to not be “racist”? Is it abhorrent if a black man gives a white police officer a hard time, because he assumes that the police officer is targeting him based on his race?
Consider belief in human biodiversity, or as it is known pejoratively, “scientific racism”. Is it evil to believe that differences in average levels of income and technological achievement between whites and blacks, between Europeans and Africans, is in part due to differences in average cognitive abilities? Or is it only evil if you believe that these average differences in cognitive intelligence are due in part to differences in gene distribution? If it is odious and ignorant to believe in a genetic contribution, how much of the difference do you have to attribute to genes to become a repulsive racist? 1% 20%? 40%? 60%? In a recent survey of academics studying psychology and cognitive science, 62% of respondents replied that the American black-white cognitive test score gap is at least 50% genetic. Are those psychologists odious racists?
Consider ethnically/racially charged comments. Is it despicable to call someone’s parent a “tiger mom”? Is it deplorable to describe a town as “full of red-necks” or “white trash”? Is it repugnant if an African-American Brooklynite complains about those “motherfuckin’ hipsters” taking over the neighborhood and wrecking the culture? What about a white man complaining about those “mother fuckin’ Mexicans” taking over the town and changing the culture? What if you ask an old Jewish grandfather about why he moved out of Dorchester in the 1970s, and he says, “those damn schwartzes, they were savages, they ruined our neighborhood”? Are we going to be embarrassed by his statement and disown his words? Does it matter if 40,000 Jews were actually driven out of their neighborhood by an epidemic of violence perpetrated by the bottom elements of the black population?
I do think that especially charged or insensitive comments should be toned down or suppressed in the public space. We live in a multi-ethnic society and if we want to avoid escalating tribal violence we have to be polite and respectful to each other. But if someone is angry and lets something slip? Or if some vulgar comment made in private becomes public? I’m not going to call for their firing or stop being their friend. They should apologize for being rude, perhaps face some mild sanction, and life moves on.
Progressive anti-racists sidestep the above complications by arguing that racism only applies when the act is committed by the powerful majority. There is some plausibility to this argument. There is little harm done if a white person can’t get hired at a Lebanese corner store because they are not Lebanese. But overall, this argument is overextended and outdated. As they say – it is 2016. We are fast becoming a country where people-of-color outnumber whites. That is already the case in my city. As I’ve noted before, racially charged violence by blacks against whites has been a very big problem in more recent decades. Where I live, such violence is a much bigger issue than the converse problem. Obviously, black people on average suffer greater hardship compared to white people, but the whole framework of racism and privilege is not useful in addressing this hardship. The rabid protests surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement, for instance, seems to have lead both to more dead black men and to the Donald Trump tribal counter-uprising.
Is there any use, then, for a term “racism” which connotes awfulness and evil? There are behaviors under the umbrella of racism that do deserve to be called evil – enslaving or plundering another tribe; slandering or scapegoating another tribe. But you don’t need the word ‘racism’ to call these things evil.
So what are we to make of the word “racism” in 2016? At this point we should acknowledge the actual definition of the word. Not the definition in the dictionary. Not the definition that you might like it to have. The definition that accurately captures how the broad population is actually using the word. The actual usage is this: racism is a hate-word for a person who is more than one or two degrees to your right on issues of race.
To a far left activist, all white people who are comfortable with the unjust status quo are racist. To a moderate liberal, people who believe in genetically rooted differences are racist. To a polite, genteel, cosmopolitan race realist/scientific racist, it is the vulgar racial separatists, nationalists or tribalists who are the real racists.
Given this actual definition of racist, we should stop using the word. If someone really is odious, you can call them that without the word racism. If someone is not evil, and you call their views racist, ironically, it is you who are a bigot under the original definition of the word: “One who is strongly partial to one’s own group, religion, race, or politics and is intolerant of those who differ.” Calling a view racist is a way to place that view outside of the bounds legitimate discourse, thus winning the debate without having to use reason or evidence. It is a way to shut down discussion.
And if someone calls you a racist? Do not apologize (unless you are forced to and are too weak to resist). Do not say, “No I’m not really a racist because I am X and a racist is Y.” The person just called you a hate-word. If someone calls you a son-of-a-bitch, you do not pull out a family photo to prove your mom was not actually a canine. Respond with nonchalance, humor, a sharp counter-attack, or by denying the validity of the word. But do not accept their framing.
I want to write a little more about the politics of the word of “racism.” We have two political factions. We have the red faction which is mostly white middle America. And we have the blue faction which is a smaller, more elite slice of the white population, backed with the voting power of blacks and hispanics. The concept of racism is an ingenious invention of the blue faction. Here is how works. First they managed to create a separate, extra bad category of speech called racism and hate speech. Second, they defined racism in ways so that it only applies when speaking ill of members of their own political coalition. Third, they expanded the definition so that basically any criticism whatsoever of the blue coalition identity groups is racist (or sexists, or xenophobic), and thus out of bounds and not given the traditional protections of academic freedom or journalist fair dealing. Thus, the Daily Show or Colbert can run a minstrel show making fun of white middle America; but if the right made a similiar show making fun of the Democratic voting base, such a show would be racist and de facto illegal.
In political debates, the left argues, “We suffer from structual racism and thus need to elect the blue party and double-down on diversity programs, money for education.” (Note that all of these policy prescriptions are funnels of money and benefits to the blue-team voting base). The right then says, “What is your evidence that structual racism exists?” And the left says, “Look at how bad the schools are in black areas and how underrepresented they are at top companies like Google.” And if a person on the right then responds, “Well, that is not due to structual racism, that is due to culture and/or genes, here is the evidence…”, that person on the right is then branded a racist and has to fear for their career.
The entire bounds of debate is thus continually ratched in a leftward direction, to the advantage of the blue faction.
This same crooked game is played when it comes to policy and civil rights law. Courts and the Justice Department have wide discretion to alter policy based on findings of “disparate impact.” For instance if a fire department uses a written test to screen for new fire-fighters (where grading of the test is completely color blind), yet blacks do worse on the test than whites, courts can force the fire department to change the test. A commenter, Handle, once noted how this works out in practice:
If you’re the state of Texas, other things the Federal Appeals Courts have recently confirmed to be racist are:
Requiring people to present proper identification before voting, while still requiring them to present the same upon entering the courthouse.
Not drawing districts guaranteeing the election of NAM democrats.
Here’s what “disparate impact” really means: “Relatively more harmful to the vote-bank base of the Democratic party than that of the Republican party”. Since the Democrats have a higher proportion of non-Asian-minority voters, then anything which hurts them in that way will, necessarily have a simultaneous “disparate impact” on “minorities”.
So, logically, the real definition of “racist” is “not helpful to the Left”. If you’re not 100% in favor of the leftist worldview and agenda, you’re unavoidably and inevitably “racist”, no matter how anti-discriminatory or colorblind you are, what you do, or why you do it.
Until the right finds a way to stop playing with this stacked deck and neutralize the potency of this rhetorical distortion, then it’s going to lose. By semantic definition, it cannot win.
For anyone on the right to accuse members on their own side of racism, is thus playing Calvinball with Calvin. Your playing a game created by the blue faction, where that faction makes the rules, and uses those rules to enforce its own permanent political advantage.
Another blog adds his own definition:
I’ve had hour long conversations about how to define “racist”. But “racist” in common usage means “bad person who I can easily accuse of disliking black people in order to ostracize him”. That’s how the language game is played.
If someone is being evil or vulgar, call them evil or vulgar. We have very clear definitions of evil and moral badness from our historical tradition, starting with the Ten Commandments. But when you start calling people “racist” you have outed yourself as being fundamentally untrustworthy. You are trying to ostracize people based on a concept that was constructed purely for the political advantage of one faction. Ostracize people based on violations of timeless morality, but stop this game of ostracizing people based on a recently invented gotcha word, with an ever changing definition.