Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof maintains that “black people are the real racists.” Meanwhile, in Kansas, a legislator is reprimanded for calling a certain bill, and her colleagues who support that bill, “racist.” Taken together, what do these events say about the contemporary usage of this term?
In short, it appears that “racist” has lost all descriptive power. No one, not even Root, the most extreme, textbook example of a “race hater” can see a reflection of himself or his beliefs in this word. That’s because “racist” is now solely an insult. We all agree that it’s bad to be racist. And calling something “racist” carries emotional weight. Paradoxically though, because of this weight the term is basically useless. Labeling something as “racist” works not to point out what may be overlooked. Instead, it’s just an quick way to announce the speaker’s disapproval. It drives a wedge between people with different views, shuts down conversation. Therefore, we should stop calling stuff “racist.”
I recognize this is a big claim. In flushing it out, I first need to note that I’m not claiming that “race doesn’t exist” or that “we live in a colorblind society.” Instead, I’m saying that we need to find new ways to describe the (very real) social inequities which shape said society.
Like all evaluative terms, “racist” and “racism” are abstractions. Like all abstractions, they contain multitudes, and therefore often work to hide as much as they reveal. Consider the broad spectrum of positions which these terms could legitimately characterize. Of course, we have murderous race hate like that of Dylann Roof. That is racism. We also have fear of or lack of sympathy for other races. This is racism too. Next, we have the promotion of ideas or policies which benefit one race at the expense of another (the “racist” Kansas legislators likely fall into this category). Finally, we have the systematic denial of another group’s subjective truth (Fox News, with its inability to acknowledge the existence of racial inequality is “racist” in this regard).
So “racist” clearly casts a very broad net. What I’m saying is that we need to be more nuanced in parsing out these different positions. The Kansas legislature clearly favors the interests of white Kansans over minority groups. They don’t hate minorities the way Dylan Roof does though. To imply that they do just isn’t constructive. Therefore, instead of calling them “racist,” with the overtones of racial hate that implies, we need to think of new, more descriptive ways to point out the unfair and socially destructive nature of their beliefs. Yes, this is difficult. It’s the only way forward though.