Racism - Racist

Although racism is almost universally condemned across the political spectrum, what exactly constitutes racism (and what merits the label of “racist”) is not so clear. What these words actually mean is the subject of ongoing, often heated disagreement.

Conservatives generally equate racism with either an endorsement of one’s own racial group’s superiority or another racial group’s inferiority. Thus racism, for conservatives, is primarily what lies in one’s heart. From this point of view, only someone who has acted out of overt and conscious prejudice towards members of a different racial group can be legitimately identified as “racist.” There is frequent frustration among conservatives about how both (inadvertent) interpersonal encounters and structural inequality are labeled “racist” by progressives, despite no evidence of underlying hostility or negative bias.

Over recent decades, progressive academics and cultural commentators have advanced a more comprehensive definition that goes beyond conscious intent to the unconscious ways that people and institutions may reflect underlying, subconscious bias and hostility. From this perspective, it’s understandable that centuries of racial inequity would leave unacknowledged, implicit habits that are not only not intentional but may not even be in our awareness. Such habits and cognitions are sometimes referred to as “racial bias” or “implicit bias” rather than “racism.” But even then they are generally viewed by progressives as part of the racist ideology that pervades American society.

From this latter perspective, racism is much more ubiquitous than the racism more narrowly defined by the former definition – and thus draws more constant attention. This kind of constant attention has provoked a backlash from those who see its presence exaggerated. Writes one conservative columnist, "the word racism is like ketchup. It can be put on practically anything and demanding evidence makes you a 'racist.'"

Progressive academics and activists also draw a distinction between interpersonal bias and “institutional racism.” The latter is defined as a set of policies which maintain racial inequalities. According to this perspective, even policies that are written in race-neutral language can be categorized as “institutional racism”. For example, the system of funding schools primarily through property taxes is ostensibly race-neutral. But because people of color are disproportionately poor, and because kids typically go to neighborhood schools and our neighborhoods are racially segregated, the practice of funding schools with property taxes means that children of color are more likely to go to schools with fewer resources for books, school supplies, and teacher salaries  - all of which could qualify as “institutional racism.” From this point of view, until we are willing to do the hard work of confronting and overcoming this kind of “institutional racism,” we will not make the full progress we need.

From a more conservative view, arguments of institutional racism, however well-intentioned, may cause more harm than good. Following the same example, accusations of institutional racism within school districts often lead to deep divisions and increased anger - alongside little willingness of aggrieved parties to take personal responsibility for their financial situations, their neighborhoods, or the education of their children. If it was true that systemic racism was the root cause of all the other problems, this would likely all be worth it - but conservatives see these accusations of institutional racism as abstract and incredulous attempts to connect dots in line with progressive ideology.  

QUESTIONS TO PLAY WITH:  

-Do you see it as a positive thing to be expanding the conversation about racism to include possibly less conscious manifestations in institutional structure?  

-Does racism receive too much or not enough attention in society today?

-How have your own experiences with racism (on either side) contributed to the way you feel about its importance in today’s society?

-Are you racist? What makes you say that? Would everyone you know agree with you on that point, or would some disagree? What would they say?

Dialog Tips: 
Contributors: 

Jacob Hess, Mikhail Lyubansky

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