Racism - Racist

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

Conservatives generally define racism as either an endorsement of one’s own racial group’s superiority, another racial group’s inferiority, or harmful behavior directed at someone specifically because of their race. Thus racism, for conservatives, is primarily about what lies in one’s heart. Conservatives often require a higher standard of proof before charging someone or something as "racist," requiring explicit evidence rather than implicit assumptions. 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 explicit evidence of underlying hostility or negative bias.

Over recent decades, progressive academics and cultural commentators have advanced a broader "racism" definition that goes beyond conscious intent and encompasses unconscious bias, or unconscious ways people and institutions may reflect underlying, subconscious bias and hostility. From this perspective, centuries of racial inequity have left unacknowledged, implicit habits that are not only unintentional, 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. Progressives hold the perspective that many fundamental societal structures are built on systemic racism, meaning some groups have more power than others.

From this perspective, progressives define racism as linked to power and often hold the view that disadvantaged groups cannot be racist toward groups that have power. Conservatives generally disagree with that. For example, they would argue that racist views from some Muslims toward Jews or Christians are racist whether the Muslims are in a Muslim majority country or if they are in a Muslim minority country (and vice versa with some Christians and Jews being racist toward Muslims).

But overall, racism is much more ubiquitous in the progressive view than the racism more narrowly defined by conservatives — and thus draws more constant attention. This kind of constant attention has provoked a backlash from those who see many charges of "racism" as exaggerated.

Some conservatives have said the definition of the word "racism" is being used so broadly that the term is overused and becoming meaningless. Black conservative columnist Thomas Sowell wrote, "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 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 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 are often unequally applied. Following the same example, the current system around teacher employment tends to send the least effective teachers to the poorest communities generally dominated by students of color. Yet those policies are not labelled as racist because, in a conservative's eye, they are supported by teachers unions and other groups that are progressive or are important funders of progressive politicians.

Conservatives also would argue that arguments of institutional racism, however well-intentioned, may cause more harm than good. Following the same example again, 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 were 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.

Racism in the News

Differing "racism" definitions among the left and right often dominate media headlines. For example, in July 2019, President Donald Trump tweeted remarks about a far Left/progressive faction of the House of Representatives, saying they should "go back" to countries they came from and fix problems there, "then come back and show us how it is done" instead of "loudly and viciously telling the people of the United States ... how our government is to be run." His remarks ignited an onslaught of media coverage and debate over the definition of "racist." Those on the Left and many in the Center said Trump's words were racist and described them as such in headlines, reporting, and opinion commentary; meanwhile, commentators on the right said the sentiments did not fit the definition of "racist," and that the word is overused, which causes it to lose its power when overt racism occurs — arguing "nativist" or "bigoted" would have better described Trump's remarks.

Further, the debate over the "racism" definition lead some media members to say that journalists should avoid editorializing with the use of the word "racist" on news pages and in headlines, while others defended the decision to use the word, saying it was not editorializing but rather, an objective descriptor. AllSides broke down how Trump's July 2019 tweets revealed differences in the left and right "racism" definitions in a blog post.

QUESTIONS TO PLAY WITH:

-Do you see it as a positive thing to expand the racism definition to include potentially unconscious manifestations in behavior or institutional structure?

How do differing racism definitions lead to differences in liberal and conservative policy proposals?

-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, John Gable, Julie Mastrine

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