‘Racist’ Claims Defuse Once Powerful Word

AP, Sept. 17, 2009

Everybody’s racist, it seems.

Republican Rep. Joe Wilson? Racist, because he shouted “You lie!” at the first black president. Health care protesters, affirmative action supporters? Racist. And Barack Obama? He’s the “Racist in Chief,” wrote a leader of the recent conservative protest in Washington.

But if everybody’s racist, is anyone?

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“It gets to the point where we don’t have a word that we use to call people racist who actually are,” said John McWhorter, who studies race and language at the conservative Manhattan Institute.

“The more abstract and the more abusive we get in the way we use the words, then the harder it is to talk about what we originally meant by those terms,” he said.

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“I think (Wilson’s outburst) is based on racism,” former President Jimmy Carter said at a town hall meeting. “There is an inherent feeling among many in this country that an African-American should not be president.”

That’s an easy charge to make against the rare individual carrying an “Obamacare” sign depicting the president as an African witch doctor with a bone through his nose. But it’s almost impossible to prove–or refute–assertions that bias, and not raw politics, fuels opposition to Obama.

“You have to be very careful about going down that road. You’ve cried wolf,” said Sean Wilentz, a Princeton University professor who studies U.S. political and social history.

“It’s a way of interpreting the world, where race runs through everything–everything is about race,” said Wilentz, who supported Hillary Clinton in 2008 and claimed Obama’s campaign falsely accused her of stoking racial fears.

“Everything is not about race,” he said. “It’s not Mississippi in 1965 any more. Even in Mississippi it’s not Mississippi in 1965 any more.”

Major factor in American life

Still, race remains a major factor in American life, said Brian D. Smedley, director of the health policy institute at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, which focuses on people of color.

“We know from a large body of social science that a large portion of Americans harbor racial bias,” Smedley said. “In the context of health reform, it’s quite evident that race plays a very large role in helping shape public opinion.”

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The Manhattan Institute’s McWhorter said that during the affirmative action battles of the 1990s, “racism” and “racist” began to be applied to liberal policies designed to redress past discrimination, then were extended to people who believed in those policies.

That’s how they have come to be wielded against Obama.

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Mark Williams, one of the leaders of the Sept. 12 rallies in Washington D.C., headlined a blog entry about the arrest of black scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. at his own home by a white police officer, “Racist In Chief Obama Fanning Flames of Racism.” And too many bloggers to count are saying that Congressman Jim Clyburn, who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. and has called Wilson and other health care protesters racist, is the real racist himself.

Black identity politics

This infinite loop is the inevitable result of years of black identity politics, which created a blueprint for whites who feel threatened by America’s changing demographics, says Carol Swain, a Vanderbilt University professor and author of “The New White Nationalism In America.”

“We need to rethink what is racist and who can legitimately call whom racist,” Swain said, citing the argument that blacks can’t be racist because racism requires power.

“With a black president, a black attorney general, and blacks holding various power positions around the country, now might be a time when we can concede that anyone can express attitudes and actions that others can justifiably characterize as racist.”

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