The Easiest Way to Get Rid of Racism? Just Redefine It.

Greg Howard, New York Times, August 16, 2016

On its face, inviting a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan onto your radio show is a risky proposition with very little upside. The situation gets even more precarious when you’re inviting this ex-wizard to dole out opinions on race. But these are wild times we’re living in, which is why David Duke–who has emerged as a top cheerleader for the Republican presidential nominee, Donald J. Trump–appeared on N.P.R.’s “Morning Edition” two weeks ago and defended the candidate from charges of racism.

The surprise was that Duke, now running for a Senate seat, actually had some perceptive things to say. The rising tide of buttoned-up Republicans who have spoken out against Trump’s ethnic belligerence, he said, were betraying both “the Republican Party and certainly conservatism.” He then managed to dismiss those Republicans and swiftly parse a complex national paradox. “These are just nothing more than epithets and vicious attacks,” Duke said. “Donald Trump is not a racist. And the truth is, in this country, if you simply defend the heritage of European-American people, then you’re automatically a racist. There’s massive racial discrimination against Euro­pean-Americans, and that’s the reality.”

In positioning Trump as the victim of a smear campaign, Duke was defending him against claims of deep, personal, cancer-of-the-soul racism. Trump isn’t racist, said the ex-Klan boss (who, of course, also isn’t racist), because he doesn’t harbor hate in his heart for America’s racial minorities. But then he pivoted. The real problem, he claimed, is systemic racism, directed against European-Americans.

This is how David Duke, who most diverges from the stereotypical Klansman in that he wears suits, revealed an understanding that systems of race are more important than one person’s motives, reputation or emotional health–that there is racism, and then there is racism, and the two are not the same.

The first cited use of “racism” in The Oxford English Dictionary comes from 1902, during the well-intentioned Lake Mohonk Conference of Friends of the Indian. There, a white man, Richard Henry Pratt, criticized government policy toward Native Americans. “Segregating any class or race of people apart from the rest of the people kills the progress of the segregated people or makes their growth very slow,” he said. “Association of races and classes is necessary to destroy racism and classism.” Pratt was what we might call “progressive” for his time; his version of destroying racism involved forcibly assimilating Native Americans into white culture. (As he put it, “Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”) Both of these options–segregation by force or assimilation by force–had disastrous effects for Native Americans. But for Pratt, racism was a matter of policy, not malice.

“Racism” spent the first half of the 20th century in competition with an­other word, “racialism,” though neither featured prominently in our national conversation. Then came the civil rights era, when the word took on for many a convenient new meaning, one that had more to do with the human heart than with practices like redlining, gerrymandering or voter intimidation. In 1964, Gov. George Wallace of Alabama–who just a year earlier promised “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”–explained the clear difference, in his mind, between a racist and a segregationist: “A racist is one who despises someone because of his color, and an Alabama segregationist is one who conscientiously believes that it is in the best interest of the Negro and white to have a separate educational and social order.”

Soon, nearly everyone could agree that racism was the evil work of people with hate in their hearts–bigots. This was a convenient thing for white Americans to believe. Racism, they could say, was the work of racists. And wherever you looked, there were no racists: only good men like Wallace, minding the welfare of their black fellow citizens, or the segregationist South Carolina senator Strom Thurmond, defending states’ rights. Racism definitely existed, at some point–no one was out there denying that slavery had happened–but its residue had settled only in the hearts of the most unsavory individuals. Society as a whole didn’t need reform for the sins of a few.

Racism ceased to be a matter of systems and policy and became a referendum on the rot of the individual soul. Calling people racist was no longer a matter of evaluating their opinions; it was an accusation of being irrevocably warped at the very core. We can see how this plays out in news coverage of things that are, in fact, racist. “Racist” is seen as such a deep personal attack that it’s safer and more civil–particularly in the eyes of mainstream media organizations–to refer to things as racially charged, or tinged, or explosive, or divisive, or (when all else fails) just plain racial.

{snip}

This is the end result of redefining racism to mean malice in one’s heart. Once whites moved the goal posts, anyone could be the victim of racism, and anyone could be racist. Activists opposing racism could be racist. President Obama casually mentioning that he, like Trayvon Martin, is black–this could be a deeply racist act. Advocates of busing programs or affirmative action could be racist. Minorities resentful over their treatment in America could be the real racists, the ones whose hearts insist on “making everything about race.” Al Sharpton is a racist. Beyoncé Knowles is a racist. Kanye West is definitely a racist.

{snip}

It’s not that anyone denies that institutional racism once existed. But the belief now is that systemic racism is a national cancer that was excised long ago, in an operation so successful it didn’t even leave lasting effects. {snip}

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