Posted on November 11, 2016

The Idea That America ‘Doesn’t Talk About’ Racism Is Absurd

John McWhorter, Boston Globe, November 13, 2016


It may seem perhaps the least likely thing an anti-Trumpian would do, but there’s a word we might consider tempering our usage of in the coming years, given that the way we use it opens us to certain charges involving kettles and the color black. I refer to the word “racist.”

The Martian anthropologist would recognize no difference between the way those accused of being witches were treated in 17th-century Salem, Mass., and the way many innocent people are being accused of “racism” today. Those appalled by the way people were tarred with the Communist label in the 1940s and 1950s must recognize that America has blundered into the same censorious mob mentality in assailing as “racists,” just recently, people such as Ellen DeGeneres–for Photoshopping herself riding on Jamaican gold medal sprinter Usain Bolt’s back in celebration of his win–and Hillary Clinton–for referring to the black men terrorizing poor black neighborhoods as “superpredators” in describing plans for protecting people in those neighborhoods from such crime.

Or, many of us have for days been furiously dismissing Trump’s victory as the action of “racists.” However, many of the people who voted for Trump did so for populist reasons, amid which to them, Trump’s take on black people and women was unseemly, but still less of a priority than to most who voted for Hillary Clinton. Regret this though one may, do all of these people deserve to be casually tarred with the same “racist” label that we appropriately apply to David Duke and Donald Sterling?

The way we use the word “racism” has become so imprecise, abusive, and even antithetical to genuine activism that change is worth addressing. More to the point, it widens the cultural divide between the elites and the people too often breezily termed the ones “out there.”


{snip} It is hardly an exaggeration to say that in much of modern America, racist sentiment of any kind is treated not as a flaw but as a sin, people “outed” as racists with exactly the sneering, self-congratulatory joy of Dana Carvey’s Church Lady.


However, to understand that racism is real is not to pretend that humans will ever be perfect. If there is a way to eliminate implicit bias entirely, there are no studies showing that the way to do it is to tar and feather anyone displaying the slightest sign of any kind of insensitivity on the Internet for weeks. This new practice is more about self-congratulation than change, turning what began as an unprecedentedly mature understanding of the nature of racism into a grown-up version of tattletaling and cops and robbers. What happened to simply noting civilly that someone has made a mistake?

I also question another usage–take a deep breath–the hallowed term “societal racism.”

The term is cherished as illustrating that while open bigotry is increasingly proscribed, people of color still labor under the fact that their color makes them likely to be raised by people with less money, less access to solid schooling and health care, and less likely to obtain or keep a decent job. These things are true, and must be battled–but not with a term that blinds us to what really needs to be done.

Societal racism is now used to refer not to an attitude but to a result, as in the kind that ensues when a society is riddled with unequal opportunity caused by (among other things) race. We say that it is, therefore, “racist” that inner-city schools educate students less effectively than suburban ones because it affects black kids more than white ones, “racist” that it’s harder for a poor black man to get a low-skill factory job than it is for a middle-class white one to get a job as a middle manager. “Not in-your-face racism, of course, but the societal kind,” we remind one another.

This abstractification seems like a moral advance, but it creates problematic habits of mind. The core sense of racism as a sentiment harbored by a morally culpable agent lingers. The head and the heart are ever in battle, and the heart seeks a story about person against person. The term societal racism sits ever at the ready to slake that basal orientation, in implying that unpleasant societywide results call for the same response we have to the “racist” who does and feels things.


Finally, it should be clear in light of the above two problems that we also misuse the term racism in the insistence that no one wants to talk about it. It is now de rigueur at a certain kind of cocktail party to point out that in America “Nobody wants to talk about race,” with the comment typically made by people who live immersed in media that diligently dwells on race and racism week in and week out. America is rather obsessed with talking about race. Ta-Nehisi Coates has won a National Book Award and a MacArthur prize for a book and articles about racism. Police murders of black people regularly get months-long national coverage. Educated America satirizes the person “out there” who wonders why everything has to be about race–which suggests that such people encounter the topic being “talked about” quite a bit.

The idea that America “doesn’t talk about” racism is absurd, and is actually a euphemism from people who feel that too few Americans talk about racism in what they would consider the right way. That is, they worry that not enough Americans consider racism to be a definitive obstacle to black advancement, and that too many are weary of people’s broaching the issue and dismiss it as unnecessarily “stirring that stuff up.”