Be Careful Who You Call a ‘White Supremacist’

Megan McArdle, Bloomberg View, October 24, 2017

“The NFL Protests Are a Perfect Study of How White Supremacy Works” reads the headline on a recent article at the Root. Which is confusing if you think of “white supremacy” as an apartheid system like Jim Crow, and “white supremacists” as angry people running around in sheets and hoods. The Root’s looser use of “white supremacy,” to describe something considerably less explicit than advocating a race war, has become increasingly common.

The term was popularized by academic race theory, where it seems to have largely replaced previous terms of art like “institutional racism” or “systemic racism.” Now it is migrating out of the ivory tower and into everyday discourse, puzzling the millions of Americans who are used to an older, narrower meaning.

It’s easy to see why writers and academics find the term appealing. “Institutional racism” conjures up images of beige-carpeted offices and rows of desks; “systemic racism” sounds like some sort of plumbing problem. “White supremacy,” on the other hand, packs a visceral punch that commands the reader’s attention. Because they’re describing something that needs attention, it’s useful to have a phrase that does the job.

Nonetheless, using “white supremacy” this way is a mistake.

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It only makes sense to redefine words in this way if you believe that there is literally no difference between David Duke and Mitt Romney, between the Jim Crow South and modern America.

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During the 2016 presidential campaign, I found myself confronted by a curious problem: Many of my readers simply didn’t take it seriously when I pointed out that Donald Trump was, if not an outright racist himself, at least happily pandering to people who were.

“The media calls every Republican racist,” my conservative readers replied. “They said it about Mitt Romney, they said it about George Bush, so what’s different about Trump?”

They were right. Other columnists had accused Romney and Bush of being racist and pandering to racists. I pointed out that Trump’s racist appeals were different, and much worse, than anything that earlier Republican presidential candidates had been accused of. But it didn’t do any good. The media had cried wolf to condemn garden-variety Republicans; labels like “racist” had been rendered useless when a true threat emerged. We shouted to no avail as Trump coyly flirted with hardcore white supremacists, something no mainstream party had done for decades.

Indeed, it seems to me that critical race theorists have gone to “white supremacy” precisely because the increasingly broad uses of the word “racism” have made it less effective than it used to be at rallying moral outrage. The term still packs some wallop, but less than it once did, because it is now defined so broadly that a Broadway musical could sing “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist.” White supremacy, on the other hand, is still clearly understood as beyond the pale.

But if we indiscriminately apply the term to everything from the alt-right white nationalist Richard Spencer, to anyone who thinks that football players should stand for the national anthem … for how long will white supremacy still be considered beyond the pale? What happens if people accused of racism start shrugging off the epithet — or worse, embracing it? And when another Richard Spencer comes along, how will we convey how dangerous he is?

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