Posted on August 10, 2018

Academia Doesn’t Get to Define ‘Racism’ for the Rest of Us

Robert Verbruggen, National Review, August 9, 2018


Some academics who study racial matters use the word “racism” to mean not “dislike of people on the basis of race,” which is how most people use it, but rather something like “prejudice plus power” or what is more clearly called “institutional” or “systemic” racism — meaning, conveniently, that members of minority groups by definition cannot be racist. And as Scott Alexander noted at Slate Star Codex back in 2014, parts of the Left are no longer willing to admit that this is a departure from standard usage by saying something along the lines of, “I suppose a group of black people chasing a white kid down the street waving knives and yelling ‘KILL WHITEY’ qualifies by most people’s definition, but I prefer to idiosyncratically define it my own way, so just remember that when you’re reading stuff I write.”


Instead, as Alexander writes, “we have a case where original coinage, all major dictionaries, and the overwhelming majority of common usage all define ‘racism’ one way, and social justice bloggers insist with astonishing fervor that way is totally wrong and it must be defined another.” I am not entirely sure if this is a conscious effort to redefine the word — and by pretending it’s already defined this way they’re “gaslighting” us — or if they have drunk so much Kool-Aid that they can say this in all sincerity. When called on it, many simply point to academic definitions, as though academia had the power to redefine words for the rest of society; that, of course, is not how language works.


To be sure, people are free to try to change the language by brute force if they want. Sometimes it even works: The word “which” was commonly used restrictively (as in “the game which they are playing”) when the comically overrated Elements of Style announced that this was an error, and nowadays adherence to the rule is a reasonably standard aspect of American English. But our words’ definitions are ultimately decided by the community of English speakers, not just by academia.

[Editor’s Note: In conjunction with this essay, readers may enjoy taking another look at Sam Francis’s 1999 American Renaissance article “The Origins of ‘Racism’.”]