Who decides who’s Racist?

When I was in High School I read a book called Only Begotten Daughter, a work of speculative fiction published in 1990 by James Morrow. The premise is simplicity itself. Just as Jesus was conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary, in this book a little girl named Julie Katz was born miraculously from an artificial womb impregnated by sperm donated by a middle-aged Jewish recluse. The book gives way to a dizzying array of fun religious mind games. Several episodes from the book have stuck with me through the years, but one specific section came to mind when I was ruminating on the problems of the word “racist” as a meaningful label. In Morrow’s novel, there is a sickening, inescapable logic to determining where people go when they die. A handful of old Patriarchs are in Heaven because the Bible says so; but the vast, overwhelming majority of everyone else is in Hell. What does it take to go to Hell? Unfortunately, very little — if someone thinks you should be in Hell, that’s it.

The devil’s tail, a kind of rubbery harpoon, looped upward. He grabbed the barbed end. “Throughout history, admission to hell has depended on but one criterion… You must belong to a group some other group believes is heading there.”
“That’s perverse.”
“It’s also the law.” […]
“How terribly unfair.”
“Of course it’s unfair. Who do you think’s running the universe, Eleanor Roosevelt? […] There’s no cosmic ACLU out there.”
“You’re lying.”
“Not in this case. The truth’s too delicious.”
“I can’t imagine a Methodist doing anything particularly damning. Why would…?”
“Like all Protestants, Methodists abandoned the True Church. Only though the Apostolic Succession can a person partake of Christ’s spritual presence on earth. This is basic stuff, Julie.”
“Catholics, then. They remained faithful to…”
“Are you serious? With their Mariolatry, Trinity, purgatory, indulgences? How unbiblical can you get?”
“My father was a good man, and he…”
“The JEWS? Give me a break, Julie. The JEWS!? Let’s not even discuss the Jews.”
“All right. I give up. Who got saved?”
“Heaven’s not a crowded place.”
“So I gather. A million?”
“Ten thousand?”
“Such an optimist.” Wyvern snapped his fingers, crushing an earwig. “Four.”
“There are four people in heaven.”

From Chapter 10 of Only Begotten Daughter, James Morrow

I think I pulled this scene from the memory banks of my brain because I was wondering about who gets to decide who’s racist in much the same way I wonder who gets to decide who all is going to hell. For a believer, I suppose the answer in both cases is: God. God knows who is actually a racist and/or who is going to hell. In his book, James Morrow decided who gets to be in hell: everyone, pretty much. 

So many times I have heard the word “racist” used by talking heads in the media or by my students or my relatives or my friends and thought it might be the most malleable word after the F-bomb. When a word has several recognized meanings, linguists label that word polysemous: it has many meanings. Consider, for example, the way that the word race might mean a contest of speed or be used to refer to a specific ethnic group… but I think our problem with the word racist is an almost invisible polysemy. There is a similar issue with many words associated with politics and identity–the words nation and nationalist spring to mind.

Consider a contemporary example from the Wall Street Journal (behind a paywall, of course). In an op-ed from Heather Mac Donald published on August 18, 2019, Ms. Mac Donald uses the term “racist” in a way perhaps typical on the right side of the congressional aisle. For her, racist rhetoric is any that explicitly “uses racial categories.” In this way, she defended President Trump’s speeches and tweets for their lack of racial categories, unlike his political opponents. On the other hand entirely, German Lopez published an analysis of President Trump’s “history of racism” for Vox earlier this summer, on July 15, 2019. While Trump may proclaim that he is the “least racist,” something which Ms. Mac Donald would likely support, Mr. Lopez uses the term “racist” in the broader sense of rhetoric that implicitly acknowledges the existence of racial differences. To give a clear example, consider the sentence, “I used to feel a lot safer going to that part of town, but now all I see are poorly lit streets and people slouching in their hoodies.” While Ms. Mac Donald would correctly note the lack of explicit racial categories, Mr. Lopez would also correctly note the implicit indication of racial differences: hoodies have been used by many as shorthand for people of color.

On the simplest level, everyone has the ability to apply this label convincingly if they remember their audience. Yes, the goalposts and criteria move constantly, but if you know which meaning of “racist” your audience expects, you are unlikely to confuse. The problems emerging are twofold: writing on the internet gives the broadest possible audience that might not agree with your meanings, yes, but more importantly, the two definitions are not equally valid in every situation. My political leaning suggests to me that the first definition (used by Ms. Mac Donald and President Trump) is not only increasingly useless but negligent and harmful to society.

And consider how the reactions to these two definitions matter. President Trump has specifically said it is a “terrible thing” to be called a racist… but which use of the word is he considering?

“Well, they called Nancy Pelosi a racist two weeks ago too. So you know it’s one of those things. But anytime they run out of ammunition, they start throwing the R-word out there. It’s a terrible thing. I mean, it’s a terrible thing. I’m the least racist person there is. But it’s a terrible thing.”

Is it terrible to explicitly acknowledge racial categories? Or is it terrible to implicitly acknowledge racial categories? It seems like he is playing both sides of the same coin. It is terrible to be someone who thinks the world should be set up unequally according to racial categories! It is terrible to be falsely accused of wanting those things! Which is it, for Trump?

This is not just semantics and how “really, everyone’s a racist when you think about it.” If you define racism broadly enough, certainly all people can fulfill the requirements. I think the larger issue is that different groups are misunderstanding how other groups use the term. It is easy to assume how others are misusing a word, especially when we feel the word has a stable meaning. For example, imagine if the use of the word “height” suddenly expanded among a subset of the population to refer, not to how tall people are, but to their level of political activism. “Gosh, that guy is really tall,” they might say, leaving you (an outsider) confusedly scratching your head. Language shifts underneath our feet. Even the lowliest, most marginalized, most oppressed subcultures in society have a measurable effect on the common language. Some of the most marginalized groups have the most outsized its influence on the language.

“I have no regrets about him leaving. He was a racist from the core. Head to toe and hip to hip. There’s no doubt about it. And he spewed and fought and oppressed black people to the point that some of them thought that was the way they were supposed to live. Just like some slaves on the plantations thought that was the way they were supposed to live.” Candidate for Mayor of Chicago Harold Washington (served 1983-1987) on the legacy of Mayor of Chicago, Richard J. Daley (served 1955-1976) [See episode 84 of This American Life on Harold Washington’s own historic legacy]

It is less divisive to define racist rhetoric, racist imagery, racist expression, racist art rather than racist people. All of this accepts uncritically that the term racist is irrevocably negative and pejorative. The online etymology dictionary attests to its recent origins (used as a noun first in 1932 and as an adjective (racist person) in 1938, both in connection with the description (and denunciation) of fascism… And a post about which is perhaps long overdue from a historian of nationalists and nationalism.

This means that while some people have tried to “reclaim” this word, including Trump’s previous Chief Strategist Steve Bannon. Others argue that the word racist is simply the original form of the now ubiquitous “ethnic” or “ethnicity.” The etymology of these terms quickly disproves the possibility. To reiterate: “racist” did not come into being without context. Context matters and the context of the words’ origins were clearly negative and linked to theories of the supremacy of the white “race” and the inferiority of the white “race,” however such terms may be defined differently today. So… What does it mean when we call a person racist?

And allow this historian of the Soviet Union to make a connection with a different period of contentious labels and fatal consequences. It was the gradual transition from calling people “writers of nationalist rhetoric” to labeling them as “nationalists” that signaled the transformation from terms of exile for “writers of nationalist ideas” into death sentences for “bourgeois nationalists” in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s. I would like to learn something from that.

It has been a few weeks since the President of the United States told several members of Congress to “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came.” The country and the world’s speakers of English have wasted time and energy trying to determine whether the statement was racist and how they can convince others of their verdict. However, being President means being the Chief Executive power in the land, for all intents and purposes above (or at least temporarily outside) the law — and this did not start with Donald Trump. Presidents have rarely, with noted exceptions, paid serious consequences for their presidential actions. I think that many Americans are expecting a repeat of Ford’s pardoning of Nixon should Trump outlive his presidency.

Structural racism seems in my experience to be something of a learned, acquired understanding. It is invisible until it isn’t. When you learn to see it, you cannot unsee it. Indeed, the ability to not see structural racism is itself one of the privileges granted to the dominant groups by structural inequality; not only race, of course, but any meaningful characteristic of humanity. We dismiss concerns about structural racism as “identity politics” at our peril. It is the ease of ignoring this for the privileged class that drives me to cynicism and passive acceptance of Morrow’s description of Heaven as ‘not a crowded place.’

TL;DR Take-away

Instead of getting into a heated argument over whether or not someone is racist, consider some alternatives. First, pinpoint the racist action (rhetoric, movies, speech, artwork, expressions) rather than universally labeling the person might cool things down. Politicians like Harold Washington and Donald Trump can use rhetoric in this way, but they are speaking, not conversing. They are generally free from the obligation to respond to their audience’s concerns, ironic as that may seem in a representative democracy. Second, keep in mind which meaning of racist is being put into play and, if you find it inappropriate or counter-productive, say so. It is not impolite to request that someone use more precise language! Before calling a person a name, why not put some effort into allowing them to name themselves. And if they use more precise language to articulate that they believe certain races are inherently inferior or superior with regard to others, that would be useful information. If someone names themselves a racist, it is good to remember.

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