Racism: What is the meaning?


I’ve been involved in a few on-line discussions on this topic of late. The latest led me to think a few thoughts I wanted to share. First, let me say the following:

I am a white man and not an academic or an expert in civil rights. My own actions in the arena of civil rights tend to be limited to my voting record, and my personal interactions with my fellow human beings; including my blog posts and internet discussions. I am not an authoritative voice, nor do I seek to be. I only want to share my thinking in the hope others find it helpful, thought provoking, or interesting.

The current proposal to define Racism

In the last two years, the debate over the meaning of racism has come to my attention. The argument is that Racism should be understood as something like this:  A system of race-oriented oppression in which a dominant race uses mechanisms of force and power to marginalize, expel, oppress, exploit, or destroy other races and cultures. Further, any act that perpetuates, upholds, or fails to oppose this system of racism is by definition racist as it maintains a racist regime. This argument seems to arise from a confluence of the US civil rights movement and academia focused on minority studies. It has been picked up by a wide range of people passionate about civil rights.

This argument has encountered a fair bit of resistance in the wider society and the result has been a lot of discussions, some polite, some rancorous. The most recent discussion I was involved in was based on a news article about a black man who had murdered three white victims and was believed to be motivated by racial animosity. The question was; If racism is defined by institutional power such that it can only be perpetrated in America by White’s against other races, then what do we call this type of act where race motivates a minority to attack those in power? 

When faced with this kind of a question I try to come up with some kind of answer. Doing so brought me to think not just about how the word racism is currently defined, but why it is defined that way. More specifically, what are the motivations and purposes behind its historical meaning, its current popular meaning, and this new understanding?

Origins of the word in US Slavery

Racism is a relatively new word in the English language. Oxford’s first citation of its use is in 1902. It was used to describe the motivations behind racial segregationists in the US. I think its origin in the American context is important to understanding it’s meaning, then and now. Prior to the American context, it seems to me that race and nationality were often seen as inherently linked. There was no shortage of bigotry but the lines of division tended to be one nation/race vs another in a kind of open conflict where they fought and one would win, or another would loose. There was a lot less of a question of whether it was moral to fight your neighbors and more on whether you could succeed at it. I’m sure there is more to it, but this seems a common view. Slavery, for instance, was seen not as a right by the inherent racial superiority of a group, but simply a consequence of being captured in war.

America’s slave system introduced a relatively new dynamic whereby a dominating group created a large indigenous minority population with no single nationality, but a shared racial identity. Because this practice was so at odds with the stated American ideology of natural rights, an elaborate system of moral justifications centered around race superiority was constructed. Eventually, this led to the civil war and the freeing of the slaves, but the strong social currents for a racially divided class structure stuck with us long after. Now we had not just animosity against races who represent a rival culture, we have animosity against races that are part and parcel of the same society and are in fact citizens. This new dynamic needed words to describe it and thus racism was born.

Expansion of Racism to global ideology

As the world became more and more integrated and people of different races and nationalities could travel and form trade relationships, the usefulness of the term racism became more relevant. Likewise, with the rise of republics and democracies, the old rules of power start to fall away and societies are tasked to decide more widely who has power and who doesn’t. Under authoritarian schemes, there are simply a small number of true elites and everyone else. Now that power is more widely distributed, differentials among the populous become a political issue. Divisions based on race, religion, and ethnicity are something of a natural choice. In a nation with so many immigrants, where you came from becomes a tool of social differentiation.

Prior mid 20th century, racism in was an explicit and active force openly hostile to African Americans and other racial minorities. It openly claimed superiority in the law and in nature. Not every American supported this. There have always been Americans who took our founding principles to their rational ends and saw slavery and segregation for the betrayal of those values they are. But it was clear, those who perpetrated the dehumanization of African Americans were explicitly racist and held a racist ideology. Hitler gave racism an international face and when America eventually went to war with Germany, it helped rally American opinion against the racist arguments their common enemy espoused.

Fighting the racist ideology seemed to be a very logical approach to fighting against such oppression and discrimination. Kill the justification for this injustice and you can then dismantle the injustice. Thus the early attacks on racism sought to disprove ideas of inherent racial superiority and inferiority. Hitler again galvanized this approach by being such a prominent advocate of pseudo-scientific justifications for white superiority. By and large, the anti-racist forces won this battle of words and US policy changed such that it not only abolished laws enabling discrimination, it aggressively pursued laws to protect minorities from actions that resulted in degradation by agents of the government and the private sector. Views of racial superiority are now largely seen as subversive, ignorant, and immoral by most people. Open expression of these views will earn people significant censure and opposition.

The need for a new definition arises

So now we find ourselves in an age in the US where the enemy that racism was defined to oppose has largely been driven from power. Yet, despite these significant victories, and the election of a Black American as president of the US, minorities in America none the less still experience segregation, discrimination, and oppression. Some instances are at the hands of the old-school racists with a genuine belief in white supremacy, but other hardships come at the hands of people with no ideological beliefs in racism, and who, if asked, will say they fully support equality for African Americans. They are often fully invested in the old anti-racist arguments for equal protection under the law and natural rights for everyone regardless of race or creed.

So the challenge for minorities and their allies is how to maintain the fight against marginalization when the nature of the forces of oppression have changed. True, the old enemies are still out there, but they are at the margins now, and the day to day encounters with institutional discrimination are at the hands of forces that on the surface, fully agree with the principles of egalitarian equality, but in action none the less perpetuate marginalization due to their history and habits. Indeed the anti-racist ideology that says all are equal, can be used as a justification to oppose efforts like affirmative action that exist to level the formerly lopsided playing field. When a black person attacks the white establishment, on paper, it appears racist by the old definition.

The solution is to keep the word racism as the standard against which minorities are struggling thus change its definition so that it better targets the modern enemy and no longer poses an obstacle to activism that tries to upset the status quo power structure. This current state was not necessarily anticipated by civil rights activists of the past. The natural thinking was that when ideologies of oppression were largely banished, oppression would largely vanish with it. But it turns out to be a bit more like an onion, and the old racism, once removed, reveal an oppression that operates by virtue of inertia of the past, and who’s harm is more subtle but none the less stand in the way of real equality. This new definition, tied into institutional power, and exclusive to oppression from above, accomplishes that very well. It no longer requires opponents to hold an ideological view and allows for acts of resistance that are racially targeted against the dominant group.

Basically, the battle lines of racism have moved sufficiently in American Society that the definition used to demarcate the battle needed to be adjusted to accurately define the point of conflict.

Challenges to the new definition

There is a lot of resistance to this re-drawing of the battle lines. A big part of this resistance is that it can effectively change which side of the line people are standing on, without them ever having taken a step. Suddenly a lot of white people find themselves described as racists when under the old definition they were civil rights advocates. People who felt they did their part changing society and fighting against explicitly racist ideology are now part of the forces of oppression. This is a challenge to their very identity, something people are known to resist with a lot of passion. If you are a minority, mostly you stand where you always stood, wanting equal treatment and justice in society.

What you want is to have your erstwhile allies take a step to move onto your side of the newly drawn lines, and to feel not that they are being moved there by force, but simply that they be aware of the dimensions of the new struggle and what it calls for. That is not an easy thing to achieve. And what we are seeing is that while some have done so, others have essentially decided to stay put and are now counted on the side of the opposition. I think this helps explain how someone who once voted for Obama, could turn around and vote for Donald Trump. Their personal views have not shifted, but the moving battle lines have thrown them into the opposition camp, partly because they feel they have been re-defined as an enemy to those they used to support.

We have seen some of the real results of this kind of shift. Despite so many Americans claiming they oppose racism, a candidate was elected president who garners active support from explicit white supremacist and neo-nazi fascists. A candidate who while not explicitly racist, uses dog whistle language and anti-immigrant sentiment to play to those who are and to stoke the divisions of those who may not be, but now resent the labeling of their viewpoints as the new racism.

And finally, you have the simple question I started with. If we change the meaning of racism, what do we call what we used to call racism and what do we call subjugation outside of the context of national institutional power? What do we call a black woman who treats his latino maid like dirt? What do we call a Chinese American who discriminates against African Americans? What do we call a black man who wants to kill only white men? Clearly, none of these are behaviors we want to have. They all involve victimization. They are all motivated by racial animosity or dehumanization of some sort. They are all disruptive to a cooperative and just society. If we ever do achieve a mostly egalitarian society, how do we stamp out the feelings of racial animosity among those who were oppressed and may seek revenge, setting off cycles of violence and likely leading to further oppression?

Where I currently stand on this argument

I try to remain forever open to changing my views. I’m reluctant to adopt this new definition for racism for many of the reasons above. I grew up opposed to the ideology of racism and as continue to feel the desire to attack and disrupt those who argue for it or practice it. I want to be an ally of minorities in freeing themselves of all manner of oppression, but I don’t want to lump in what I see as well meaning people with a similar ideology to my own, with KKK members and neo-nazis. These types of people deserve to be distinguished apart based on the character of their beliefs and personal actions. I also feel that it is the nature of humanity that you can never fully wipe out ideas, or achieve full equality. Life is inherently unfair and unequal in some ways and you can do more harm than good trying to force it to be otherwise. In most areas of life, you have to accept some level of imperfection to stay sane and happy.

I also feel that it is the nature of humanity that you can never fully wipe out ideas, or achieve full equality. Life is inherently unfair and unequal in some ways and you can do more harm than good trying to force it to be otherwise. In most areas of life, you have to accept some level of imperfection to stay sane and happy. The majority population, whatever it is, will almost always hold social advantages of some kind. I think the level of oppression partly dictates the strength of the response. Mild prejudice deserves a mild rebuke and correction. I’ve seen some argue “racism isn’t always a great evil, so don’t take being called a racist that harshly.” But where would that leave us when we want to be harsh because someone’s racist views and actions truly were abhorrent?

So for now, I stand as somewhat skeptical of this re-definition, but not opposed to it. I see the need for it. I agree with the intention behind it. But as a matter of tactics, and a matter of language, I’m not entirely convinced. For now, I’m inclined to say something like “institutional racism” to describe this newly defined opponent of equality. I’m not ready to drop its use in describing racial animosity that doesn’t fall along traditional lines of power. For me, it is day to day personal actions that are most actionable for each of us, and lines of power between individuals don’t always follow social lines. I will always feel that each of us should strive to treat everyone with kindness and respect regardless of race, sex and so forth and that we are judged by our actions, words, and other public expressions rather than our birthrights.




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