Are we using the word “racist” too broadly these days, applying it to too varied a range of wrongs and to too wide a group of people?
Critics across the political spectrum have argued as much.
“There are people with far, far more offensive racial views than Donald Trump or Tucker Carlson,” the magazine American Conservative tweeted. “If Trump and Tucker are ‘racists,’ then what do you call those other people?” Former New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof similarly asked, “Do we really want to caricature half of Americans, some of whom voted for President Obama twice, as racist bigots?”
The argument has some force. These critics believe “racist” is one of the worst things you can call someone in our society today. If being racist is all-or-nothing, and nearly everyone and everything is getting called “racist” nowadays, then the word risks becoming descriptively meaningless and morally vacuous.
But whether or not “racist” is being used in such an all-or-nothing way is an empirical matter. And critics seldom, if ever, look to see how people are actually using this word. We are two empirically minded philosophers who used tools developed by linguists to examine the ordinary meaning of “racist” and other words like it.
We found that ordinary English speakers are not limited to an all-or-nothing use of “racist.” Instead, we found people can express moral condemnations of a wide range of different degrees of racism.
It is bad enough to be called “racist,” but it seems even worse to be called “a racist.” Are people limited to using “racist” in an all-or-nothing way when they use it as a noun?
To see how people are actually using the word “racist,” we used a text corpus, a collection of billions of words in their natural contexts, from literary works to internet comment sections. There were tens of thousands of uses of “racist,” but what was most striking about the results of our search were the words that tend to appear next to it.
Former President Trump once said, “I am the least racist person there is anywhere in the world.” As empirical researchers of language use, we take the semantic properties of his words seriously. In the corpus, there were thousands of occurrences of similar expressions that qualify the degree to which someone or something is racist, such as “London is a lot less racist than America,” and “Power rangers was the most racist show on tv haha.”
When we dug deeper, we found another curious pattern: When people qualify the degree to which something is racist, the phrase “slightly racist” occurs far more often than “almost racist.” What explains this pattern?
It turns out that the modifiers “slightly” and “almost” can tell us how an adjective works. Some adjectives, such as “flat” and “straight,” apply narrowly, only to the most extreme cases. With these narrow adjectives, it sounds natural to say “This stick is almost straight” because you can get close to being straight without quite being straight. And notice that it sounds weird to say “This stick is slightly straight” because it takes more than a little bit of straightness to count as straight.
In contrast, some other adjectives, such as “bumpy” and “bent,” apply to a wide range of cases. And they combine in the opposite way with “slightly” and “almost.” With these wide adjectives, it sounds natural to say “This stick is slightly bent” because just a little bend is enough to make the stick bent.
So the fact that we found “slightly racist” to be far more common than “almost racist” tells us that “racist” is a wide, rather than narrow, adjective. It is ordinarily used widely and is not restricted to just the most extreme cases. Here’s an example of a wide use we found: “Oh, and he’s slightly racist but in an old-person type way, not in a hateful type way.”
Have we gotten to the heart of critics’ worry, though? It is bad enough to be called “racist,” but it seems even worse to be called “a racist.” Are people limited to using “racist” in an all-or-nothing way when they use it as a noun?
We found the answer is still “No.” There were hundreds of examples in which people qualify the extent to which they are calling someone a racist. One such example we found involved Glenn Beck on the Fox News Channel dismissing Woodrow Wilson as “a big racist.” (As president, Wilson echoed the false narrative of Reconstruction from the White supremacist propaganda film “Birth of a Nation,” and implemented the resegregation of the federal government.)
There is an irony here. Critics accuse those who use the word “racist” broadly to be engaging in conceptual inflation. But they turn out to be the ones who are trying to change the way the word is used. They want the meaning of “racist” to be reserved for only the worst of the worst, even though the word is actually being used to cover a varied range of racial wrongs and to a wide group of people and things.
Ordinary language gives us the tools to talk about the different degrees to which things can be “racist.” That is why people can use “racist” with nuance even when they use the word broadly. Of course, not all uses of “racist” exhibit this nuance, but, in cases of misuse, the fault is with the user and not the word.
By insisting on reserving “racist” for only the most extreme cases, critics of conceptual inflation want to narrow its descriptive meaning and flatten the moral landscape. Their revisionary proposal can’t prevent misuses of “racist,” and it would make nuanced uses impossible. To the critics trying to revise the way we talk, we say: No thanks, people are using the word “racist” just fine.
Shen-yi Liao is a philosophy professor at University of Puget Sound.
Nat Hansen is a philosophy professor at the University of Reading.