As we confront our nation’s election of a man who dwells blithely in stereotype and caricature, many of us are wondering what we are to do as responsible citizens faced with what many of us regard as a political and moral catastrophe. One thing someone opposed to Donald Trump’s unenlightened, “mean boy” perspective on women, nonwhites, the disabled, Muslims, and others might consider doing is to avoid imitating him.
It may seem perhaps the least likely thing an anti-Trumpian would do, but there’s a word we might consider tempering our usage of in the coming years, given that the way we use it opens us to certain charges involving kettles and the color black. I refer to the word “racist.”
The Martian anthropologist would recognize no difference between the way those accused of being witches were treated in 17th-century Salem, Mass., and the way many innocent people are being accused of “racism” today. Those appalled by the way people were tarred with the Communist label in the 1940s and 1950s must recognize that America has blundered into the same censorious mob mentality in assailing as “racists,” just recently, people such as Ellen DeGeneres — for Photoshopping herself riding on Jamaican gold medal sprinter Usain Bolt’s back in celebration of his win — and Hillary Clinton — for referring to the black men terrorizing poor black neighborhoods as “superpredators” in describing plans for protecting people in those neighborhoods from such crime.
Or, many of us have for days been furiously dismissing Trump’s victory as the action of “racists.” However, many of the people who voted for Trump did so for populist reasons, amid which to them, Trump’s take on black people and women was unseemly, but still less of a priority than to most who voted for Hillary Clinton. Regret this though one may, do all of these people deserve to be casually tarred with the same “racist” label that we appropriately apply to David Duke and Donald Sterling?
The way we use the word “racism” has become so imprecise, abusive, and even antithetical to genuine activism that change is worth addressing. More to the point, it widens the cultural divide between the elites and the people too often breezily termed the ones “out there.”
The basic meaning of racism refers to a sentiment that a person or group of people is inferior because of their race. Certainly the enlightened person will understand that such a sentiment need not be expressed via direct abuse, physical or verbal. Rather, racism can be just as pernicious in the form of, as Clinton reminded us in her first debate with Trump several weeks ago, implicit bias. One hardly need espouse segregated water fountains to have subtly negative associations about, for example, black people, as psychological tests have amply demonstrated.
Intelligent Americans will police themselves for such implicit biases, as they can infect the conduct and opinions of even the most well-intentioned person. Never in the history of human society has there reigned, among such a healthy proportion of a populace, such an advanced conception of human rights. It’s easy to forget what a moral advance the American civil rights movement was.
However, the meaning of the word “racism” has been changing. Of course all words’ meanings inevitably change over time, often becoming more abstract. The core meaning of “see” is to perceive with the eye, but “see” is regularly used to mean “to understand,” as in “I see what you mean.” With racism, a more specific change called subjectification is happening, where a word’s meaning becomes more personal than objective. “Rather” first meant “earlier,” but because what you put earlier is often something you prefer, gradually the word came to express your personal preference. “Sooner” shows this evolution pathway, in that it can still have both meanings: “I’d sooner die than marry him.”
In a similar way, racism is now used to mean not only “an opinion that certain people are inferior because of their race” but “a statement, action, or situation that someone of a certain race feels as having arisen from racist sentiment.” Racism, then, is that which I feel as racist, or something such as a societal discrepancy which I opine must have come from racism.
As reasonable as this new wing of racism’s meaning may sound to many, it lurches us into some grievous detours.
For one, too many of us today transmogrify this awareness of implicit bias into a kind of witch-hunt against other people, within which even the subtlest and most unintended of racist bias — or even what certain people insist is racist bias despite objections from reasonable others — is treated as a ghastly moral stain disqualifying a person from civilized society. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that in much of modern America, racist sentiment of any kind is treated not as a flaw but as a sin, people “outed” as racists with exactly the sneering, self-congratulatory joy of Dana Carvey’s Church Lady.
Ellen DeGeneres and Hillary Clinton are just the tip of the iceberg. Starlet Blake Lively was accused last summer of racism for praising her backside as resembling that of a black woman — phrasing it playfully as “Oakland booty.” Of late it’s Hilary Duff on the hot seat, since her dressing as a pilgrim for Halloween renders her, of course, subject to the same censure as an Archie Bunker or David Duke.
However, to understand that racism is real is not to pretend that humans will ever be perfect. If there is a way to eliminate implicit bias entirely, there are no studies showing that the way to do it is to tar and feather anyone displaying the slightest sign of any kind of insensitivity on the Internet for weeks. This new practice is more about self-congratulation than change, turning what began as an unprecedentedly mature understanding of the nature of racism into a grown-up version of tattletaling and cops and robbers. What happened to simply noting civilly that someone has made a mistake?
I also question another usage — take a deep breath — the hallowed term “societal racism.”
The term is cherished as illustrating that while open bigotry is increasingly proscribed, people of color still labor under the fact that their color makes them likely to be raised by people with less money, less access to solid schooling and health care, and less likely to obtain or keep a decent job. These things are true, and must be battled — but not with a term that blinds us to what really needs to be done.
Societal racism is now used to refer not to an attitude but to a result, as in the kind that ensues when a society is riddled with unequal opportunity caused by (among other things) race. We say that it is, therefore, “racist” that inner-city schools educate students less effectively than suburban ones because it affects black kids more than white ones, “racist” that it’s harder for a poor black man to get a low-skill factory job than it is for a middle-class white one to get a job as a middle manager. “Not in-your-face racism, of course, but the societal kind,” we remind one another.
This abstractification seems like a moral advance, but it creates problematic habits of mind. The core sense of racism as a sentiment harbored by a morally culpable agent lingers. The head and the heart are ever in battle, and the heart seeks a story about person against person. The term societal racism sits ever at the ready to slake that basal orientation, in implying that unpleasant societywide results call for the same response we have to the “racist” who does and feels things.
This can only play a part in the vague but pervasive notion nowadays that part of activism on behalf of people who need concrete assistance is primly patrolling people’s personal racist sentiments. We, as it were, think we must teach “society” not to be “a racist.” Thus it is thought more interesting to teach whites to acknowledge their “privilege” than to espouse reading programs that have been proven effective in teaching (black) kids how to read. Thus the last celebrity caught on tape saying something tacky about black people, because they have a face to hate on, is more interesting than answering poor women’s calls for easy access to long-acting reversible contraception in order to be able to plan when to have children. The war on drugs has been ruining black lives for decades — but only attracts serious attention from black activists when Michelle Alexander phrases it as “The New Jim Crow,” putting a Bull Connor face on it.
But societies and institutions do not feel. That which distracts our sentiments from that reality misdirects efforts to help people. I would replace societal racism with “racial inequality.” Others may have better suggestions, but we must get past a term encouraging the tempting idea that the way to address societal inequity is to craft variations on scolding white people — as poor black people look on underserved.
Finally, it should be clear in light of the above two problems that we also misuse the term racism in the insistence that no one wants to talk about it. It is now de rigueur at a certain kind of cocktail party to point out that in America “Nobody wants to talk about race,” with the comment typically made by people who live immersed in media that diligently dwells on race and racism week in and week out. America is rather obsessed with talking about race. Ta-Nehisi Coates has won a National Book Award and a MacArthur prize for a book and articles about racism. Police murders of black people regularly get months-long national coverage. Educated America satirizes the person “out there” who wonders why everything has to be about race — which suggests that such people encounter the topic being “talked about” quite a bit.
The idea that America “doesn’t talk about” racism is absurd, and is actually a euphemism from people who feel that too few Americans talk about racism in what they would consider the right way. That is, they worry that not enough Americans consider racism to be a definitive obstacle to black advancement, and that too many are weary of people’s broaching the issue and dismiss it as unnecessarily “stirring that stuff up.”
To parse this, however, as “Nobody wants to talk about race” channels a kind of smugness. It implies that the people “out there” are actually closing their ears to any discussion at all of race and racism as if it were roughly 1947. This is unfair to a great many people who don’t deserve to be labeled Cro-Magnons for not agreeing with The Nation’s take on race, and also lends a portrait of America that sacrifices empiricism for self-congratulation. We can do better.
In our moment, my comments will elicit from many the question as to whether I consider Donald Trump a racist. The answer is yes — his feigning lack of familiarity with the opinions of David Duke and his explicit statements about black people’s purported laziness decide the case rather conclusively for me, and I am revolted that he will be our president for this and countless other reasons. However, the problem is treating Ellen DeGeneres, Hillary Clinton, or even Trump voters as if they deserve being discussed in the same vein as he does.
They don’t, and only the mission creep the word racism has undergone lends any impression otherwise. Meanwhile, the melodramatic quality in designating well-meaning people who slipped up a bit as “racists” is clear to most observers, and it dulls their receptiveness to genuine, serious accusations of bigotry. Rather, “racist” starts to come off as a mere angry bludgeon used by a certain set of people committed to moral condemnation and comfortable with shutting down exchange. A common idea among Blue Americans is that the people “out there” shirk the racist label out of what could only be naïve denial. That happens — but what if a lot of them get weary of being commanded to pretend that Ellen DeGeneres is a bigot?
Social justice is about being honest and outwardly focused. Our language must encourage us in that. The way we currently use the term racism does not.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Hilary Duff’s name.
John McWhorter teaches linguistics, philosophy, music history, and American Studies at Columbia University. Follow him on Twitter at @JohnHMcWhorter.