Who’s a racist?

So recently we’ve seen two really remark­able exam­ples of obtuse, stu­pid, clown­ish buf­foon­ery on the sub­ject of race. First scofflaw rancher Cliven Bundy sug­gest­ing that “the nigroes” would have been bet­ter off under slav­ery, when they learned to pick cot­ton and could be with the fam­i­lies and had some­thing to do.” Sec­ond is the remark­ably con­fused and remark­ably loath­some set of com­ments from Don­ald Ster­ling, owner of the LA clip­pers, in which he insisted that his girl­friend not bring black peo­ple to games and not be pho­tographed with black peo­ple. Are these com­ments racist?

I want to argue again for a very spe­cific def­i­n­i­tion of racism: a racist is some­one who believes in the bio­log­i­cal fact of race. Any his­to­rian would agree that there have always been, through­out human his­tory, forms of “color pref­er­ence.” It’s been a human prac­tice for thou­sands of years to to ter­ri­ble things to peo­ple who look dif­fer­ent, often sim­ply because they look dif­fer­ent. That’s not the same as racism. I think pretty much all his­to­ri­ans would also agree that “racism” appeared at a very spe­cific moment in human history–I’d put it in the 18th cen­tury. “Race” is closely con­nected to enlight­en­ment sci­ence, and to mod­ern cap­i­tal­ism. Amer­i­can slav­ery was a very spe­cific form of bru­tal unfree­dom: it was racial slav­ery, but­tressed by a sci­en­tific idea of racial inferiority.

I argued before that it’s impor­tant to make a dis­tinc­tion between racism and big­otry, even though those two things usu­ally go together. It’s pos­si­ble, but unlikely and rare, to be a racist and a lov­ing per­son who treats all peo­ple fairly and with­out prej­u­dice. And it’s pos­si­ble to be, it seems to me, big­oted against dark or light skinned peo­ple with­out being a racist, per se. Most of the time racism and big­otry go hand in hand. But they aren’t the same thing: “color big­otry” pre­dates racism, which again is a spe­cific phe­nom­e­non of the “age of enlightenment.”

bundySo is Cliven Bundy a racist? I can’t tell for sure, but I’m lean­ing yes. I think he’s at least an igno­rant buf­foon, polit­i­cally inco­her­ent, and that his weird claim that slav­ery was bet­ter for “nigroes” strongly sug­gests he’s a racist, because he’s not sug­gest­ing it would be bet­ter for white peo­ple. That he talks about “the nigroe” as if all black peo­ple were the same strongly sug­gests this as well; that he thinks “the nigroe” is a lesser being who ben­e­fited from being under slav­ery con­firms it. Does he believe for­mer slaves have an “ances­tral claim” to the land their for­bears worked? Bundy may indeed be a kind per­son and have black friends and not be a bigot. It’s pos­si­ble to be a racist and have no mal­ice in your heart. This is no doubt how he thinks of him­self. I’m tempted to say he’s a racist but not a bigot. It’s impor­tant to call this stuff out for what it is. That he may like indi­vid­ual black peo­ple does not obscure the racism.

stirlingDon­ald Ster­ling appears to be a par­tic­u­larly loath­some per­son. The record strongly, really over­whelm­ingly, sug­gests he’s both a racist and a bigot. The really creepy thing about Ster­ling is that his girl­friend, the one who he was taped talk­ing to, describes her­self as part black. He owns an NBA fran­chise with mostly African Amer­i­can play­ers. He under­stands him­self as some­one gives black play­ers food and cloth­ing out of noblesse oblige. Ster­ling puts us right into the most hor­ri­ble and twisted aspects of the Amer­i­can white suprema­cist tra­di­tion: he loves the thing he loathes. He’s like Jef­fer­son, sleep­ing with Sally Hem­mings while doubt­ing that black peo­ple had souls, or Strom Thur­mond hav­ing an African Amer­i­can Mis­tress while defend­ing seg­re­ga­tion, or fans of the min­strel show, drawn to imi­tate and emu­late the thing they claimed to dis­dain, or white racists who pro­fess to love indi­vid­ual black peo­ple. Ster­ling embod­ies all that’s worst about the white suprema­cist tra­di­tion in Amer­i­can life–its con­tempt, its sys­temic big­otry, but also its slip­pery, wease­ley qual­ity of claim­ing to love the tar­get of its disdain.

In a bet­ter world the NBA play­ers would join together and sim­ply refuse to play the LA Clip­pers until they got rid of Sterling–simply boy­cott all Clip­pers games.

I think it’s very impor­tant to be as pre­cise as pos­si­ble about charges of “racism.” and to sort out actual racism from big­otry, and big­otry from uncon­scious priv­i­lege. In the case of Ster­ling we seem to have all these things in one creepy package.

Update: read this defense of Ster­ling to see why it’s impor­tant to sort out the rela­tion­ship between big­otry and racism


Historical Convention Merch

After the most recent OAH a friend a col­league, Adam Roth­man, sug­gested a line of T-shirts. We came up with a few ideas. Feel free to add your own.


Blogging and the return of the repressed

Ear­lier today I was at an OAH round­table on blog­ging as schol­ar­ship. There were a num­ber of dis­tin­guished blog­gers there (Anne Lit­tle;  Ken­neth Owen; Ben­jamin Alpers; John Fea), all of whom blog in very dif­fer­ent styles. The audi­ence was great. I thought I’d post some of my argu­ment about why blog­ging is valu­able as schol­ar­ship: it […]


What do we mean by “racist?”

The term gets used all the time. Ed Kil­gore, at Talk­ing Points Memo, says “you don’t have to be a racist to prac­tice racism.” This makes zero sense to me. What is racism? How is it dif­fer­ent from prej­u­dice or big­otry? My answer is pretty sim­ple: a racist is a per­son who believes in the […]


It was misrepresented

Last week I made a post about the UNC stu­dent who allegedly received an A– for a 146 word pla­gia­rized para­graph on Rosa Parks. I thought it smelled funny. Yes ath­letes are allowed to dodge hard col­lege work–who doesn’t believe that? But this just smelled “off,” for the rea­sons explained. Well it turns out it […]


This is a fake

So recently ESPN  did a story about big time col­lege ath­letes and aca­d­e­mics. Exhibit A was a “paper” allegedly turned in by an ath­lete at UNC. The para­graph, on Rosa Parks, allegedly received an A– Here it is: The inter­net agrees: this is an out­rage. I agree too. This is an F in a class of […]


Corporate Hobbies

The Supreme Court seems poised to rad­i­cally revise Amer­i­can cor­po­rate law, by enter­tain­ing the idea that a cor­po­ra­tion can have reli­gious beliefs. (Thea­poretic is not a cor­po­rate lawyer, so if any reader has more accu­rate knowl­edge he wel­comes the cor­rec­tion to what fol­lows). Hobby Lobby, a pri­vately held cor­po­ra­tion, objects to the fact that Obamacare […]


So are there any good historical movies?

Mr smarty pants critic, thea­poretic, thinks Twelve Years a Slave is a bad movie, and thinks he proved why, with­out hav­ing actu­ally seen the movie, quite an absurd posi­tion indeed. Crit­i­cism is easy–are there any good his­tor­i­cal movies? Thea­poretic, hav­ing a nine year old child, does not go to the movies much because babysit­ting. But […]


More on 12 years a slave

There were lots of sto­ries of slav­ery and escape from slav­ery writ­ten by the slaves them­selves;  a whole genre of North Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture. You can find all the pub­lished North Amer­i­can slave nar­ra­tives col­lected here, free and in dig­i­tal form. It’s fan­tas­tic resource. Some of the nar­ra­tives were world renowned in their day, some were […]


Why I Probably Won’t Ever Watch Twelve Years a Slave

Twelve Years a Slave is based on the mem­oir of Solomon Northup, who was born in com­fort­able free­dom and kid­napped into slav­ery. Right there is the prob­lem. The movie is pre­sented as an indict­ment of the insti­tu­tion of slav­ery, and beyond that as a par­tic­u­larly vivid and real­is­tic account of the awful­ness of slav­ery. But […]