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 idea of “race” as a real thing. It’s standard among academics to argue there is no such thing as “the white race,” for example: it’s a made up idea. “But I look outside, and mostly I see white people!” “Look at Congress, mostly white people.” The answer is that “white” is only a convenient shorthand we have invented to group Italians, Jews, Irish, Spanish, Polish, etc into a single category. We know “white person” is a made up term when we consider people who blur the boundaries–dark skinned white people, light skinned people with slightly asian features. One of the classic problems with “white people” in the US has been historically, Arabs. White or not? The other, classically, is Asian Indians, who are in some cases supposed to be “caucasian” but have brown skin. “Caucasian” itself is an entirely made-up term. Similarly “black” includes people whose skin color ranges from light brown to deep black. We call people black even though they are clearly mixed–exhibit “A” being Barack Obama.

So a racist, I would argue, is a person who believes in the idea of “race” as an actual real thing, a biological fact. Lots of people believe this.

By this definition, you can be a racist and be a really nice guy. You can be a racist and believe in equal opportunity for all, equal justice and fairness for all. You can be a racist and insist on ending segregation. You can be a racist and not hate anybody. A racist is someone who believes in the legitimacy of “race” as a biological fact. Segregationist would often say that they had no personal dislike of the black race, they just thought the races should stay separate. This is racism, even if in fact they sincerely DO like the members so the other race and bear them no ill will.

I’m willing to say “I am not a racist” because I do not believe at all in the idea of race.

But before I congratulate myself, the related problem is bigotry. You can be a bigot without being a racist. If you think lawyers are all bad people, you are bigoted against lawyers. If you hate all liberals, or all conservatives, because “they are all” this or that, you are a bigot. Nobody thinks lawyers are a race: hating all lawyers is a form of bigotry, not racism. I’m certainly not free of bigotry, though I try to be. If you think all southerners are dumb, or all northerners are rude, you are a bigot. If you think all black people are lazy, you are a racist AND a bigot.

Obviously bigotry and racism go together quite nicely, and it’s relatively rare, it seems to me, to find a racist who is not also a bigot. The idea of “race” as a biological “fact” emerged at a moment when Europeans were colonizing the world and trading slaves. Coupling racism to bigotry was good business. It’s actually pretty hard, in this context, to be a racist and not also engage in the bigotry racism nearly always travels with. “Race” as an idea, an idea coupled to bigotry, is central to understanding US history. There is a vast political and economic structure in place which favors “white”people and grossly disfavors “black” people.

It’s not “racist” to point this out: there is nothing “racist” in pointing out the way bigotry and the idea of race have worked together to structure power. I don’t believe lawyers are a race: there are no biological lawyers. Yet I can undertake to regulate the legal profession. So too I can accept the idea of affirmative action, if it imagines “black” as a socially created category, not a biological fact. Accept it somewhat uneasily.

Obviously this is sticky territory. Could I accept legal segregation if “black” was understood was as a socially created category, not a biological fact? Maybe: it’s hard to know what that would look like. Would there be some kind of skin reflectivity test? Some kind of culture test? It would be pretty clear, pretty quickly, that we were testing for idiotic, trivial and silly things, things that had no weight and didn’t justify the apparatus of segregation. But if you couple skin reflectivity to an idea of “race,” then segregation begins to make some kind of sense, the sense of racism. Affirmative action has many of these problems. It’s a program born out of the overwhelming importance of the idea of race to American life. To the degree that imagines people as having a real biological race, then it’s a racist program. Nobody ever said equal opportunity was going to be easy.

Again, I’m arguing that a “racist” is a person who accepts the idea of race as a biological fact, a real thing. A bigot is a person who dislikes a group of others. Racism and bigotry generally go together.

Many people seem to think that if they aren’t being mean-spirited, then it’s not bigotry or racism. Paula Deen liked the idea of black people of servants at a wedding, she said, and it reminded her of the charming life of the antebellum south. Was she being a racist? I can’t know. She was speaking of something awful–racial slavery–as charming, and she was seeking to recreate the hierarchy of racial slavery for fun. But I don’t think I can call that “racist:” I need other words, like “clueless” or “insensitive” or tasteless. Saying “dark skinned people make attractive waiters” does not seem to me to be a racist statement, but it certainly sets off alarm bells: “I see dark skinned people as servile and their servility is charming.” “Dark skinned people,” though, are not automatically a race. So was she being a racist? I can’t tell.

Another good example might be depictions of the president as a monkey. Opponents of George Bush started a website/meme called “The Smirking Chimp.” It included images of Bush as a chimp. Images of the Obamas as chimps are even more common: are these “racist” images? Why are these images racist and not the images of Bush? I think the answer is obvious. There is a long history in the US of regarding African Americans as a lesser people, more primitive, closer to nature; there’s a long history of depicting African Americans as ape-like in the service of white supremacy. The people who made those images of the Obamas  might argue they were just expressing their perfectly reasonable distaste for Obama, not racist feelings. This seems highly unlikely to me. There are many depictions of the entire Obama family as monkeys. You never saw this for the Bush family. I’m calling these racist in spirit and intent. 

It seems to me the starting point should be: is “race” being treated as a biological fact in this depiction? Is genetic inferiority being imagined? Are the traits being mocked understood as “innate” and “biological?” As the examples above suggest, this wouldn’t end the ambiguity about “racist speech,” but it would be a good starting point for introducing some clarity into the debate.



  • Robin Marie wrote:

    Hello – I found my way here via the post on S-USIH about the panel on blogging as scholarship; I thought your response was stellar, so rambled on over here to check things out.

    While what you are doing here is interesting and, I think, has a certain amount of value, I’m also not sure about the distinctions you are drawing. While they make plenty of sense on their own terms, I think they make a key assumption I would disagree with – which is, simply, that “intent” is to be given a privileged position in determining whether or not something is racist.

    Take your example of Paula Deen. It is true that as we can’t read her mind (or her subconscious, for that matter) we can’t really say we know what she was doing or feeling, exactly, with her comments on the charm of plantation life. But we don’t really have to, I would argue, to call what she said racist. Because regardless of what is going on in the head of Paula Deen, the effect – both in the past, and the present – of such commentary is to feed into the apparatus, constituted both by overtly racist individuals and a more diffuse form of bigotry, to use your definitions – that props up practices and institutions of inequality breaking down along color lines.

    Sorry, that was not terribly clear – my point is that she was contributing to racism whether she intended to or not; the consequences of our utterances, thoughts, and even writings are never entirely in our control, and they cannot be evaluated solely, therefore, by what we “intended” (consciously or otherwise). This is why I am very suspicious of liberals who, when called on racist behavior, assumptions, or utterances, respond not by recognizing their participation in racism or bigotry or what have you, but by doubling down, becoming very defensive, and usually casting themselves as a victim of the “overly sensitive” discourse on race. It seems to me that these folks do not understand that their personal moral caliber or personal character is not what is at stake here, or what they should care the most about; what the question should really be about is how do we take responsibility for divorcing ourselves from a historical legacy which, truth be told, every single one of us is washed up in?

    For that reason, I think it is a more productive place to start by assuming we are all racist, and then to start to talk about what that means and what it looks like, and feels like, than to spend a lot of time parsing what is and isn’t racist. Perhaps using your definitions I would say we should start instead with the assumption that we are all bigoted; but, I am uncomfortable with this because it seems to obscure the fact that the said “bigotry” in play almost always plays out to the disadvantage of non-white people and, black people especially and particularly. I would say then that racism and bigotry are *too* tied up then, as you’ve pointed out, to justify a semantic separation; it doesn’t seem sufficiently justified by empirical realities.

    So if it functions to perpetuate the ideas, practices, and assumptions of white supremacy in America, it’s racist. From there, there is a lot more complexity – but to save us all from doing the dance of “I am holier than thou,” I think it’s best for us to get over our obsession with determining what is and isn’t racist so we can start to talk more about the consequences of all this material which generates so much debate just on the basis of fighting over definitions and protecting egos.

  • I really appreciate this comment and I don’t think I disagree with it at all. Racism and bigotry for the most part march hand in hand, and they undergird a system which has made white privilege the norm, and even the best intentioned person are enmeshed in this system whether they know it or not. This is why I want to map racism out with more care. There is no way to unpack white privilege without being as precise as possible about what makes it up.

    My book Face Value argues that American debates about the nature of money were permeated with racial language and racial essentialism; that Americans confused “specie” and “species.” In debates about both race and money there was a persistent desire for a naturalized, non-negotiable bottom line of meaning. This allowed Lincoln’s political opponents to compare black men in uniform to inflated greenback dollars.

    Lincoln, it seems to me, was a kindly intelligent bigot who hated slavery. But he wasn’t a racist. The distinction matters: Lincoln’s kindly bigotry had massively better real-life effects. Lincoln believed the difference between black and white was negotiable, not fixed. A racist believes the opposite: that nature has established non-negotiable essential differences between people.

    Lumping these both together as “white privilege ignores both the historical specificity of their differences and their outcomes. I think this kind of precision is valuable, even with a clownish figure like Paual Deen, who i agree is perpetuating a system of white privilege whether or not she believes in “race” as an essential catagory

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