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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