The language of white shaming

The word “racism” originally meant an ideology based on the claim that there were genetic differences between races, that justified domination by the supposedly superior race.

The phrase “white supremacy” originally meant the rule of white people over non-white people, as formerly in the U.S. Old South, apartheid South Africa and British, German and Dutch colonies with “color bar”.

The phrase “white privilege” meant legal rights that were granted to white people that were denied to black people—for example, the right to attend law school in Mississippi.

Now these words are being redefined so as to stigmatize well-meaning liberal white people for their  blind spots and unconscious prejudices.

Being made aware of my blind spots and unconscious prejudices is a good thing, not a bad thing.   But I do not accept being labeled by the same words that are used to describe the Ku Klux Klan.

Such use of language provides cover to the real racists.   It can be a recruiting tool for the real racists.  And it is used by affluent, urban white people as an excuse to ignore the interests of working America and rural America.

You can only get so far by using white guilt as a lever to change behavior.  Guilt is like everything else in the world.   Some people have much too much of it, some too little and those who need it most don’t have any at all.   The only people who can be influenced by manipulation of guilt are those who are on your side already.

Racist ideology is something new under the sun.   Only in the 18th and 19th century did white people come to believe that humanity is divided into a few racial groups and that the Caucasian white group had a right to dominate all the others.

Slavery, imperialism and oppression were practiced for thousands of years before racist ideology came into existence.   I think the reason racism arose when it did was the need to reconcile democracy and equal rights (among white people) with slavery and imperialism (over none-white people).

Racism was once accepted by the majority of white people.  Respected statesmen such as Woodrow Wilson and Winston Churchill were racists.  When I was a boy, racist views and language were still socially acceptable.

This is no longer true for the majority of white Americans, but that doesn’t mean racist ideology has gone away.

The Ku Klux Klan still exists, and a new white nationalist movement has emerged.   Among other things, they encourage their members to enlist in the armed forces to get military training, and then get jobs in law enforcement.   These are the dangerous racists.

I think the word “racist” also applies to white people who may not believe in racism as an ideology, but who are willing to exploit non-white people based on their race or deny them basic rights based on their race.

One example would be mortgage brokers who targeted black and Hispanic people in making subprime loans they knew could not be paid back, then sold these loans based on phony bond ratings.   Another would be political operatives who use bogus means to strike black and Hispanic voters from registration rolls in order to give Republicans an advantage.

But nowadays, the word “racist,” like the word “fascist” in George Orwell’s time, is used so broadly that it has lost its meaning and force.

A writer named John Scalzi says anybody who voted for Donald Trump is pro-racist, including those who voted for Barack Obama in the previous two elections and no matter what the reason for voting for Trump.

One problem with this is that if you accuse a person with no ill-will toward black people of being a supporter of racism, you make that person more open to racist ideology.  Why not, they may ask, if you are going to be called a racist anyway?

I had a friend who once berated herself for being a racist because, when her car broke down in a poor black neighborhood, she felt uneasy when young black men on the corner came over to help.

My friend is one of the best and kindest people I know.  If someone like her is a racist, what to you call Richard Spencer or David Duke?

I’ve been called a racist several times during my life—for example, once when I said the reason so few black people became Unitarian Universalists is that most of them probably were satisfied with historically black churches.

Once when I was working as a newspaper reporter, I was at a staff meeting and a young black women—the only black person in the room—casually remarked that we all were racists.

Seeing the expressions on our faces, she quickly backtracked and said she didn’t mean anything by the remark.  After all, she said, everybody is racist, in one way or another.

But again, if everybody is racist (as distinguished from being prejudiced), what force does the word “racist” have?

Being called “racist” never bothered me nor affected my life chances in any way, but nowadays, an accusation of racism, even if for trivial or unfounded reasons, can end your career.   If any thoughtless remark can get you labeled a racist, what chance is there for honest conversation?

The other thing about the R-word is that high-status white people use it to claim moral superiority over low-status white people, and to shut off debate.

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, the increase in violent crime was a serious problem.   But high-status white people said “law and order” was a code word for racism.   They used their influence to rule the issue out-of-bounds to discuss.

The same with immigration today.  Immigration restriction and enforcement of immigration laws are defined by high-status citizens as code words for xenophobia.  They use their influence to rule the issue out-of-bounds for discussion.

But if only George Wallace and Richard Nixon are willing to talk about law and order, and only Donald Trump is willing to talk about immigration, they are the ones who will be listened to.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said there were three categories of white people who held back civil rights—the open bigots and racists; public officials who were indifferent to the plight of black people; and white people who professed concern for civil rights, but resisted taking any action for specific change.

I don’t dispute this.  But Dr. King’s language was precise.  He reserved the word “racist” for those who really were.


My next post will be about “white privilege”.


The Fascist Right Is Bloodied and Soiled by Brendan O’Connor for Splinter.  [Added 4/3/2018]

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