Racism & Rumours of Racism

I have found myself in multiple instances over the past week deflecting accusations of racism. This is a rather odd position for me to be in and a role I am not entirely comfortable with, to be perfectly honest. Mostly, because I believe racism to be a persistent presence in our society and my views on racism are actually rather centrist, tilting ever so slightly to the left. I could do a laundry list of my positions on various issues, but I will spare you that (unless someone wants me to demonstrate that I am not your prototypical southern hick). On the other hand, for a variety of reasons, I am perhaps a little more sympathetic to people to people who are racist or would be considered a racist by some. By “sympathetic” I don’t mean “I share their viewpoint” but rather “I don’t view them as inherently the scum of the earth.”

Broadly speaking, there are two views that I consider to be on the extremes of the issue.

The first is that racism is either something that no longer exists in any meaningful sense or something that can be ignored into oblivion. Anything short of a burning cross on a black family’s front lawn is not inherently racism, and we can actually add some nuance to that burning cross if we tried really hard (they didn’t put the cross in front of all black lawns, of course). As Christopher Priest once summarized, it’s only truly racism once every other possibility has been completely exhausted. And even a comment about black people or brown people or whatever doesn’t apply unless it’s clear that they are talking about all black people or brown people and/or that they wouldn’t say that if black people and/or brown people would simply behave the right way. Now, very few people will state all of the above, but talk to some folks long enough and you get the distinct feeling that this is where they are ultimately headed. Nearly any act of racism short of the KKK will be defended.

The second view is that racism is ever-present in white society and heavily influences white views on everything. And half of what white people say – particular conservatives – is code. When they talk about crime, they’re talking about black people. When they talk about good schools, they’re talking about the absence of black students. When they express concerns over welfare, they’re really wanting to deny help to black people. When they talk about excessive touchdown celebrations, they’re talking about black people stubbornly refusing to act like white people. When they talk about “that music” they’re talking about music created or inspired by black people. This would actually be an interesting line of inquiry and avenue of discussion, except that its presentation usually signals the end, rather than the beginning, of meaningful discussion. We can define racism broadly and recognize that some forms are incidental and accidental, or we can define it narrowly and determine it as morally disgusting. Unfortunately, the result is often the breadth of the first and the disgust of the latter. Racism becomes not something that good-minded people should be cognizant of when evaluating their views on something, but the determinant of who are the good guys and who are the bad guys.

Now, most conservatives don’t fall fully into the first category and most liberals do not fall fully into the second. But these are the ends of the spectrum to which I refer (there are people off the spectrum because either they believe that racism is good or they believe racism is merely a cudgel to win arguments, both of which I am ignoring at the moment).

On discussions of race, I actually fall at least slightly to the second side of the spectrum. I really don’t think racism is a thing of the past or relegated to some small subset of the population. I think it a part of the human condition that is at best resisted. This is especially true when race is an immediately visible signal for larger cultural issues.

However, in discussions of other issues, I fear that it often sidetracks conversations rather than really contributes to them. With the exception of expressly racial issues, or when someone brings up an expressly racist viewpoint in advancement of their cause, it tends to reduce a plethora of thoughts and motivations into something simple and, errr, black and white. It can reduce all other arguments to non-falsifiable racist “code.” And, in rendering counterarguments moot, can shut down the discussion. (And that’s when it’s not used cynically simply to discredit the guy you are arguing with.) There is value in pointing out racist arguments (someone who consistently refers to “Shaniqua and her seven kids” instead of “welfare recipients”), but it often transcends that into arguing that a particular position is racist, or that one side of the argument is infested with racists (which, oh-by-the-way, makes my argument the superior one).

Of course, none of this is not to say that there isn’t some value in expressly discussing race and another issue. Say, crime. This is what makes it so difficult. When it comes to, for instance, three strikes laws. The fact that most of the affected will be of one or two particular races is rather significant. The differences in sentencing of white defendants and black ones? Significant. In doing so, however, the conversation will (in my experience) shift from being one about race and crime into one primarily about race and racism with a context of crime. That does not, of course, make it a conversation not worth having. A while back I trotted out a study that demonstrated that a white ex-con was more likely to get a callback on dropping off a resume than a black without a criminal history dropping off an equivalent resume. What ensued was a discussion not about fair employment practices (which was fine, since I brought it up mostly for a race discussion anyway).

One of the things that makes this all so difficult is the convergence between race and other issues, most particularly culture. To look at immigration for a second, I believe that a whole lot of the opposition would persist if we were talking about 10+ million Russians, or Armenians, or virtually anything except Anglophonic Canadians. But we use cultural concerns, many of which are not inherently invalid, and chalk it up to race. This puts two issues under one banner and makes that one banner rather large. And then, for some, any other concern is disingenuous or code, and it becomes the racist side and the non-racist side. Yay.

But the culture questions creep into other issues as well. Ryan Bonneville’s post on Costas is a good point of this. Whites are frequently critical of the cultural norms of other whites and often do not hesitate in saying so. Maybe, if the NFL was still predominantly white, nobody would have any problem with choreographed touchdown celebrations. Or maybe they would. But the notion that general cultural criticism inherently ought to end at the race’s edge is highly problematic for a whole host of reasons. Not only can’t you single out minorities for criticism (which is not a bad policy!), but you can’t criticize behavior of anybody so long as the people you can’t criticize are doing it. If Costas had singled out black players, that would have been problematic. If he had singled out white players (essentially saying “don’t act like the black players”) I suspect that would not have gone over well, either. Criticizing both didn’t go over well. The behavior in question, by virtue of the fact that a lot of high profile minorities do it, apparently ought to be beyond reproach*.

As long as there are cultural issues between (in this case) black folks and white folks, and as long as there are differences in education, behavior, language, cultural norms, and so on, it becomes difficult or impossible to discuss a wide host of issues without there being oxygen-sucking racial implications. Since most people don’t like to consider themselves racist, even when they are they will latch on to other rationales. This is, of course, the danger of never bringing up race because you are letting them hide behind false reasons. In my experience, though, the best response to this is to go after the other reasons. Go after the reasons that non-racists might end up being in the racist camp. I did this on the immigration issue and discovered that a lot of the other reasons were typically quite genuine and sometimes quite valid (even if I never reach their conclusion).

So if it seems that I have lately been going to the bat for alleged racists, that is why.

* – Of course, you can argue “Hey, I’m just criticizing Costas like he is criticizing the players.” But the R-word, whether we like it or not, takes the criticism to a whole new level. Just as we can’t pretend away racism and assume colorblindness, we can’t assume away “that’s racist” as something less than serious accusation. It would be better if we had a word that was the equivalent harshness as “snobby, but in a racial context” but we do not, and I am not sure turning racist into that word is a remarkably good idea unless we come up with another word to replace racist on the seriousness scale.

Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.


  1. Good stuff i almost completely agree with. When people want to say something is racist i think the conversation would be much improved if they specifically stated what was racist about the behavior or comment. That would, at least theoretically, start the conversation focused on a specific claim instead of the generalizations that get every bodies hackles up. Just saying something is racist, while often true, is usually lazy. Why is it racist? Is it applying a racist stereotype? Is a whitey talking down to a minority from a position of unearned power? Is a person applying a negative generalization or being essentialist?

  2. I think it’s precisely because we are unwilling or unable to draw a line between (for lack of a better term) white privilege and screaming, KKK-level racism that we are forced into the two camps you describe. If your first reaction when I (or anyone else) say, “Hey, I don’t think you’re a bad guy, but that was kind of a racist thing you just said”, is to interpret me as accusing you of violating all of the moral tenets of society, then we are pretty clearly not going to have a productive conversation.

    All that said, what I somewhat wish I had done (although not totally, because I think provocation has its virtues) is describe my feelings about the Costas rant in terms of privilege. I’m not at all sure that that would have helped – in my experience, white people tend to approach the idea of privilege the same way they approach racism, which is stating categorically that there’s no damn way they have any of that stuff – but maybe it would have.

    What it ultimately comes down to is that Costas is speaking to a group of people who very often come from modest or sub-modest or extremely sub-modest means, who are largely people of color, who are young, who are culturally dissimilar from him in all kinds of ways that line up along racial and socioeconomic lines, and he is telling those people that the way they behave in polite society is unacceptable. To his credit, he does try to phrase it in a way that is applicable to the game being played (costing your team yardage is a bad idea, explicitly because of the rules of the game). To his demerit, he also turns it into a broader culture critique that exposes a lot of fraught divisions. He doesn’t even attempt to understand why players behave the way they do; he just categorically condemns it.

    This comment is already long enough, but at the end of the day, we can’t have the second conversation if every time a borderline case comes up, we have to have the first one instead.

    Also, one last thing: I think it is an overstatement to use the word “code”. Some things are probably code – employed by politicians and public figures of all walks – but most of what’s going on is purely unconscious. That’s how privilege works: if you understand that something you’re saying or doing is racist and you say or do it anyway, that’s a level quite beyond privilege.

    • new motto: all conversations about race should start with
      “check your racism at the door, sucker”

      and end with…
      “now that i’ve said my piece, back me up next time, brother. Because nobody’s perfect.”

    • Given my childhood, I don’t know that you have the standing to criticize my privilege.

      I’m going to need to know more about you personally before I can properly address any criticism you have of me.

      • You are a white man. You have privilege. Inability or unwillingness to understand that is at the root of a lot of this.

        • do note that women have priviledge too, as do blacks. toastedpixel had a great comic up ages ago about “what blacks can wear”…

        • Um. This post doesn’t really square with your earlier call for nuance and subtlety in discussions of racism in America.

    • If your first reaction when I (or anyone else) say, “Hey, I don’t think you’re a bad guy, but that was kind of a racist thing you just said…

      OK, that’s BS, putting this on the one being accused. As Will points out, “racist” is a loaded term, so of course someone’s going to react to that charge, especially if you phrase it as a statement of fact rather than your own opinion. If you don’t want to see the negative reaction, try something more like “Hey, no doubt you didn’t mean it this way, but that seemed a little racially insensitive to me. But it’s possible I’m just reading too much into it.”

    • I think the issue with privilege is an even more amorphous, subjective, and multipolar term than racism. It would likely have gotten bogged down in definitions. Though it might have made for a better conversation that way. I would have responded differently.

      As long as your main point was “It’s just wrong for people over here to criticize the people over there based on the cultural norms of the people over here,” it was bound to cause some pushback. People don’t respond well to “Because of who you are, shut up” or censure of cross-cultural criticisms. And, at the end of the day, that appears to be where you are coming from.

      • We’ve spent thirty years educating society that Racism Is Evil. This means that flat-out accusing a person of Being Racist is equivalent to accusing them of Being Evil. That’s a pretty strong charge, something that requires a lot of backup, and–as KenB points out–it’s a loaded term, one that immediately sets the discussion at a higher emotional level.

        That’s where “privilege” comes from. “privilege” was invented so that people could have a not-immediately-inflammatory way to call their opponents racist.

    • Two notes:

      > White people tend to approach the idea of privilege
      > the same way they approach racism

      I find this to be generally true. Not so much around here, though. I think you may be leading with the assumption.

      > What it ultimately comes down to is that Costas is
      > speaking to a group of people who very often come
      > from modest or sub-modest or extremely sub-
      > modest means, who are largely people of color,
      > who are young, who are culturally dissimilar
      > from him in all kinds of ways that line up along
      > racial and socioeconomic lines

      This is a very (!) good frame, and you ought to have included it as the basis for your original post… but!

      > … and he is telling those people that the way
      > they behave in polite society is unacceptable

      This is where I get off the train. The end zone is not “polite company”. The rant (what I watched of it, anyway, maybe he went off the rails later) is focused on celebrations in the end zone. Costas isn’t talking about people eating with their fingers at a BBQ joint while meeting Obama on a campaign stop, with a clucking tongue.

      He’s talking about a specific place in the specific context of the game of football.

  3. I gotta say, most modern accusations of racism seem to follow the reasoning of “If I were a racist I would act like (x). Therefore anyone who acts like (x) is doing it because they’re racist.”

    In other words, when you call me racist, it’s not because I’m racist, and it’s not because you are either; it’s because you have a picture in your mind of what racism looks like, and I happened to do something that looks like that picture.

    • This is a good point for… well, a lot of stuff other than just racism.

  4. Will –

    I feel compelled to comment, not least because I wonder if you might count me among those who has implied you were a racist in the past few days. If that is the case, know that this was not my intention.

    Moving past that, I do of course agree with most of what you say here, if not all of it. As I said to Ryan over in the Costas threads,

    “At the end of the day, I think that racism is both pernicious and destructive, and moreover is deeply rooted in all of us – and that it takes great care and discipline to recognize when we are having a reaction to someone who is different simply based on the fact that they are different. That being said, I’m not sure that the exercise of seeking signs of racism in others without personal introspection is so useful. At best, it leads to long threads of Scott and (Just-Mike) Mike pissing on each other but saying nothing. At worst it makes things… well, worse.”

    (I might note that Ryan is in a agreement with me on this, though we still see Costas differently.)

    The one area where we might differ is on the underlying intentions under public policy issues such as welfare, national security and immigration. I gather that you see nothing intentional, but I fear I do. As I said over on the main page, I think all of those things that make others different from us can, if we are not careful, contribute to us seeing them differently and as somehow “less.” I think race falls into this category, and I think that it IS intentionally tickled by those seeking power.

    The Willie Horton ad, for example, was only about about crime… except that it really wasn’t. Ditto the Sharon Angle ads from last Fall. Republicans hammering on issues of “inner-city crime” to old white people in Iowa isn’t really about crime in the Bronx. Similarly Democratic pollsters know exactly what they’re doing when the canvas black neighborhoods, asking questions that frighten people that the Tea Party is out to get them.

    And of course it’s not just race. Most Democrats with national reach have worked among and with enough evangelicals to know we can all get along in a pluralistic society, but you’d never know it by things that are just under the surface of what they say when raising money. Most of the folks in the Bush II administration knew enough gays and lesbians (some were even related to them) to know they weren’t out to target our children and wreck our way of life, but that didn’t stop them from tweaking fears of the “other” among their constituency when they needed a few extra dollars and votes.

    I’d like us all to talk more about race as a country. Because I really do think we are hardwired to see the worst in those we find different, and I think those who want our vote will exploit this – to no good end.

    • I don’t see anything in this comment that I disagree with. I do believe Willie Horton was a racial thing. They did, however, attach it to a legitimate issue (crime). There is a race discussion here (we shouldn’t equate blacks and crimes) and there is a policy discussion here (crime). Saying “The Willie Horton ad was racist” is one thing. Using the Willie Horton ad as an exemplar for the crime issue… that’s another.

      I don’t disagree that there is demagoguery involved. Of course, there is also reverse demagoguery. Which is avoiding the content and saying “They’re just saying that because they don’t like certain kinds of people.” The Republican Party was particularly bad about this for a while. It was actually effective for a while, too, but eventually people realized that Sarah Palin really was what many of her critics were saying she was, regardless of what we think about rural America in general.

      Actually, Palin is not a bad example at all. Her defenders argue that liberals hate her because she is not “elite”. And you know what? Some of them do! They hated her long before she gave them (ample) reason to. But that doesn’t mean the criticisms they settled on were invalid. And so, “they hate her because she is not ‘elite,'” stopped resonating.

        • Also, I did not take what you said as accusing me of racism. I try not to pull that particular card, make that particular assumption. I came up short with that with Ryan recently, though that was more a matter of presentation than offense. And, for my own actual part, I am ready to be called a racist. Because somebody will at some point and I don’t feel like I have anything to prove in that regard, and if I am worried about it, it might mean I need to re-evaluate things. One of my favorite quotes:

          “Expect to be called a stand-patter, but don’t be a stand-patter. Expect to be called a demagogue, but don’t be a demagogue. Don’t hesitate to be as revolutionary as science. Don’t hesitate to be as reactionary as the multiplication table.” -CC

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