A New Definition of Racism

In an earlier piece on this blog ("Obama, America, and Race," September 23, 2009), I argued that one of the problems progressives face in making their arguments, was that the country has not revised its definition of "racism." Instead of dealing with modern versions of hate, the term remains fixed in time, simplistically referring to a pot-bellied Southern sheriff wearing reflector sun glasses.

The problem with this stereotype is that it doesn't take into account more subtle forms of bigotry. It doesn't call out hatemongers who do not fit this narrow image, and thus get away with claiming they are not bigots at all.

Thus, in the prior article, I argued that what we needed was a new definition of racism, one that was more up to date, and thus provided an accurate labeling of bigots. Good to my word, I figured I should start.

Let's begin with the older characterization. For most Americans, the exclusive definition of a bigot is simple: someone who uses a racial or ethnic slur. If you refer to a Jew as a "kike," or an Asian as a "chink," you're a bigot. Easy and straightforward.

The problem with this version is that, while accurate, it is too limiting. It does not force those who engage in all the other forms of prejudice to take responsibility for their actions.

Many Americans, therefore, prefer a wider definition of a bigot, as one who makes explicit, derogatory statements about an entire group, rather than singling out one individual's problematic behavior. This kind of misery usually sounds like, "all Koreans are illiterate in English," rather than, "I had a problem understanding that particular clerk."

I suggest these uses are inadequate. Instead, my definition of a bigot is someone who also makes allusions to an entire group's inferiority or other negative trait; the hatred is implicit only.

This captures a lot more of how bigotry is actually displayed in real life, especially by politicians and media personalities. Remember George H.W. Bush's use of the Willy Horton image? The presidential candidate never defined black people as inherently violent, but the implication of those ads was that they indeed were prone to carrying out heinous crimes, as a group.

In another, more recent example, Bob Herbert in the New York Times reported how Rudy Guiliani, campaigning for Michael Bloomberg in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn, told his audience that if Bloomberg was not reelected, conditions would go back "to the way it was before....And you know exactly what I'm talking about."

Indeed, we do all know precisely what--and who--he is talking about; as Monty Python might put it, "wink, wink, nudge, nudge." At no point is the former mayor using a racial slur, but he is implying that if his candidate does not win, African-American violence against Jews will vastly increase.

Another possible new definition involves the use of comments that one feels are appropriate when discussing or addressing a minority, but not when talking to or about a member of the majority. The differential treatment is the basis of the racism tag. It is hard, in other words, to imagine Joe Wilson calling out "You lie" during a speech by former vice-president Dick Cheney. The South Carolinian's cavalier willingness to address an African-American president in this way implies the bigotry, as does Glenn Beck dismissing Sonya Sotomayor, when she was nominated to the Supreme Court, as nothing more than a "Latina chick," a characterization that clearly disqualified her in his mind. It seems unlikely that he would ever refer to Justice Antonin Scalia as that "Italian dude."

Such comments are the face of racism today, and a more detailed definition will enable Americans to pinpoint, label, and fight back against this kind of hate mongering.

One concern I have is that this definition is too broad, that it might restrict free speech, so permit me an effort to refine it. It is not bigoted to make a statement about a group when there is evidence to support the claim, and an explanation is provided. For example, in the 1980s the African-American community in Chicago had a high rate of female headed households. There is a lot of data to support this claim, including the figures used in reports by my former employer, the Chicago Urban League. The consequence of this situation, furthermore, was a considerably higher poverty rate than for two parent households of the same racial group. One of the possible reasons for this, as William Julius Wilson pointed out in The Declining Significance of Race, was that this statistic correlated closely with the rise of black adult male unemployment as factories shut down; women saw no reason to marry someone who could not perform a traditional role in the relationship.

This discussion is meant to be just a start, a first step towards a new definition of racism that can be used to challenge the new bigots. I invite others to revise and refine, and then to publicize and employ these ideas.