How do you Define Racism?Talk About Race — By Stephen Menendian on March 30, 2010 at 09:26
Every couple of months the media is gripped by a remark, outburst or quote from some starlet, politician, or athlete. The question is always: Is so-and-so racist? The most recent iteration of this phenomenon was John Mayer’s Playboy interview, which I recently blogged about. Before that was Rep. Joe Wilson’s comments during President Obama’s health care speech, which I also blogged about. And each time, the debate devolves into intractable disagreement because each side talks past the other. Each side is defining racism differently.
Conservatives and colorblind advocates are quick to label any action or differential treatment based on any racial characteristic under any circumstance as racist. This supports their view that affirmative action programs are racist. From this point of view, voting for someone, such as Barack Obama, because of their race is racist. It’s race-based decision-making.
Progressives are less likely to adopt this definition. One online comment, responding to a Newsweek article on John Mayer’s remarks, offered a different definition:
As far as my understanding of racism, it’s usually a belief that one’s own race is superior, and responding to other races with domination/fear/hatred/subjugation. So, how is attraction to a particular race, well, racism? This idea of attraction is not laced with domination, subjugation, fear and hatred of other races.
As a bi-racial female, I’m attracted to Caucasian males, but this attraction to white males does not make me hate, fear or want to dominate other races, they just don’t do it for me most of the time…? I’ve dated Hispanics, Asians, and African Americas, but my base attraction is towards white males. So again I ask, where does racism step in? I don’t hate black men, and if I were single and a black guy showed interest in me and there was chemistry, hell yeah I’d have no problem dating him. But because my preference is towards white guys that’s…racist? How?
How can we resolve these different definitions of racism, one that contends that any race-based decision-making is racist, and the other than says that only malicious race-based decision-making is racist?
The dictionary doesn’t seem to offer a clear answer:
(1) : a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race
(2) : racial prejudice or discrimination
The first definition would seem to confirm the young lady’s view of racism as a belief in the superiority and inferiority of particular races, and apply to actions consistent with those beliefs. Applying this definition, remedial affirmative action measures are not racist. But what about the alterantive definition, “(2): Racial Prejudice or discrimination”? It depends on how the dictionary defines ‘prejudice’ or ‘discrimination.’ Let’s look them up:
(1)( a): the act of discriminating (b): the process by which two stimuli differing in some aspect are responded to differently
(2): the quality or power of finely distinguishing
(3)(a): the act, practice, or an instance of discriminating categorically rather than individually
(3)(b): prejudiced or prejudicial outlook, action, or treatment <racial discrimination>
(1) and (2) would seem to confirm the colorblind definition of racism. Discrimination is simply distinguishing between two stimuli. Racial discrimination, it would seem, would be distinguishing between things on the basis of race.
But (3)(b) signals a more specific term, racial discrimination, and provides two definitions. (3)(a) would seem to be the conservative, colorblind definition. But (3)(b) suggests something different. We need to look up one more word:
(1): injury or damage resulting from some judgment or action of another in disregard of one’s rights ; especially : detriment to one’s legal rights or claim
(2) (a) (1): preconceived judgment or opinion (2): an adverse opinion or leaning formed without just grounds or before sufficient knowledge
(b): an instance of such judgment or opinion
(c): an irrational attitude of hostility directed against an individual, a group, a race, or their supposed characteristics
(2)(c) specifically references race, and defines prejudice as an “irrational attitude of hostility.” Putting it all together, the dictionary definition of racism may be: “Prejudicial or prejudiced outlook, action, or treatment,” where prejudice means “an irrational attitude of hostility directed against a race, or their supposed characteristics.” This particular definition would seem consistent with the young woman’s view of racism.
As you can see, the dictionary is of little help in resolving this debate. Unfortunately, the dictionary gives us more than one definition of racism. The problem is that different definitions can be used to support each conception of racism. Far from resolving the dispute, the dictionary cements it.
My view is that there is a difference between race-based decision making that is motivated by racial prejudice or malice and race-based decision-making that is motivated by beneficence or a remedial purpose, between outright racial bigotry and a good-faith attempt to open the door of opportunity to those that have been and continue to be marginalized or disadvantaged. That is, there is a difference between Jim Crow and Affirmative Action programs, between a “welcome mat” and a “no trespassing sign.”[i] After all, if race-based decision making is racist, then the Court in Brown, by ordering a race-conscious integration remedy, was racist. And any Title VII remedy, which takes cognizance of a plaintiff’s race, must also be racist, since it awards damages because of a person’s race.
Regardless of your views, of whether you think affirmative action programs, voting for Obama (at least in part) because of his race, or John Mayer’s comments are racist, we should begin by acknowledging that we may have different definitions of what racism means. Only when we begin to explore our varying definitions and meanings, and debate the merits of our respective definitions, can we begin to talk to each other and not past each other.
How do you define racism, and why?
[i] This was the analogy brilliantly suggested by Justice John Paul Stevens in his dissenting opinion in Adarand Constructors Inc. v. Pena, 515 U.S. 200, (1995):
“The consistency that the Court espouses would disregard the difference between a “No Trespassing” sign and a welcome mat. It would treat a Dixiecrat Senator’s decision to vote against Thurgood Marshall’s confirmation in order to keep African Americans off the Supreme Court as on a par with President Johnson’s evaluation of his nominee’s race as a positive factor. It would equate a law that made black citizens ineligible for military service with a program aimed at recruiting black soldiers. An attempt by the majority to exclude members of a minority race from a regulated market is fundamentally different from a subsidy that enables a relatively small group of newcomers to enter that market. An interest in “consistency” does not justify treating differences as though they were similarities.”
Author: Stephen Menendian (12 Articles)
Stephen Menendian is the senior legal research associate at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at the Ohio State University. Stephen directs and supervises the Institute’s legal advocacy, analysis and research, and manages many of the Institute’s most important projects. His principal areas of advocacy and scholarship include education, civil rights and human rights, Constitutional law, the racialization of opportunity structures, talking about race, systems thinking and implicit bias. Stephen co-manages the Institute’s Integration Initiative to promote diversity, reduce racial isolation, improve funding equity, and close the achievement gap in our nation’s public schools. Stephen works closely with school districts and other educational entities to develop successful integrative measures and implement practices that produce educational excellence for all students. Stephen also co-manages the Institute’s Fair Recovery Project (www.fairecovery.org) to ensure that federal initiatives and investments promote equity and equal opportunity for all, and that jobs and foreclosure relief target those who have been hit hardest by the economic downturn. Stephen also directs the Institute’s Affirmative Action Project and was the lead author of the Institute’s Structural Racism Report to the CERD Committee to improve US treaty compliance with the Convention for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Recent scholarly publications include Parents Involved: The Mantle of Brown, the Shadow of Plessy for the University of Louisville Law Review and the forthcoming Remaking Law: Moving Beyond Enlightenment Jurisprudence for the St. Louis University Law Review. Stephen occasionally guest-lectures at the Moritz College of Law, and co-taught The History and Culture of Race and Law, a seminar at Wayne State University Law School, in the fall of 2009. Stephen is a licensed attorney and a member of the Ohio State Bar Association, the Columbus Bar Association, and the American Bar Association. He also serves on the board of directors for Americans for American Values. He earned his J.D. from the Moritz College of Law, Ohio State University and a B. A. in Economics from Ohio University, where he graduated summa cum laude.
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