The Two Confusing Definitions of Racism
Conversations about racism cannot begin without a shared language.
(this article first appeared on Medium on August 26th, 2018)
Logic is math, and if two logical people apply logic to the same sets of givens, then they must come to the same conclusions. Most disagreements in my experience boil down either a different set of starting data, or to a different definition of terms, each of which constitute the “givens” of a conversation. So when racism hits the table, and everyone starts talking past each other, I groan. This crops up a lot.
What frustrates me the most about the dialog, is that the people talking past each other don’t realize that they’re not talking about the same things, which means their attempts to communicate are destined to fail. All they do is give everyone hoarse vocal cords, carpal tunnel, and higher anxiety. To understand why, we need to look closely at the flaws in the dialog, which go back to the two groups having two completely different definitions of the term “racism.”
Let’s break down the two indoctrinated colloquial definitions, evaluate their relationship to the dictionary definition, and analyze them for their cultural usefulness. I’ll denote them “R(1)” and “R(2).”
Colloquial Definition One: Racism is treating someone differently (usually badly) because of their race.
In R(1), racism is determined entirely by the actions of individuals. An act is racist if that act treats someone differently based on their race, and a person is racist if the person commits racist acts. This is important to understand, because it’s an individualist definition, not a collectivist one. If a collection, group, or society is racist under R(1), it’s because the individuals within that collective predominantly do racist things, as defined within R(1). Conversely, if a collective does not do racist things, the collective isn’t racist.
By the R(1) definition, someone could actually believe that there are genetically superior races, but if they don’t act on that belief against individuals or groups of other races, then they aren’t racist. Racism(1) is determined by each individual’s actions, and if everyone just stopped acting mean to each other based on their race, then racism would evaporate, and the world would be a better place.
By R(1), “racism” and “racial prejudice” are nearly interchangeable concepts.
R(1) Indoctrination Paths:
I was born in North Carolina to Quaker parents, and attended a Friends Meeting (congregation) founded in the 1700s that was deeply involved in the underground railroad. I received my indoctrination to the R(1) viewpoint at an early age, where I was taught to love everyone equally regardless of their socioeconomic background or color of their skin. This teaching was instrumental in the Quaker faith’s participation in smuggling freed slaves to northern states, and remains a central teaching point in the faith today. I was also taught similar concepts by my parents at an early age, as part of the usual behavioral programming all parents try to instill within their children, to get them to play nicely with others. My sense, from surveying others who adhere to R(1) is that they were similarly indoctrinated, through personal routes whose goal is social harmony.
This R(1) viewpoint was reinforced when my family moved to Atlanta, and I encountered schooling in Martin Luther King Jr. The viewpoint crops up in many of his speeches. A familiar excerpt from his most famous one is worth repeating in any conversation about the definition of racism.
In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protests to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvelous new militancy, which has engulfed the Negro community, must not lead us to a distrust of all white people. For many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone. And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back.
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
This bolded punchline forms the body of the R(1) viewpoint, that skin color should not be the lens through which individuals view other individuals.
Colloquial Definition Two: “Racism = Prejudice + Power”
In R(2), racism is institutionalized in hierarchies of societal power. R(2) adherents do not view governments, corporations, or other organizations as collections of individuals making individual choices. They view them as monolithic structures laid over society that have their own means and goals. It is a collectivist interpretation, as opposed to an individualist interpretation, of the world. To an R(2) adoptee, nobody can be racist if they aren’t in the dominant group, no matter how prejudiced they are, because they lack one of the two variables in the equation.
In R(2), impact is important. If someone says something racially prejudiced, but they have no ability to wield that prejudice against others, owing to a lack of power, the racial prejudice is harmless and doesn’t count as “racism.” R(2) adherents will dismiss complaints against people they view as marginalized out of hand, stating simply “there is no such thing as reverse racism.” Further, racial prejudice against the dominant group can actually be considered “anti-racist,” if they view that racial prejudice as hurting the dominant group’s power.
Another thing that crops up quite a bit in R(2) circles is the idea that racism itself was invented by Europeans. They will dismiss things that look functionally similar to racism in the rest of the world by reclassifying them as “racialism,” leaning on the idea that because the power structures in the USA stem from white European traditions, other power structures aren’t pertinent to discussion at all.
R(2) Indoctrination Paths:
The R(2) definition was first elucidated by Patricia Bidol-Pavda in 1970, after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and death of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. I have not been deeply indoctrinated into R(2), so my analysis on this is limited purely by what I see from my viewpoint. It appears to me that the primary indoctrination mode for R(2) thinking is liberal academia, quite often Marxist in leaning. The Marxist world frame is one where power is a fixed quantity, and groups compete for that power. If any one group has power, then that power was stolen from other groups, and the other groups must take the power back from the dominant group. Fighting racism for the R(2)s is a group struggle against other groups, not an individual act related to other individuals. To apply the R(2) process, they must form ingroups, and attack outgroups. But psychologically speaking, the process of forming these groups requires them to stereotype based on skin color, which is a severe divergence from the individualist R(1) interpretation. In fact, it’s completely counter to it, and that’s where the major conversational divide appears.
At it’s root, the disagreements between the R(1)s and the R(2)s aren’t mostly about racism at all. Instead, they flow from the fundamental differences between individualist mindsets and collectivist mindsets.
Which one is right?
Racism by the Book
By the book, they’re both differently almost-right.
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
2a: a doctrine or political program based on the assumption of racism and designed to execute its principles
b: a political or social system founded on racism
3: racial prejudice or discrimination
play \ˈrā-sist also -shist\noun or adjective
Those who’ve adopted the R(1) definition may or may not believe that there are statistical differences among racially selected sample groups, but even if they do, they don’t believe that those differences produce an inherent overall superiority of a particular race. R(1) adopters identify racism when they see people discriminate or exercise their prejudices against others, which matches Webster’s Definition 3.
Those who’ve adopted the R(2) definition point to the fact that our political system was founded by powerful white people who owned slaves, and therefore every element of the United States government and system of socioeconomics is racist purely by Webster’s Definition 2b. They will go on to point out our current socioeconomic racial disparities as evidence that either nothing has changed since then, or that things haven’t changed enough.
Further, R(2) adherents are often quick to label science as racist, if the science points to heritable differences of a certain trait between racial groups. They are focused not on the acts of individuals, but on how a thing, even if the thing is science itself, might be used by bad actors.
Which of these definitions is more culturally useful? It depends on what you’re trying to achieve, and over what time scale you’re trying to achieve it.
The elimination of racial prejudice that the R(1)s seek would be good for marginalized communities, but it wouldn’t immediately put them on even footing with the dominant community because other socioeconomic factors are in play. The biggest one in my view is that wealth itself is a heritable trait, not only in terms of raw money, but in terms of the sorts of social connections that rich people make with other rich people. Living in Atlanta, I’ve had black doctors, black bankers, and black real estate agents. I’ve worked with black engineers and worked for very talented black attorneys. I’ve taught black engineering students at the collegiate level. Professionals in Atlanta never think twice about working with black people. Racial prejudice, in my experience, almost never comes into play at the professional level in Atlanta, because prejudiced people simply couldn’t function in our local professional economy. The windows into these professions have been opened, because there is a clear academic path to those professions. Do good in grade school, get a scholarship, undergraduate degree, possible graduate degree, and land your entry level job based on credentials. Then achieve with your talent.
But I also work for land developers, and I have never met a black land developer. And it’s curious to me, because I’ve known more than a few black people who generally fell under the umbrella of “street hustler,” who are in my opinion admirably good at what they do. I do not disparage street hustlers at all, because I view that whole game as an extension of the free market. And in my experience with the development community, the stuff they do in land development deal making is very functionally similar to a street hustle, it’s just on a higher tier of “street.” The black people I’ve known in the “street hustle” game would make fantastic land developers. But I’ve also never met a land developer who exhibited qualities of racial prejudice. (at least that I’ve seen) So why so few black land developers? The reason, I think, goes back to the heritability of wealth. Most land developers get into land development either because they start rich, or they have connections to rich people. And since we as a nation had a tremendous racial wealth disparity in the 1960s and prior, that heritability element has carried the wealth disparity forward. If there is to be a future wave of black land developers, for instance, they will likely be the sons and daughters of black doctors and black attorneys, who opened that window with their initial acquisition of wealth, so their children can benefit by “starting wealthy,” both in terms of available capital and social connections to others with available capital. This analogy extends into other “rich” professional modes as well, where starting wealthy is a prerequisite.
But that process takes a lot of time. It will happen on a generational time scale, not on a time scale of decades or years, and for many people that’s just too goddamn long to wait. This is the root of the R(2) position, and I’m sympathetic to that position, to a point. It is a long time to wait. “Yes but you’re better off than your grandparents were, and your children will be better off too as things normalize” is not a rebuttal they want to hear, because it does them very little good today, tomorrow, or in the near future.
To some R(2) people, the very heritability of wealth is itself racist.
So if your goal is racial harmony, then R(1) works quite well, but if your goal is socioeconomic equality, R(1) isn’t going to get you there soon. It probably will eventually, but it’s going to take a long time.
The R(2) solution to the time scale problem is to attack power structures now, by (almost?) any means necessary. Admit the futility of eliminating racial prejudice, and instead attack power exerted by the dominant group.
This has certain structural advantages over R(1) if your quest is socioeconomic equality. First off, you get to recruit prejudiced people into your ingroup, so you have a wider pool to draw from. Secondly, you get to leverage that prejudice against the power group without any real bounds, especially if the power group is mostly going by R(1). You have access to tools they simply don’t have, because prejudice is allowed. And if you can find people within the power group that are sympathetic to your overall cause of socioeconomic equality, which is by the way a very noble cause if I haven’t made that clear, then you can force their hand into prejudicial actions that benefit marginalized groups by threatening to label them as “oppressors” if they don’t get with the program. It’s a very effective methodology to force “change,” and it works on a much shorter time span than R(1).
But a fair and consistent application of R(2) leads to certain strange boundary cases that adherents to it don’t like bringing up. Antisemitism, for instance, is R(2) racist in any country where the Jews aren’t the dominant power hierarchy, but it is not racist at all in Israel. Since anti-Semites have no power there, an Israeli anti-Semite lacks a crucial variable of the (racism = prejudice + power) equation, so they aren’t racist there. In Israel, an anti-Semite is just a woke social justice warrior in the same way that Sarah Jeong is in the United States. And that may be by design, but it certainly doesn’t feel right to many people.
And while a white anti-Semite is obviously racist in the United States, there’s suddenly a question about whether a black one is. To determine whether a black anti-semite is racist, you’d have to either just defer to “no, because not-dominant-group,” or you’d have to put all the groups in some kind of dominance hierarchy matrix, ranking them by their relative oppressed status, to determine where African Americans and Jews fall on the oppression tree. And let’s be honest, that’s just very sloppy design.
Then there’s the “what happens when you win” issue. Presuming the goal of the R(2)s is socioeconomic equality, what happens to the subset of them who are racially prejudiced against the dominant outgroup (in this case whites) if whites are no longer the dominant group? Do all the former non-racist-yet-prejudiced people suddenly become racist because they now have power? And how much power does it really take to cross this Rubicon? How is it measured? Knowing how racial prejudice works in practice, people generally don’t abandon it purely because of some announcement.
The thing seems sloppy and poorly thought out.
As an individualist, I don’t buy the idea that governments, corporations, or the like are anything other than collections of people. Which means I can’t adopt R(2) because it’s intentionally divisive at the personal level. I don’t want to go around labeling people based on skin color and treating them differently because of it. I want to love everyone. It’s how I was indoctrinated.
I also don’t think it’s effective. Sticking to R(2) terminology, the R(1)s think the problem is the prejudice, and the R(2)s think the problem is the power. So the R(2)s have no problem wielding anti-white prejudice in order to seek power. The problem I see, is what happens when they get it? The Jeongs of the world are not going to discard their prejudices once they achieve power, because prejudices themselves are indoctrinated, so we are back to a slightly different flavor of square one. The only path I see to a better tomorrow is to eliminate the prejudice itself, and then the power won’t matter. Or, if it does matter, then the only group definition we need is (more powerful) vs (less powerful), and we identify different ways to address that issue economically instead of socially.
But we can’t get to a point in the conversation where we discuss the relative strengths and weakness of R(1) and R(2) if everyone is talking past each other like happens now. We need reasonable people to acknowledge that R(1) and R(2) are both indoctrinated concepts, who would be willing to examine those indoctrinations for their consistency and efficacy.
Power doesn't exist in groups, and it's very dynamic. You might think you have power because of your group, but try actually wielding it in any way and you'll find that you must either get back in line with your group (and quickly!) or the group will turn against you.
Black people might be a minority in a municipality, but when five black men surround a white girl in a dark alley, where is the power?