Almost weekly in the pages of this newspaper there is discussion and debate, often heated, about racism in the village and in the country. So as I self-quarantine in my basement, I decided to do some research.
I started by looking up “racism” in the Merriman-Webster dictionary. Racism is “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.” Sounds a bit like Nazism.
The first known use of the term was 1902. Obviously, the concept precedes the term, but I was surprised by such a relatively recent origin. The Abolitionists could not have accused the Confederacy of racism because the term did not exist. The words “airport,” “audiovisual,” “Rob Roy” (the drink), “three-ring circus,” and my favorite, “zowie,” also bear 1902 as their birthday. You’re welcome.
“Slavery,” “lynching” and “plantation” are concrete nouns. “Racism,” like “beauty,” is an abstract noun. I believe that racism, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Each of us brings a complex subjectivity to how we view the world. That subjectivity is an impossibly intertwined and interconnected product of our nature and nurture. We develop strong preferences and biases about the world, including racism, a term that has become impossibly politicized and polarizing.
It has become weaponized as both a weapon and a shield. Calling a person a racist immediately takes the conversation to another level. The person charging racism has the high ground regardless of the merits of the charge, and the charged must suffer in simmering resentment without the support of those who might support them because they fear being tarred with the stigmatic racism charge themselves. Conversely, poor behavior can be excused by using racism as a shield (see Jussie Smollett). This paradigm has become an essential component of the grievance culture we now live in.
The point here is a narrow one. Of course discrimination, bias and prejudice exist in the world, and should be addressed, but we need to retire the widespread, indiscriminate use of “racism” from the debate. It is freighted with such controversial, unclear meaning, and is such a blunt instrument that public discussion is almost never progressed by its usage. Its invocation may receive the cheers of acolytes at a public meeting, but people who are called racists and truly, deeply believe they are not, will carry the anger of the falsely accused into the privacy of the ballot box and to the dinner table. And that can’t be a good thing for society.
It helps explain why Trump got elected president.