What is racism?
This really seems to be a burning question for you. While I’m tempted to detect in this question a bit of dissembling and evasion, perhaps even some bad faith (especially given many of the things you have uttered about different racial groups over the years, which may or may not be a joke, and even if they are a joke, are problematic to say the least), I will give you the benefit of the doubt that you are asking the question in good faith. In what follows, I will limit myself to the issue of racism directed toward black people, as this is the form of racism most relevant to the American situation.
Following the best philosophical practice of St. Thomas Aquinas, I will begin by defining “racism” in terms of what it is not:
- Affirmative Action is not racism.
- Black History Month is not racism.
- Black Lives Matter is not racism.
- Black people preferring to spend time with other black people is not racism.
Calling these things “racism” is one of the enduring tropes of reactionary politics. It should be obvious they are not racism, but I’ll elaborate momentarily if it’s not clear to you. Let’s continue on the Thomistic path and identify a few more things that are not racism (or at least not quite):
- Ethnic and racial jokes are not (necessarily) racism.
- Complaints that Affirmative Action is applied unfairly to white people is not (necessarily) racism.
- White people preferring to spend time with other white people is not (necessarily) racism.
I think these are enough examples. As mentioned, it should be clear that the first set of examples have nothing to do with racism. To call them racist in the light of history is obscene. Affirmative Action, Black History Month, Black Lives Matter, and Black Community are legal, educational, political, and social responses to the experience of black people living and suffering under the boot of historical racism, or at least in its long shadow. So now we come to your question, What is racism?
Racism in its most extreme form, is the inscription of certain notions of racial superiority (and, pari passu, racial inferiority) upon the laws and culture of a nation or community. Racism in this context is an instrument of state oppression targeting people who belong to specific racial groups and setting them apart for discrimination, marginalization, and exclusion. Such practices can ultimately lead to ghettoization, deportation, and extermination. Racism in its most extreme form is synonymous with the Racist State. The most obvious and infamous example of the Racist State is, of course, Nazi Germany. Another clear example is South Africa during the Apartheid era. The American Confederacy, on the other hand, as horrific as were its beliefs and practices, probably would not qualify as a true Racist State when compared to Nazi Germany and Apartheid-era South Africa. Racism in America, while certainly applied to black bodies and minds as a systematic form of oppression, has always been more a theoretical justification for an economic system and “way of life” than a founding principle of the State itself. But there is no question that the legal and systematic oppression of black people under the institution of slavery and later under Jim Crow was racist to its core. And the legacy of that racist history is still with us. Which brings us to the second set of examples above.
You will have no doubt noticed my hedging, my parenthetical use of the qualification “necessarily”, when it comes to exempting from the category of extreme racism the examples in the second set. Why do I hesitate and dissemble so? Quite simply, it’s because I know who I am. And I know who you are. We are the bad conscience that haunts that parenthetical “necessarily”, which gives the lie to all claims of innocence. If racism in its most extreme form is no longer an institutional reality in America, it’s no thanks to people like you and me.
Go ahead, roll your eyes in expectation of another Liberal panegyric to the idol of White Guilt, but please bear in mind that my point here is simply to identify the traces, the ghosts, and the radioactive residue of racism as they are to be found in our discourse about race today. I submit to you that people like us can find, if only we are honest with ourselves, those traces of historical racism in our jokes, our complaints, and our resentments. Come, let us find them in some untimely meditations on an ideal world.
In an ideal world, ethnic and racial jokes should be a form of bonding between the races. Laughter directed at ourselves is truly the best medicine. Unfortunately, the history of white laughter at the expense of black people is inseparable from a history of bitter tears, torn flesh, and spilled blood. Lest we forget, those were black tears wrenched, black flesh torn, and black blood spilled by White injustices, bull whips, and shotguns. Funny stuff.
In an ideal world, we should be able to expect that legal correctives to a history of systematic Racism will simply do their work, quickly run their course, and wither away like the Leninist state. However, since we Whites were never on the receiving end of that 400 year history of Racist oppression, we really don’t get to determine when “enough is enough” on the road to racial redemption. When Whites start to assert their rights before the historical backdrop of so many grievous wrongs committed against Blacks, well, we begin to look ridiculous. Maybe in 400 years we resentful Whites can have our own March from Selma to Montgomery.
In an ideal world (prepare yourself now for some extreme sarcasm and bitter irony), members of an all white college fraternity should be able to sit around their house modeled after an antebellum manor and talk about how black people are just never going to make it in this country and wouldn’t we all be happier if the blacks could maybe be paid off to board ships back to Africa. True story. That conversation actually happened. I was there and I participated in it. So were you and you did as well. Yeah, it should be obvious that an Organization for White Students is an idea whose time has come, while similar organizations for Black Students, well, they’re just racist.
Still wondering what “racism” is?
Not too long ago, we were having a text message debate about, you guessed it, the meaning of racism. I sent you a photograph of a lynched black man, taken sometime in the 1930s (a time when there was talk of “America First” and some other country across the ocean becoming “Great Again”, but I digress). There he dangled, surrounded by a lingering crowd of white rednecks, some grinning, some just looking stupid. I sent that picture to you, hoping it would sear your conscience, not because you were guilty of that evil act, but simply because history is always present. I thought, given your obsession with ghosts, this ghost of Racism past, present, and future would touch your soul. On receiving the photograph, you responded: “Give me a break. When is the last time anyone hung a [racist obscenity deleted] from a tree?”
What is racism? I think you’ve already answered your own question.