“That’s funny, I don’t feel racist.” This is the response that most of us have when told we are racist – not because of anything specific we have said or done, but simply because all people are racist. While the view that all people are racist used to be a fringe opinion among “multiculturalists” on college and university campuses, it is now mainstream in higher education. Unfortunately, this perception is not only wrong, it is poison to race relations.
In order to figure out if I am a racist, it is helpful first to check and see what the word means. (After all, I may be entitled to my own opinions, but not my own definitions.) The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (5th edition) defines the word to mean, “(Belief in, adherence to, or advocacy of) the theory that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, qualities, etc., specific to that race, esp. distinguishing it as inferior or superior to another race or races.” It goes on to explain that “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism based on this” also qualify. The essential word here is “belief,” which the definition explains must come before any action. Therefore, if I do not proclaim the superiority of any racial or ethnic group, I cannot be a racist. Right? Not so fast.
The argument that we are all racist usually goes something like this: People all hold subtle biases and, from time to time, unfairly discriminate against certain ethnic groups. Their subconscious reason for doing so must be racism, hence they are racist. While the premise of this argument is generally correct, the conclusion is not.
Most of these arguments begin with discrimination. Discrimination simply means to treat different things differently. Sometimes discrimination is helpful (e.g. scientists discriminate against bad data when they carry out a statistical analysis and remove outliers) and sometimes it is immoral.
What people are usually talking about when they use this word is unfair ethnic discrimination. While we disagree about which acts of ethnic discrimination are fair or not (e.g. certain Affirmative Action protocols, segregated proms), there are numerous behaviors that we all recognize as wrong. However, we need not conclude that all such actions are rooted in racism. I try very hard not to discriminate unfairly against ethnic minorities, but I have done so at times. This does not, however, make me a racist.
There are many groups of people we have discriminated against unfairly. We are all friendlier to attractive people than we are to the unattractive. Tall men are treated better than short men. And I am probably nicer to people who share my taste in music. Does this mean that – deep down – I believe that tall, attractive people who listen to classic rock are inherently superior to short, unattractive people who listen to Grunge? Of course not.
We persistently discriminate in favor of people with whom we are more comfortable, and we are most comfortable with people like ourselves. This applies to ethnicity, personality, culture, religion, sense of humor, intelligence, and politics. To conclude that this discrimination is based on multiple beliefs of superiority is clearly absurd. We discriminate in favor of those toward whom we are attracted and against those with whom we are less comfortable. Often this means that we discriminate unfairly against different ethnic groups; this is a behavior that we should seek to identify and arrest in ourselves, but it does not make us racist.
The other place where the “discrimination = racism” argument falls apart is when we consider the inverse. If I treat other groups poorly because I believe they are inferior, what does that mean when I discriminate unfairly in favor of certain groups? Does it mean I believe they are superior? There were more than a few white people who voted for Barack Obama in part because of his race. They discriminated in his favor. We would have to conclude that by doing so they were racist toward whites, believing blacks to be superior. Of course, other previous acts of bias betrayed their racism against blacks. Hence, we have people who believe that blacks are simultaneously superior and inferior to whites.
Racism As Bias
The second argument for why everyone is racist does not depend on actual behaviors but locates the proof in something more subtle: bias. This bias, or predisposition to associate different things with one another, often leads to discrimination. For the everything-is-racism cadre, any ethnic bias held by an individual is proof that he or she is racist.
This has sometimes assumed the cloak of science, but again, the conclusions are absurd. Studies generally confirm we are more comfortable with people like ourselves. But when the Implicit Association Test determines for a white subject, “Your data suggest a strong automatic preference for European American compared to African American,” there are some who conclude this means they are actually racist. It is not surprising that most white folks have some “preference” for other white folks, or that many black Americans prefer to be with other black Americans. To suggest this means that we harbor some deep private disdain for all members of other groups reduces this whole concept to irrationality and irrelevance.
There are other studies with word associations, where, for example, it is discovered that people associate the word “gun” more quickly with the word “black” than “white.” A casual reader might find this interesting, but hardly surprising. After all, the subject of young black men committing violent crimes with guns receives a great deal more press than that of whites or Asians. The association is based on media reports, not some underlying racism. One psychologist, however, reached a different conclusion. “When you think of black, you think of violence. What if we first show you the word ‘white’? No speed-up at all. You are now officially racist: Only black makes you think of violent things.” I cannot help but wonder if people associate the word “Asian” more quickly with the SAT, in which case we would all be Asian supremacists.
All the way back in 1996, Jesse Jackson caused a stir when he admitted, “There is nothing more painful to me… than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery, then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved.” This, of course, led to claims that he was actually racist toward his own race. And if Jesse Jackson is racist against blacks, what hope is there for the rest of us??!! While it is indeed possible to believe in the inferiority of one’s own race, we have no evidence of racism here. Jackson, in this case, had the integrity to admit that he was aware of crime statistics, and that a black man is more likely to rob him than a white man. If Jackson had admitted that he was relieved when he turned around and saw a woman rather than a man following him, would this make him sexist? If he was relieved to see a 65-year-old rather than a 25-year-old, would this make him age-ist?
Racism As Business
With such weak argumentation underlying the assertion that everyone is racist, one starts to wonder why this claim survives… especially on college and university campuses, where critical thinking is the hallmark of the institution. I believe there are three simple reasons.
First, follow the money. There is an entire industry that permeates higher education and which needs more racism to survive. The more racial problems throughout our country, the more funding, jobs, conferences, and lofty titles are created. If everyone is racist, then we need these people to constantly fight the battle, helping students overcome their latent discriminatory thoughts and attitudes. Racism certainly does continue to exist in our country, but it is increasingly relegated to fringe communities. Acknowledgement of this might actually lead administrators to transfer more money to academic programs or financial aid.
Second, it is worth pointing out that not all racism-mania is perpetuated by program directors and deans whose jobs and funding are on the line. There are plenty of professors, administrators, and staff who are part of the same movement – sometimes even more vociferously. I suspect that much of this is based on the desire to relive the glory days of heroic individuals involved in the Civil Rights Movement. We all wish we that we were there in D.C. to hear King speak, march arm-in-arm, risk fire-hoses and dogs. Those truly heroic people risked a great deal and made a difference. For most of us today, we have few opportunities to do something heroic. Dedicating oneself to the battle against racism is noble! It is much more exciting than the crusade against unconscious bias. Who wouldn’t prefer to carry on the torch of King, Malcolm X, and Rosa Parks?
Third, there are quite a few folks who are not involved in the battle against racism, but nod and agree when their colleagues insist that they are racist. This is the case despite the fact that many of these people have the critical thinking skills to recognize such a claim as nonsense. Much of this, I believe, stems from a fear to challenge campus orthodoxy on race. Publicly disagreeing with the campus experts on multiculturalism can make you look … well, extra racist. Few employees want to stand up to such people and say, “I think you’re blowing this racism thing out of proportion!”
One might ask whether any of this really matters. It can certainly look like nothing more than semantics. However, I believe a great deal is at stake. If we consider the highly complex nature of race relations in the United States today, reducing everything to racism is not only dishonest, it is destructive of our chances to improve things.
If every act of racial discrimination and bias is motivated by racism, then we have a simple case of oppressor and oppressed, perpetrator and victim, guilty and innocent. However, any honest assessment of American race relations must recognize this as vastly oversimplified. American history shows the interplay of numerous ethnic and cultural groups, none of which are above reproach. Those with more power have committed more offenses, but this has always been the case both within and between communities of different race, class, creed, culture, and education.
How do we solve the various racial problems with which we routinely struggle? The answers to this question are elusive, complex, and subject to debate. We must have critical dialogue among people with different perspectives and ideas. When everything is racism, we eliminate that possibility. “If you’re not for us, you’re racist.” And then the conversation ends. That is certainly not carrying on the legacy of our nation’s civil rights heroes.
Jeffery K. Mann is an Associate Professor of Religion at Susquehanna University.