American history is replete with examples of widespread immorality—often severe—mired in racial issues. It’s not exactly surprising that we acquired a word like “racism” that became a kind of umbrella term encompassing all of them. Despite our contemporary penchant for moral relativism, the evil of racism is treated as absolute in places, like schools and television, where any other form of moral certainty is usually presented as unthinking dogmatism.
Topping this list of wrongs, of course, is American slavery—an affront to human freedom and dignity that treated men and women as chattel—as well as other matters of injustice, such as the vigilante “justice” and abandonment of due process by lynch mobs and the inhuman presumption that certain races were less fit to breed (hence Planned Parenthood coming to the “rescue”).
Also included in the list are sins that are more intellectual in nature but can lead to actual harm. Many who knew better engaged in shallow thinking when it came to certain races—not primarily simple stereotypes (for anyone might be innocently mistaken on account of generalizations) but the kind of invincible prejudice that refuses to allow new facts to influence one’s opinions. Given what it encompasses, it is only natural that racism would acquire a kind of social stigma, and the way my generation was relentlessly trained to consider racism as the greatest of all evils radically increased that stigma.
The ‘Crying Wolf’ of Political Discourse
However, such a powerful slur becomes useful in other ways—not merely as an umbrella term for certain social evils, but as a rhetorical bludgeon to use against one’s opponents. In 2015, it is unfortunately the latter use which dominates America’s rhetorical landscape, as leftists have been relentless in their efforts to make every issue—from food to grammar to global warming—an issue of race so they can leverage the stigma of racism in any disagreement.
Although the tactic is predominately used by the Left, it is sometimes used in the same way by conservatives. For example, whenever our national dialogue brings up subjects such as actually respecting our own borders, the Republican establishment is quick to start crying “racist” as frantically as a social-justice warrior in the misguided belief that the mainstream media will finally start liking them. It’s really rather pitiable—like the second-least-popular kid in school making fun of the least-popular kid to try and raise his standing.
Nevertheless, relying so heavily on this one rhetorical technique is a shortsighted strategy. While the effectiveness of calling people racist depends on the social stigma attached to the term, blatantly contrived and self-serving usage simultaneously reduces that stigma.
In the long run, perhaps the most significant road towards stigma’s atrophy are the attempts, particularly among the academics who educate our newest adult citizens, to redefine the essence of racism so it can only be used against political opponents. Earlier this year, one widely publicized example involved a University of London diversity officer who, when publicizing an event promoting equality, announced that white men were entirely unwelcome there.
I’m Not Immoral Because I Was Born White
If one were to consider racism a moral failing by which one treats people poorly because of the color of their skin, then Bahar Mustafa’s actions would certainly qualify as racist. However, in her own defense, she helpfully explained:
I, an ethnic minority woman, cannot be racist or sexist towards white men, because racism and sexism describes structures of privilege based on race and gender. And therefore women of colour and minority genders cannot be racist or sexist because we do not stand to benefit from such a system. In order for our actions to be deemed racist or sexist, the current system would have to be one that enables only people of colour and women to benefit economically and socially on such a large scale and to the systematic exclusion of white people and men, who for the past 400 years would have to have been subjected to block colonisation. We do not live in such a system, we do not know of such a history, reverse racism and reverse sexism are not real.
Her analysis is nothing she invented on the spot or otherwise out of the ordinary in academia. Even back when I was an undergraduate, I was taught definitions along similar lines (minus the privilege language, which was not yet in vogue.) Specifically, I was told that a racist was by definition someone who was born white in an historically white society.
But if this definition is the true, forever-pale face of racism, then in what sense can racism be deemed immoral? One’s skin color is no fault of his or her own; it can hardly be considered immoral to possess insufficient melanin levels. Neither is it immoral to receive benefits from one’s society—even benefits that are not identical to those another has, for none are. After all, as some Australian philosophers recently pointed out, even reading bedtime stories to your children creates structures of privilege.
Yet it is neither immoral for parents to read bedtime stories nor for children to be read to. One cannot help another person in any lasting way without creating privilege. The old adage concerning the superiority of teaching a man to fish as opposed to merely giving him a fish is about nothing less.
The Left Defines Racism Down
Defining racism in such ways might direct stigma only at one’s opponents, but it simultaneously removes any reason for the term to bear stigma in the first place. A freethinking student whose personal experience with racism amounts to a handful of so-called microaggressions and whose instruction on racism defines it as a matter of being born with the wrong skin color, the wrong inheritance, or the wrong surroundings will quickly begin to question whether racism is really a serious moral concern at all—let alone the root of all evil. Why should we vilify a person simply for being born into a society that benefits him?
This erosion of stigma through rhetorical convenience is only magnified through the constant abrasion of political correctness. The horde of supposedly racist actions is growing to ever more ridiculous proportions. In so many cases, the existence of racism depends entirely on knee-jerk feelings about a word or phrase, not any meaning in the word itself.
“Niggardly”—meaning stingy—has been a target from time to time, as have phrases like calling a spade a spade, which refers to a gardening tool and occasionally a suit of cards. Nevertheless, people call these turns of phrase racist purely because they feel offended upon hearing them. It should be shameful that those who fancy themselves scientific should rely so heavily on a burning of the bosom.
Things only get more absurd from there. The POW-MIA flag is racist. “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” brown-bag lunches, and white turkey meat are all racist. Dinosaur shorthand in “Jurassic World” is racist. Saying that all lives matter is racist. White people having children is racist.
When the well-meaning try their hardest to tiptoe through this minefield, it ends up provoking a downward spiral of self-consciousness around minorities that is—you guessed it—racist. Most of these things are so everyday and mundane that they are far more plentiful than actual wrongdoing related to race. When “racism” primarily describes the trivial and the innocuous it becomes absurd to consider racism consequential and injurious.
But one need not even rely on lists compiled by conservatives to find an abundance of ridiculous examples. Liberal academia is doing the job itself now as part of normal operations. The University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, for example, provides a very helpful list of racial microaggressions for its students. Included are simple getting-to-know-you questions like “where are you from,” which is apparently tantamount to labeling someone a foreigner—not that I didn’t ask plenty of white American college students exactly the same thing when I was in college.
Following in the footsteps of feminism, compliments are also presumed to be offensive. Remarking that someone is articulate, for example, can only mean that you think someone of his or her race is not usually so. Even sound moral and social principles like believing “the most qualified person should get the job” and affirming the unity of humanity (e.g., “there is only one race: the human race”) are included. In the face of such a list, it becomes hard to avoid concluding that a famous civil-rights reformer who dreamed of a day when people would be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin would have to be deemed racist—at least, if he had been born white. Unfortunately, any whites who might learn from him must be so deemed.
The De-stigmatization Has Already Begun
What, then, does it actually mean if someone calls you a racist today? That you were born white in an historically white nation? Well, it’s not immoral to have the wrong skin color. Does being a racist mean that you have certain privileges compared to someone else? Well, it is only the vice of envy which sees the advantage of another and considers it a slight against oneself.
Does being a racist mean that you asked your new college roommate where he’s from? Well, getting to know someone is not immoral. Does being racist mean looking deeper than skin color? Well, you’re supposed to be doing that. If this is racism, as the Left continually asserts, then there is no longer any reason for racism to bear any stigma at all, and it is only a matter of time before Americans at large begin realizing it.
In fact, it has already begun. Conservatives may have acquired the unfortunate habit of getting defensive whenever they’re splattered with the r-word, but given what it has come to mean, why should the accusation solicit any more than a shrug? While I wish his boldness were possessed by a candidate of better character, Donald Trump’s current popularity seems to be proving that accusations of racism are no longer something to fear—even for a public figure. The Left’s destigmatization of racism is clearly well-advanced already.
And the rest of us should let that stigma die.
Expedient politics have already turned the word into a parody of its former self, and losing it altogether does not mean turning a blind eye to the immorality it once signified. Neither do we need it to more broadly address issues of race relations.
Conservatives Are Better Positioned to Combat Real Racism
In fact, we could do so far more effectively without that partisan boogie-man lurking in every dark corner. Having resisted philosophies like moral relativism and utilitarianism, conservatives retain a meaningful ethical language that the Left has mostly lost—a language capable of grappling with these moral issues without using the various “ism” words.
We can still meaningfully talk about human dignity, for we have not divorced the concept from human nature. We can still meaningfully talk about freedom, for we have not confused it with security. We can actually recognize justice without the Left’s self-serving narratives and racial/sexual/cultural identity games. We have concepts of “harm” that do not depend entirely on the liver shivers of social-justice warriors.
These facts give us a significant ethical advantage. It means we can support due process for minorities in prejudicial environments and for men accused of rape on college campuses. It means we can oppose police brutality against all lives, which all matter, rather than polarizing the issue through trumped-up and mostly false narratives until it concerns only a special few. It means we can recognize prejudice when people are dismissed because they are conventional minorities and when they are dismissed because they are straight white men. We can recognize that using black humans as beasts of burden and young humans as grist for organ-harvesting mills are both abominations that deny human dignity.
America does not need words like “racism” anymore. Like the rocks in the old folk story about stone soup, they might have once had a purpose in illuminating certain kinds of immorality, but they are no longer needed or even functional, for they have become altogether dysfunctional.
Labeling something as racist obscures far more than it illumines. The stigma of that label exists only on inertia, and that is quickly running out. In colloquial speech, calling someone a racist no longer possesses a moral referent, and it has no more force than we give it. Conservatives would do well to stand firm on our moral principles and shrug off those inevitable accusations while refraining from leveling them ourselves.