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Americans Disagree About What Racism Is, And It’s A Big Problem


According to a recent NBC News poll, 62 percent of Americans polled said racism is a “major problem.” Last year, Gallup found that 42 percent are “very worried about race relations.” In 2001, when Gallup began that survey, the percentage was only 28 percent, and in 2010 it was a mere 13 percent.

There are many plausible explanations for this jump, including a spate of media-highlighted, race-related police shootings and the controversial presidency of Donald Trump. What is less clear is how our society can reverse this trend. One tremendous obstacle to improving race relations is that Americans cannot even agree on what racism is.

There are two basic definitions of racism in the United States, one roughly associated with progressives and one roughly associated with conservatives. The former describes racism as the failure to acknowledge and seek to redress systemic discrimination against select disadvantaged minority groups. It is very broad and captures everything from unconscious bias to white supremacy. The latter views racism as making assumptions about, or taking action towards, an individual or group on the sole basis of their race. It is narrow and generally requires belief, intent, and animosity.

These definitions don’t simply differ; to a great extent they actually contradict each other. Much of the contradiction stems from the fact that the progressive definition of racism requires that an advantaged individual or group must be attacking the less privileged. The more conservative and narrow definition of racism requires no appeal to power structures, only to bias, and can be committed by anyone towards anyone.

A very current example of this disagreement over the term can be seen in the media’s treatment of white women after the 2016 and 2018 elections. Many progressives have argued that white women voted in a racist manner in order to uphold their privileged place in the white male patriarchy. Many conservatives balk at this and claim a double standard exists, since a white person making similar attacks on a minority group would be almost certainly be called racist.

There is a double standard here that progressives don’t actually deny. It is, in fact, baked into their definition of racism. Under their rubric, the definition of racist has a double standard precisely because society has double standards that they argue overwhelmingly disadvantage the less privileged. It is internally logical and consistent in a way a lot of conservatives don’t quite understand.

On the other hand, those on the left are often shocked when polls show that majorities of white people believe that they are discriminated against in the United States. They will point to economic data, political power, and cultural representation and say, “You people are crazy.” But under the narrower definition of racism, it makes perfect sense. These white people are reacting to the fact that they can be attacked on the basis of their race in ways others can’t. In addition, whites — and increasingly Asians — look at programs like affirmative action as inherently racist.

The conservative definition is more traditional in the sense that if you open up most dictionaries you’ll find something close to it. On the other hand, the progressive definition is widely used in the academy that produces the people who will write future dictionaries. In all likelihood, it is fruitless to argue over which is correct. Far more useful is to look for bridges and overlaps between the two, particularly in regard to what racist speech or actions should be punishable or disqualifying.

Throughout the 2016 election, Trump used language that many, including conservatives like House Speaker Paul Ryan, called racist and which most people thought his candidacy could not survive. Yet it did. The charge of racism had lost its power to disqualify. That is a very dangerous condition for our country, and rooted in our inability to agree on what constitutes racism.

Our society as a whole is not going to accept things like unconscious bias and cultural appropriation as disqualifying outside of places like college campuses. Unfortunately, too many conservatives have used these diluted definitions of racism to excuse even examples that violate their own more narrow one.

Perhaps one potential point of agreement is that individuals should never be attacked or criticized on the basis of their race. This would still allow progressives to continue the attacks on the racial groups in power they deem necessary to fight systemic racism, and would give conservatives a clear boundary for disqualification instead of a spectrum of racism that runs from the benign to the atrocious.

Agreeing on such a norm will not be easy in today’s atmosphere of acrimony and tribalism. But in affirming a person’s right to be judged by who she is, rather than the racial group she belongs to, both sides will be embracing a traditional vision of equality common to both and to the imperfectly executed goals of our nation. This will not put an end to arguments over racism, which will always be somewhat subjective, but it will help us determine lines that a consensus agrees people shouldn’t cross.

Diversity is a great strength of America, but also a great challenge. It requires kindness, empathy, and tolerance. But it also requires boundaries, and an agreement about where they lie. Many Americans of all races feel attacked and confused precisely because they don’t know what the rules are. If we are to return to being a country that feels it is moving in the right direction on race, we must set aside our definitional differences and seek a reasonable common ground.