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How Should We Punish Racism?


Iowa Rep. Steve King, who has a history of troubling statements about race, is reeling from attacks this week, including from many conservatives, after he was quoted in The New York Times asking why “white nationalist, white supremacist and Western civilization” has become offensive language. At best, it was a thoughtless way to make a different point, which isn’t very clear; at worst, it is justification for holding the belief that white people are superior to others.

A week earlier in Rochester, New York, local weatherman Jeremy Kappell was fired from his job when he used the phrase “Martin Luther Koon” on air. In The Atlantic, Columbia University linguist John McWhorter makes a compelling case that not only is Kappell being honest when he says it was an accident, but that it was a specific type of accident that linguists even have a name for: “perseveration.” His speech held on to the “oo” sound in “Luther” for a bit too long, producing the accidental utterance of the sound “koon.”

One thing that is remarkable in looking at each of these recent cases of alleged racism is that, at least thus far, Kappell has faced a more severe punishment than King, who is still in office awaiting a decision of possible censure or the possibility of the GOP supporting a primary challenger. He has been stripped of committee assignments, but is still safely in his seat. Was Kappell treated too harshly? Is King being treated too delicately? Well, it’s complicated.

Kappell vs. King

The best argument to suggest that Kappell should not have been fired, and basically the one McWhorter makes, is that he had no intention of uttering a racial slur. This is compelling. In most areas of law and morality, a lack of intent is a strong mitigating factor in judging individuals and meting out punishment. But over the past few decades, the progressive understanding of racism has been evolving away from the idea that racism requires intent.

Many actions that progressives now consider to be racist are considered so, not because the perpetrator expresses or believes in the superiority of a given race, but rather because he or she failed to acknowledge or address the structural racism in our society and was therefore complicit in its maintenance. In addition, when progressives think certain speech harms marginalized people, ignorance of the potential to cause harm is not relevant.

This is the supposed form of racism for which Kappell has been punished. In addition, given that Kappell is white, his position is the hierarchy of oppression was another strike against him. It’s hard to imagine a black weatherman who made a similar slip of the tongue being fired.

Essentially, if Kappell harmed people by using the phrase, even if it was wholly an accident beyond his control, that harm must be addressed and there must be some form of punishment. The above attitude is not one I, or apparently McWhorter, agree with, but it is consistent with progressive ideas and pedagogy about racism. And in areas and industries where progressives hold considerable sway, punishment is swift and serious.

Of course, the GOP caucus in the House of Representatives is not a place where progressives hold considerable sway. So it is up to Republican leadership to figure out how to punish King, who insists that his statement was not meant to suggest that white people are superior to others. King may well wind up facing some form of tangible punishment, but it is unlikely to be as severe as the punishment faced by Kappell.

We Don’t  Have a Set of Standards

What comparing these two cases exposes is that as a society we have no working set of standards in regard to what constitutes racism and how it should be punished. Many on the both the left and the right were shocked that certain statements President Trump made in the 2016 election did not sink his candidacy. The media and lots of politicians on both sides thought they were disqualifying, the voters decided they weren’t.

A very likely reason those voters made that decision is that they believed, as Trump often preached, that political correctness has gotten out of hand. Indeed, King says political correctness is the issue he was talking about when he asked why “white supremacist” had become an offensive term. The Kappell incident is a very clear example of what conservatives often decry about political correctness: the opaque, capricious, and non-uniform nature of accusations of racism and punishments for it.

As I have written in the past, when the definition of racism becomes so broad that it captures unintentional conduct, it weakens the punishment for racism, which was recently shunning by mainstream society. This is exactly what we see at work here, for in some areas of society dominated by progressives, actions like Kappell’s that an expert has scientifically explained likely had no racist intent may nonetheless lead to harsh punishment. Meanwhile, King’s far more egregious statement may well go essentially unpunished.

What is obviously lacking here, and I would argue once existed, is agreement on what constitutes a punishable racist act. Jamelle Bouie wrote about this after the 2016 election. He said of previous GOP nominees, “By rejecting the politics of explicit racism and white backlash, they moved the political battleground to nominally colorblind concerns. Race was still a part of these clashes—it’s unavoidable—but neither liberals nor conservatives would litigate the idea of a pluralistic, multiracial democracy. Looking back, I thought this meant we had a consensus. It appears, instead, that we had a detente.”

I have described this détente in another article, but essentially it meant that racist actions were disqualifying, but that in turn, the bar for an action to be considered racist was quite high. The progressive view of racism is now so broad, so inexorably connected to the structures of society, that short of burning a cross on your neighbor’s lawn, there is no common agreement or understanding about how allegedly racist conduct should be publicly prosecuted. The result is a mishmash of punishments that don’t look very much like justice.

How Should We Judge?

It makes sense to think about a few basic questions when considering what racism is and how we should address it. One is obviously: Was there intent to do harm or to express a belief in racial superiority? Another is whether the perpetrator of an unintentional racist act was negligent in committing the act. If so, severe punishment should be called for. If not, a more nuanced approach is needed.

Unlike some societal ills, racism is incredibly difficult to legislate against, because no matter how many Civil Rights Acts or affirmative action programs get passed, the First Amendment will and should always protect a wide array of racist speech and conduct from legal penalty. That leaves society to assign the penalty, and that only works if we have broad agreement on the rules. Right now, we do not.

Intent is a good place to start. Kappell should be reinstated, as his punishment is deeply unfair given his lack of intent. King should be made to explain exactly what the intent of his statement was. Maybe he can make a good case that his woefully awful suggestion that white supremacy should not be offensive was not what he really meant. But even so, in his case there is at least negligence in his phrasing, and therefore a solid justification for punishment.

Racism is an emotionally fraught issue, which is all the more reason we must hold ourselves to rational standards in regard to it. Until we can do that, there is little hope of our society’s divisions on the issue ever healing.