Disagreements about racism

David Marcus of the Federalist ponders the negative impact of Americans’ failure to reach a common definition of the word “racism.”

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.

Mitch Kokai / Senior Political Analyst

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation. He joined JLF in December 2005 as director of communications. That followed more than four years as chie...

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