Editor’s Note: This article is part of an ongoing symposium on white fragility and its related concepts. To view all of the essays in this series, click here.
In Part I of this series, an attempt was made to break down the meaning of the word “racism” using basic rules of word morphology. Unfortunately, commentaries for popular audiences are under no obligation whatsoever to appeal to any objectively determined definition for, or understanding of, the word “racism” from its early origins. In the contemporary cultural and political wars, “racism” subjectively means whatever an accuser wants it to mean in order to serve their own purposes.
To modern ears, whatever this thing called “racism” is (which is rarely ever defined)—it is always bad—very, very bad. When an accuser calls people, ideas, or actions “racist,” the accuser hopes that: (1) The accused will stop believing, saying, or writing things about race or racial group differences that cause others to feel embarrassed or uncomfortable; (2) Society will be protected from ideas about race or racial group differences that the accuser believes have the potential to damage democracy, equality, or equal treatment under the law; (3) The accused will be intimidated into silence and cease making arguments about race or racial group differences against which the accuser has no rebuttal; (4) Audiences will be predisposed to reject a priori any merits of an argument about race or racial group differences that the accuser does not like; and (5) The accuser will be viewed as morally superior or more virtuous than the accused.
Shouting “racism” or “racist” is akin to throwing a Molotov cocktail into a room filled with tissue paper. The goal is to create a fire so intense that insurance money—in the form of instant attention/sympathy, public apologies, power and prestige, group preferences, and/or political influence—can be collected for whatever has been destroyed in its wake.
Does this mean that real racism or real racists do not exist? By no means. In almost every country on the globe, there are small pockets of persons who proudly and openly identify as “racists,” spreading their beliefs through the internet and other forms of social and print media. Whenever such groups surface publicly in America or abroad, they are universally denounced and opposed by literally one hundred times their number of counter-protestors. In a few countries, however, the official mistreatment of entire ethnic groups is institutionalized in restrictive public policies.
To be called a “racist” arguably ranks on par with “child molester” as the worst name anyone could be called in contemporary American society. The recipient of the racist label (whether or not the label is justified) is ignored, mocked, shunned, censored, shouted down, boycotted, fired, physically assaulted, or even killed.
There are countless “flavors” of racism studied by academics. For example, when diseases disproportionately affect nonwhites due to disparities in underlying health and/or living conditions, “systemic racism” is seen as the ultimate culprit. If a scholar fails by some arbitrary standard to include a sufficient number of “marginalized voices” in his/her scholarship, this is deemed to be symptomatic of “academic racism.” If a scholar legitimately studies racial group differences on a psychological variable, but their empirical conclusions do not conform to ever-shifting standards of political correctness, they are called “scientific racists.” Even bland technical terms found in such arcane fields as music theory or cybersecurity applications are now flagged by the woke as racist.
Everyday commerce is not even spared from charges of racism. When a shirt maker used race as one of many variables to assist in fitting shirts for customers, an online article suggests that dress shirts could be racist. Advertising images about which consumers rarely give a second thought suddenly require removal because activists consider them to be racist. If a company admires a standard of feminine beauty deemed by the perpetually offended to belong to an aggrieved racial/ethnic group, it is denounced as racist.
Public education is not exempt from bizarre charges of racism. Some state lawmakers call for a ban on history courses taught in schools, labeling them “racist” because they do not include enough contributions from ethnic minorities. Other lawmakers argue that requiring black children to study or recite from the Declaration of Independence is racist. Professors of “multicultural education”—writing for the second edition of the Handbook for Research on Multicultural Education (pp. 240-258)—argue that clocks are a tool of racism used to regulate subordinate groups in schools. Concepts such as “rugged individualism,” “competition,” “justice,” the “Protestant work ethic,” the scientific method, having a “future orientation,” adhering to time schedules, being polite, and following Christianityare all interpreted by self-styled experts of African American culture as being indicative of “white culture” and “white values.” It follows, then, that to require nonwhite students to adhere to certain behavioral norms and values in American schools/society is to perpetuate “cultural racism”.1
The entertainment industry is routinely accused of racism.In the mid-1980s, for example, the Steven Spielberg movie The Color Purple raised eyebrows due to its having a white director for a film about Blacks. The movie was also viciously criticized for not depicting “the black experience” in a positive manner. Ironically, the motion picture academy was charged with racism when the movie failed to win an Academy Award despite eleven Oscar nominations. It comes as little surprise, then, to hear of recent calls for a racial quota system in Oscar considerations. Even cartoon characters of color voiced by white actors are deemed unacceptable and thus “racist.”
Charges of racism are a useful tool for third parties to dictate all aspects of one’s personal opinions and behaviors. Being a member of the wrong political party and supporting its policies is an automatic sign of racism. Whenever any test or objective selection procedure fails to yield racial proportions that an accuser prefers, it is called racist. If a white person simply criticizes the decisions or behavior of a “person-of-color” or a minority group, s/he is deemed racist. If a white person publicly acknowledges black-on-black crime, s/he is considered racist. Persons who refuse to discriminate against whites are labeled “racist,” as is the innocent impulse to say “all lives matter.” Celebrating Christmas, or merely saying “Merry Christmas” is racist. To be caught absent-mindedly resting one’s hands and fingers in a manner that some view as offensive can now be called racist.
If a social movement appears to be supported by too many whites and does not appear to have a sufficient number of nonwhite supporters, then it must be racist by definition. One writer attempted to argue that anti-abortion advocates are secretly white supremacists, despite hard facts that suggest the opposite.
Indeed, nothing is too sacred to escape the wrath of the race scolds. Based on shallow, selective, and mangled interpretations of scripture, the Bible generally, and Jesus specifically, are charged with racism.
This climate of fear effectively energizes the “Woke,” “Social Justice,” “White Privilege,” “White Fragility,” “Black Lives Matter,” “Unconscious Bias,” and “Anti-Racism” movements in American society. While these movements may differ in their particulars, all use this fear to fashion five False Narratives, as described below:
False Narrative #1: Racism is an evil social virus that is qualitatively different and disconnected from other universal human shortcomings. Although this virus can influence anyone, it is inexorably linked with the concept of “whiteness” and its primary victims are “persons of color.” Although earlier manifestations of American racism were largely explicit and relatively easy to identify, more developed skill is required to discern its current forms (which are portrayed as more subtle, hidden, and implicit). The racism virus manifests itself deep within the conscious or unconscious psyches of (usually white) persons; is “systemic” within the functioning of institutions and organizations; exerts its evil influence within state/government laws and policies; is deeply embedded within America’s cultural/historical symbols; and even lies hidden within social attitudes that have no explicit racial content.
False Narrative #2: The effects of racism are most clearly evident in large statistical “disparities,” “disproportionalities,” “inequities,” and “inequalities” in political, educational, social, and economic outcomes between outwardly identifiable racial, cultural, ethnic, and language subgroups within American society. Were it not for racism and/or the discrimination that attends it, these groups would display equitable representation across all outcomes, commensurate with their given numerical proportions within the broader society.
False Narrative #3: Racism is so deeply embedded in (particularly) American society that racial inequalities will always be present. To the committed anti-racist, the continued presence of inequalities proves the unrelenting presence of entrenched racism in the American soul. According to this narrative, whites in particular will always be racists, and should not expect to reach a state where they are “cured.” This is why anti-racism and cultural competence efforts are portrayed as life-long behaviors.
False Narrative #4: All persons (from elementary school age to adulthood) are ethically and/or morally obligated to submit themselves to explicit training for recognizing racism in its variety of manifestations; willingly participate in personal/group therapy to develop “anti-racist thinking”; and engage in “difficult dialogues” and “frank conversations” about race that help whites develop deep empathy for the historical/current pain and suffering of racial minority groups. The sufficiently “woke” make a commitment to fight perceived racism wherever it may be found, and must reflexively condemn others who are perceived as perpetuating it. In their personal lives and attitudes, good anti-racists support policies designed to compensate victims of racism (financially or otherwise); increase the percentage of minorities in particular fields; or use one’s “privilege” to reduce perceived barriers to social, educational, or economic advancement for minority groups and individuals.
False Narrative #5: If carried out correctly and consistently, the anti-racist crusade will result in increased “social justice” in America, increased harmony and productivity in the workplace, the reduction of academic achievement gaps in schools and colleges, greater economic and occupational parity between subgroups, less racial disproportionality in criminal incarcerations, and a gradual “healing” of centuries of emotional pain experienced by ethnic minorities.
Why do I call these five narratives falsehoods? Because, in a nutshell, they have the intellectual/empirical gravitas of soap bubbles, but the corrosive effects of battery acid when allowed to percolate within academia and civil society. Part III concludes this series by examining these corrosive effects.