Racism: What It Is and What It Is Not (Part II)

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.

1 See Leavitt, 2010, p. 144


Image: Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona, Public Domain

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Craig Frisby

Craig Frisby is Associate Professor Emeritus at the University of Missouri College of Education.

4 thoughts on “Racism: What It Is and What It Is Not (Part II)

  1. The problem is twofold. First, far too many people think all human interactions must, by definition, have a racial component. They honestly believe people simply cannot make any decision that involves others without considering that person’s race. The fact there is not a shred of evidence to support that belief doesn’t bother them at all.

    Second, far too many people discovered that by pushing racism—even when none exists—they suddenly acquire (unearned) power and control over other peoples’ actions. Such power is highly addictive so they use it at every opportunity.

    This will not end well for the accuser. Eventually the accused will say enough and fight back. As the old saying goes, what ever cannot go on, won’t.

    1. “This will not end well for the accuser. Eventually the accused will say enough and fight back.”

      That is what scares me because when it happens, it will be a conflagration which comes out of nowhere and I don’t know what will stop it.

  2. If all I have is a hammer….then all I see are nails. If all I am is ‘color’….then everything I see, hear, or otherwise encounter…must be a function of that color.

    Tim Constantine, Washington Examiner, tells us of Michelle Obama’s particular encounter with a line-cutter: “Mrs. Obama recounted a story of taking her two daughters out for ice cream … When their turn came to place their order another customer tried to jump in front of them. Mrs. Obama spoke up and the would-be line cutter shamefully and silently moved back.”

    Mr. Constantine, continues, telling us that he himself had a similar encounter with a similar line-cutter — this one at the airport — with a similar outcome.

    The difference?

    “Michelle is convinced the rude line-cutter, who was White, cut ahead of her and her daughters because the Obama family is Black… She believes this ice cream line bandit represents, in Mrs. Obama’s words, “the white community.” She has no doubt this societal faux pas was racial in nature. Conversely the airport security line violator that I experienced was a Black woman. It never occurred to me that race had anything to do with it. I just thought she was impatient and rude. Ironically, the woman who attempted to jump the security line at DCA angrily told me to enjoy my “white privilege” because I asked her to wait in the same line as everyone else.”

    Again….if all you have is a hammer….then EVERYTHING becomes a nail (and usually a nail trying its darndest to jab you in the foot, deliberately!).

    The racism illustrated by the story — this understanding on the part of Ms. Obama & Constantine’s line-cutter — is their evident belief that ANY behavior which can be seen or felt as afflicting ‘Black’ must be, by definition, the inevitable yield of ‘White’ anti-Blackness. What else could it be? (Ibram Kendi would strongly agree!)

    Fundamental to such a twisted ideology (sometimes called ‘Critical Race Theory’) are three perverse assumptions: 1) that Life is — by its very nature — Fair, Equal, Inclusive, and Perpetually in Balance… 2) that all people are naturally equal…. and 3) that any imbalance, any hardship, and every short-end of every stick must be the result of racist discrimination.

    The fact that this perverse collection of beliefs is nothing but twisted race fantasy doesn’t matter in the least to the True Believers, hammers well in hand.

    Constantine describes this irrational juxtaposition this way: “What (they don’t) understand is those same slights happen to all of us. Whether you are a man, a woman, Black, White, Asian or any other group, you aren’t exempt from rude self-centered people. It has nothing to do with your skin color or what “community” you belong to.”

    We might also add that it has everything to do with the fact that life is not fair….people are never equal (save before God and the Law)… bad things happen to everybody….and outcomes are always imbalanced.

    Kendi & Co. don’t see it that way. Those with hammers never do. Rather they see every outcome disparity as yet another nail: “If discrimination is creating equity, then it is anti-racist. If discrimination is creating inequity, then it is racist.” Racism, in other words, for the Racist True Believer, is not measured by hatred and hateful discrimination…rather it is measured by demographic proportionality. ANYTHING which creates more is good and anti-racist; anything which creates disproportionality is bad, bad, bad.

    The implications here are obvious and exceedingly dangerous. You want to use board scores to filter applicants? Racist. Want to try hire the ‘best person for the job’? Racist. Want to make doctors only from those with the top MCats? Racist. Any quality color-blind quality filter, in other words: Racist. The list of racist sins is endless for those with the right-colored glasses.

    In the world of ‘The End Justifies the Means’ — whatever it takes to achieve Balance must be pursued….even if we have to discriminate against the Other over and over and over again. As Orwell noted: ““If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—for ever.” (But, Mr. Kendi would add — the stomping is for a good cause).

    In Kendi-world, ALL ‘inequality’ can ONLY be a function of racism…and can only be cured by new racism (called quota-equity)

    To that end, a proposed Kendi-Constitutional Amendment:
    “To fix the original sin of racism, Americans should pass an anti-racist amendment to the U.S. Constitution that enshrines two guiding anti-racist principals [sic]: Racial inequity is evidence of racist policy and the different racial groups are equals. The amendment would make unconstitutional racial inequity over a certain threshold, as well as racist ideas by public officials. It would establish and permanently fund the Department of Anti-racism (DOA) comprised of formally trained experts on racism and no political appointees.”

    “The DOA would be responsible for preclearing all local, state, and federal public policies to ensure they won’t yield racial inequity, monitor those policies, investigate private racist policies when racial inequity surfaces, and monitor public officials for expressions of racist ideas. The DOA would be empowered with disciplinary tools to wield over and against policymakers and public officials who do not voluntarily change their racist policy and ideas.”

    Welcome to the New Soviet. Say hello to the New Tyranny.

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