Wednesday, December 13, 2006

When Everyone's A Racist, No One Is

Rachel S. of Rachel's Tavern has recently written a post that expands the definition of racism beyond all recognizable bounds:
The truth that white racism and white supremacy are fundamental to the organization of American society (and the rest of the world too). Nobody escapes it. Even the most loving well meaning people have imbibed some degree of racism. Even people of color participate in the system of white racism and white supremacy.
I recognize the validity of the point which she is trying to make, but she's perpetuating a horrible abuse of language at the same time. As I've written about in the past, if you expand the definition of "racist" and "racism" far enough it loses its power of description. Push the definition far enough, in face, and you end up with some pretty absurd conclusions. Perhaps we're all racists, and perhaps we all engage in racism. But Rachel seems to be ignoring the fact that "racist" and "racism" are words with moral overtones and implications. To call some one a racist is to make an assertion that they are engaging in behavior which is not only unacceptable, but is also avoidable. If everyone who lives in North America is a racist by virtue of breathing the air then "racist" looses its moral dimension; you need to invent new language, or at least new qualifiers, to distinguish Mother Theresa from the Grand High Dragon of the KKK. Rachel's follow-up post at Alas doesn't really clarify the matter any either. Feagin's model doesn't discriminate between intentional and unintentional racism except at the institutional level. Hell, if you accept Rachel's definition of racism then the categories of "intentional" and "unintentional" are insufficient. If an "intentional racist" is someone like Hitler, and an "unintentional racist" is someone who doesn't know any better, than what label do you apply to people to people like Jesse Jackson? You need to introduce at least one more category, "passive racist", to cover people who don't engage in racist behavior except at the indirect institutional level. Presumably this would cover people like MLK who are/were actively anti-racist, but still participated in racist institutions by virtue of their membership in America society. Do you see how crazy this is? Listen to this statement for a second: "MLK was a passive racist". Juxtaposing those words should cause a rupture in spacetime; they just have no bearing on reality. When you've broadened your definition of racism that far its become a totally useless word and needs to be discarded.

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