On the Meaning of Racism

The original definition of racism, and the one still found in standard dictionaries, is a theory or an adherence to a theory that merit is in part intrinsically a function of race

However, a few decades ago, some social theorists began insisting upon a new definition of racism, under which one could not be called a racist unless one not only were prejudiced against some racial group, but had social power. Devotees of this new definition variously baldly restate it, as if the restatement makes it so, or cite the theorists, as if such citation makes it so.

Those who make a special study of a subject sometimes take a term in popular use, and give it a peculiar, somewhat new definition. (For examp!e, we see that in physics, with the uses of energy, force, and work; and we see that in economics, with the definition of unemployment.) But what usually characterizes these redefinitions is that somewhat loose notions are replaced with more explicit, more precise, and otherwise more workable definitions. (For example, when an economist uses unemployment, she usually excludes people who have quit one job for another, but have not yet started that next job, because joblessness of this transitory sort is not typically considered to be a social ill.)

Alarms really ought to go-off about the redefinition of racism. The original concept was quite coherent and useful; if it were not coherent, then the redefinition (which essentially adds a condition) would inherit the incoherence. Racism on the part of people with little social power still has significant social consequences; any legitimate use of the new concept is far more sharply limited than that of the original concept.

Let's imagine that someone prejudiced against those outside his own major racial group makes a solo walking tour of Los Angeles. As he travels from one neighborhood to another, he gains or loses social power as the ethnic compositions of those neighborhoods vary. His beliefs about the relation between race and merit needn't change (and should not be expected to do so much if at all). Yet by the mere act of travel through a large city in which ethnic groups are not uniformly distributed, under the redefinition he would repeatedly go from being a racist, to not being a racist, to again being a racist. It would be extraordinary and dangerous to make a solo walking tour of all of Los Angeles, but a great many people regularly move across communities of different ethnic composition. Application of the proposed redefinition of racism would routinely become unworkable, under circumstance in which the standard definition remains quite workable.

There are certainly legitimate applications of the concept of socially empowered racism, but in those applications we can call it socially empowered racism or something similar.

When a concept loses its associated symbol, it becomes harder to discuss or even to think about that concept. Further, the response to symbols is largely emotive. Whether people learn by reason that something is good or that it is bad, or they are simply led to accept some valuation by imitation of those in their society, people come to associate positive or negative feelings with the words used for those things. Old concepts given new words don't provoke the same response; old symbols given new meanings carry with them some or all of the old feelings. Those who have adopted a new redefinition of racism can thus escape the recognition of racism, and the felt need to condemn some instances of racism, by allowing themselves to believe that some people simply cannot be racists, by virtue of their social standing.

We are simply dealing with an attempted hijacking of language, for purposes of subverting clear thought and discussion. That is most plain when the word racism has been introduced into some discourse with its standard definition, and in response it is insisted that something conforming to that original definition is not racism because it does not conform to the proposed redefinition. But any non-standard use that is not flagged as such is still a subversion of rationality. Those who have participated in the attempted hijacking are knaves or fools or both.

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