Chapter 1. Defining a racist
Let’s start with some definitions, from the esteemed oxford dictionaries… https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition
Definition of Racism
Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.
The belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.
Definition of Race:
Each of the major divisions of humankind, having distinct physical characteristics.
The fact or condition of belonging to a racial division or group; the qualities or characteristics associated with this.
1. While I will abide by common usage and refer to “race” to denote a genetically differentiated human population, I want to note here that most scholars who think about these things do not believe there is a clear definition of “race” as a means of denoting genetically differentiated human populations and their classification. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Race_(human_categorization) for a long discussion that essentially undercuts any clear definition of what is commonly referred to as “race.” Simply put, there is no genetic test, blood test, or any other reliable standard that can be used to determine or define a person’s “race.”
2. Also, interestingly, since there is no clear or standard definition of “race,” note that in the US, everyone is self-categorizing as to which racial group they belong to. There are no standards used by government, or penalties for “incorrect” categorization, for that matter. So, I can call myself Latino, African-American, Native American, Caucasian, depending only upon my decision as to how I want to identify.
3. Sometimes, when I am trying to make a point, I like to refer to the concept of race as an ad hoc differentiation by skin pigmentation. (Clearly a superficial exercise!)
Without a good, clear definition of race, and race being largely a self-designated category, racism as a derived concept might seem vague or weak. But in common usage, it seems to be alive and strong in our culture. I would guess that this is because of the stain of slavery in the western world.
Today, one of the most devastating charges against a politician or other public figure is the charge of racism—which is usually meant to imply that such a person would advocate, support or implement policies and actions detrimental to a group based upon a racial differentiation and justified by that group’s supposed inferiority.
I recognize that there is also a broader definition of the word racism as a biased or prejudiced view of a group of individuals, whether that be based upon race (skin pigmentation and other physical characteristics), religion (Jews, Muslims, etc.) ethnicity (Mexicans, Chinese, etc.) and sexual orientation (etc.). I suspect this latter use (to mean bigotry against a group) is really a better definition for how the term is currently used, though again, actual bigotry (as opposed to the politically expedient charge) should also have the same components identified for racism discussed below.
I want to begin by outlining, according to the definitions above, what I think a politician that is a racist would look like. I will do this by identifying three related components to racism, and giving some recent examples of racists that meet that definition. Because overt racism was vibrant within my lifetime, I want to be sure that you are cognizant of our painful and unfortunately recent history. [Full disclosure: This is the main reason I am writing this.]
To start, I believe that there are three related components to consider when evaluating whether a politician can reasonably be called a racist. Such a person should
A) Espouse or advocate consistently over time a set of racist policies/principles.
B) Have a documentable pattern of racially disharmonious actions.
C) Have no documentable pattern of racially harmonious actions.
Deeper discussion of the three components.
A) Espouse or advocate consistently over time a set of racist policies/principles.
If a politician has strong racist tendencies, then we should be able to find, independent of their actions (points B and C below), indications in the person’s speech, writings or policy proposals in support of views that involve the belief in a difference in races, or an implied superiority or hierarchy of the races, as per the definition above. Or, similarly, you may find speech or writings that display an adherence to beliefs that express a prejudice or bigotry toward another race or support for discrimination against a particular race.
I used the word “set” to mean imply that there should be more than just an isolated instance, as people can advocate some policies for reasons entirely unrelated to racism, even though such actions could be framed as racist by some. See examples about minimum wage and affirmative action below.
1. With respect to this component, the question arises about how to evaluate racially insensitive remarks or comments that are said in private and quoted later, or said/written in a public forum not in the context of advocating racial policies. The most common example is the racially insensitive joke, or comment. We have a rich history of those. While embarrassing and often offensive, we have all (at least anyone who has watched movies like Airplane, or Blazing Saddles, or watched any of hundreds of comedians, speaking of which, check this out https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9fp67geuhJM ) laughed at or made jokes that play off of racial stereotypes. In my opinion, these alone do not meet this condition, unless they are accompanied by other evidence listed in the first paragraph above. The exception to this might be where such comments are persistent, public and intended to arouse public antipathy to a racial minority.
2. As a culture, we are becoming more intolerant of such racially insensitive language, and that self-policing is a sign of our overall cultural good-will, I think. We are evolving, and while we at times may get weary at the over-policing of language, in general it is positive, in my opinion. However, to bring back comments made years (sometimes decades) in the past and evaluate them against current standards is unfair, in my opinion as well, and absent other evidence, not strong evidence of racist beliefs. (If you have to go so far back to pull out an isolated instance, it is not much of a consistent pattern, is it?)
3. There is an additional dimension that is introduced when you consider the racially insensitive comment. We now have a second person involved: the one showing the sensitivity in addition to the one being insensitive. This is a much more complicated situation. To properly evaluate that situation, one needs to take into consideration the state of mind of the receiver as well as the speaker. In regard to alleged insensitive statements, questions have to be asked: what was the context, the state of the speaker (drunk or otherwise impaired, angry, making a joke, teasing, being satirical, ironic, and so on.) and what was the state of the person hearing/receiving: same list as above.
4. One might ask about the politician who has negative racial views but keeps them secret and does not speak or write about them. Well, that is why there are three components to the definition. If such views exist, one expects that their actions will expose them.
5. One might ask about that same politician (#4 above) does not act in a way as to expose their views. Then there is really nothing to worry about as they will not be very effective at implementing their views. See the examples of racists list below. They were the real deal and were very effective at getting their views implemented.
6. It is well documented that every individual carries a set of internal stereotypes that may or may not have any connection to reality. Some of these stereotypes may center around skin pigmentation or other physical characteristics. Part of being a mature and compassionate adult is to see that our stereotypes do not seriously impact the life and liberty of others. I don’t want to get sidetracked here, but the study of stereotypes in psychology is fascinating and sobering (as a taste, check out here: http://www.simplypsychology.org/katz-braly.html )
B) Have a documentable pattern of racially disharmonious actions.
If a person has racist tendencies, then it seems likely that we should be able to find, independent of their speech (point A above), a pattern of actions that actually or potentially harms one race to the benefit of another. Gross examples include the supporting enforced segregation, Jim Crow laws, etc. Fortunately, these are in our past, though not that far back! Current times have more subtle examples of policies that racially discriminate, such as discriminatory voter practices, housing laws, employment laws or policing practices.
Of course, overt actions can also appear as the resistance to the removal or stopping of such laws or practices listed above, as those also actually harm (or potentially harm) another race.
I used the word pattern to imply that there needs to be more than isolated instances. This is because in those subtler examples mentioned above, there are often non-racially motivated reasons that could cause one to support or resist a particular law or regulation. Lawmakers have argued against particular laws or regulations for many reasons, so I would want to see multiple instances with no obvious alternate explanation before I would say that a person has a documentable pattern of racially disharmonious actions. Again, see examples about minimum wage and affirmative action below.
C) Have no documentable pattern of racially harmonious actions
If a person has racist tendencies, that person should not show a pattern of actions that actually helps (or potentially helps) another race. This can be as simple as
1. treating people in a color-blind fashion
2. supporting and encouraging others to treat minorities fairly
3. employing, working with, socializing, living amongst, minorities in a fair and respectful manner
4. supporting laws or regulations that open markets and opportunities for minorities
5. taking action against laws or regulations that close markets or fair opportunities to minorities
6. supporting laws and regulations that enhance fair and race-neutral treatment of citizens
7. resisting laws and regulations that don’t enhance fair and race-neutral treatment of citizens
Note that if you cannot find a pattern of the 7 examples of harmonious actions above, then it is very likely that you will find a pattern of actions that are disharmonious. So, clearly components B and C are related.
I think for someone to be worthy of the charge of racist at least two of the above three should be present.
Recent examples of racist politicians. If you don’t know who these people are, you should check out these links and take the time to find out what they said, did, and supported. These are good examples of what racist politicians look like. I am old enough to have seen these people on TV, watched the effects of their actions/views in my community and country. In no particular order,
George Wallace Democrat of Alabama: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Wallace
Lester Maddox Democrat of Georgia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lester_Maddox
Bull Connor Democrat of Alabama: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j9kT1yO4MGg
Strom Thurmond Dem and Repub of S Carolina: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strom_Thurmond
Jesse Helms Republican of South Carolina: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jesse_Helms
David Duke Democrat and Republican of Louisiana: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Duke
Examples of issues in current political debates:
In the two examples below, I am only going to present the basic concept (since you are certainly familiar with the ideas). My point in presenting these examples is to show that there are many ways to interpret the support for (or opposition to) such policies that go far beyond simplistic declarations of racism, or the lack thereof.
Minimum Wage Laws
Proposals to increase the minimum wage generally mean making federal (or state) laws that prohibit pay-rates to an individual hourly worker less than a stated amount per hour. On their face, this would seem to be a policy that would benefit many, especially minorities. Opposition to this policy is often framed politically as insensitivity to those same minorities. Often accusations of racist intent follow quickly thereupon to anyone who might oppose such a policy.
Support for such proposals generally point to the many (maybe even the majority) of low-wage workers that would benefit. Opposition to such laws generally focus on the restrictions to the freedom of workers and business owners to in their own best interests. My interest is not to debate this here other than to point out the following:
1. Support for laws that increase the minimum wage generally run along the more utilitarian lines that more people will be helped than harmed.
2. Even if more individuals are helped than harmed, it is important to examine those that might be harmed. Increases to the minimum wage (especially large ones proposed by Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders) are generally understood by economists on all sides of the spectrum to disadvantage the most economically vulnerable and least skilled members of our society. Such laws deny the liberty of the lower skilled worker to work for pay lower than the mandated minimum.
Just do the thought experiment as a business owner: minimum wage goes up to $8 to $12 or $15 an hour, several things are going to happen:
a. higher skilled workers are going to apply for the now higher paying jobs,
b. lower skilled workers are going to become less attractive and
c. alternatives to using such workers because the financial incentives to do so are greater when low-skill work becomes more expensive.
3. Such laws will help some, but will likely harm the most vulnerable the most. Therefore, one could just as properly accuse those who support these laws of a subtle form of racism. (though not as easily, as to understand this requires greater sophistication). However, It would not be appropriate to brand supporters of increasing the minimum wage as racists, based solely on their support of that law. There are principled and non-racist people on either side of this debate.
4. Here are some interesting links (if you are interested) in a deeper picture of racist implications of minimum wage laws. Their early manifestations were indeed intended to keep minorities out of the skilled workforce
State mandated affirmative action policies
Laws and regulations that support the required use of race-based affirmative action to achieve diversity goals are hotly debated. On their face, these policies would seem to benefit minorities. Therefore, opposition to these regulations is often framed politically as insensitivity to those same minorities. Often accusations of racist intent follow quickly thereupon to anyone who might oppose such a policy.
Support for these policies usually follows these lines:
To reverse the negative effects caused by years of discrimination
To make sure minorities are represented at schools and in the workforce
To create an equal opportunity for everyone by helping those individuals with a disadvantage
Discrimination continues to deny opportunities to minorities and women to this day
Diversity creates a better learning and work environment
Opposition to these policies usually follows these lines:
Reverse discrimination shouldn’t be used to fix past discrimination
People should be chosen based on merit and not by race or gender
Minorities and women from lower classes aren’t helped by affirmative action, only those individuals from privileged backgrounds
Diversity of opinion isn’t created by diversity of race or gender
Devalues the hard work of many minorities and women
Increases racial tension
These are just two examples. I am not arguing for or against these policies here, I am just pointing out that opposition to policies that exist in a racial framework does not, ipso facto, imply that a person is racist. (By the way, that was my first written use of ipso facto ever!) In almost all cases, a non-racially motivated principled opinion can be held on either side of the issue.
Next: Chapter 2: Modern Day Politicians