Who’s Racist?

‘Racist’ has become a biting insult in the modern day, for good reason. Other terms of prejudice, such as homophobia, sexism, etc., hold similar negative connotations. It seems the common premise toward which we are heading is something similar to valuing people for their sole quality of being human. In this journey, however, as with any social movement in which a large amount of people take part, ideas get muddled and brought out of proportion. A part of this process involves good ideas being introduced to related sentiments, and allying with them. These sentiments, now associated with the main idea, find more related allies, and the process continues until there exist many ideas that do not represent the original. In a less abstract consideration, one may examine those chanting, “black lives matter,” while destroying property. Far from the meaning of protesting disproportionate police brutality, violence has little place in the original BLM ideology. It may be argued violence is still not representative of any BLM ideology, but the fact this argument must be made is an indication of a muddled movement. This problem is presented in more subtle, nonviolent forms in anti-prejudice discourse.

To stay grounded, I’ll focus on the word ‘racism,’ and will talk about race to the extent Western culture believes it exists. In perhaps its purest definition, ‘racism’ means hatefully prejudiced beliefs, that is, unfounded beliefs with negative intent, against races. In this definition, one is racist only if he negatively believes something of a race without proper exposure to it. Yet, the usage of ‘racism’ has expanded, including things such as, but not limited to, anything potentially perceived as inherently negative of a race, and anything positively impacting at least a sizeable margin of a race, regardless of the intent. To the first of these definitions, it may perhaps be racist to believe that on average, there are differences in IQ between races. To the second definition, an example may be found in Hollywood. Criticism of the Oscars hotly revolves around the overwhelmingly white proportion of winners, and is blamed on racism and the overwhelmingly white proportion of judges. The criticisms themselves are accurate; about 85% of actors from the Screen Actors Guild are white, but still more is the proportion of white winners. Regardless of that fact, calling this the cause of racism may be in excess.

A very valid question to ask by this point is, “is it important to address the over-labeling of racism?”  That is, perhaps it is true we overextend the usage of the word ‘racism,’ but who cares? Aren’t there more important issues? Firstly, yes, in many people’s hierarchies of needs and wants, there are probably many more important concerns. But that would be an awful reason to discard all problems less than that which is paramount. Secondly, there is surely a case to be made for the damage done by over-labeling. Consider the above case of IQ discrimination by race. If IQ is thought to be a predictive measure of success, then studying populations of low IQ can be used to decide where to allocate additional resources. Additionally, if it is assumed IQ may largely be a marker of environmental well-being–nutrition, systemic injustices, etc.–then poor conditions can be identified. Perhaps IQ is not the best example, as it brings uninformed stigma, but to put it more broadly, dismissing unprejudiced theories as racist can stifle progress to help those of disadvantaged races.

Then is the Hollywood case, wherein the primary problems of over-labeling are more relevant to what plagues our culture. By calling the Oscars racist, no scientific progress is stifled. However, the problem is more with alienating those who hold a different definition of racism. For example, if many in the public sphere take racism as meaning hateful prejudice, contrary to the Hollywood-case usage of “anything which gives advantages to a certain race,” they will misunderstand the point of critics. Additionally, they may take labels of racism less seriously in the future, and even develop racist sentiment against those alleging racism. Another problem of over-labeling racism, in general, is the implication associated with each label. A gut-reaction upon hearing ‘racism,’ despite its usage, is to think, ‘hate.’ With enough mislabeling, those receptive to hearing racism may develop a flawed worldview, in which prejudice and hate is around every corner. In this way of inaccurately seeing too much racism, along with the alienation, and perhaps rallying of those who do not see racism, racial lines are strengthened.

Before offering what I think is the solution to over-labeling, I want to suggest the case that America is not nearly as racist, by the definition of hateful prejudice, as we may believe. One interesting metric comes from Gallup, by measuring how college presidents view racial relations at their own colleges, and those at other colleges. In 2016, 84% of presidents saw their own college as having either good or excellent racial relations, while only seeing 24% of other US colleges as having the same. For a simple analysis, the 24% is how racially divided presidents perceived the US to be, and the 84% may have been more accurate to how relations existed (close to the 76% of students who saw good or excellent racial relations on their campuses). It seems that the underlying factor of prejudice, which is not having exposure to a people before judging them, has afflicted those trying to find racial prejudice. Without having proper exposure to other colleges in the nation, each president assumed persistent racial divisions, while understanding his or her own college to be fine. Some other examples of racial tolerance come in views with intermarriage. From Pew Research, 91% of Americans either think intermarriage is a good thing, or do not care. Additionally, 86% of non-blacks would not be opposed to a relative marrying a black person, 91% of non-Hispanics for marrying a Hispanic, 91% of non-Asians for an Asian, and 96% of nonwhites for a white. As a last point, 71% of Americans support college affirmative action programs, much more than might be expected.

What must be done is not to stop speaking of racism, or any other prejudice. As with any problem, even if a prejudice is not dominating in every moment of life, it can still be addressed. The solution is to be more precise about word usage for the polarized terms of prejudice. Screaming ‘white supremacy’ or ‘misogyny’ is sure to draw attention, so be sure to scream at the right times. One way to be more precise is to simply withhold judgment before fully examining an opposing stance on an issue, or an issue itself. Another skill to practice, perhaps the most important, is to give charitable interpretations to people of opposing stances; try to find the best in them and their arguments before shutting them down. In that way, you can strengthen your own arguments, and allow yourself the opportunity of learning something potentially meaningful. An issue I’ve run into is my tendency for the fundamental attribution error. A good example is in my initial view of Trump voters being intensely bigoted. I now believe bigotry could very well motivate some of their related sentiments, but I disregarded their environmental factors, instead tying their actions to moral character. By seeing the goodness of these people and their arguments, more precision can be held to address their concerns, and more insight can be gained for non-Trump voters. In pursuit of social justice, we can be so keen to find moral infractions, that we forget to see the fuller picture, complete with environmental factors, the key to a moving debate.

Precision can find itself in forms other than that of refraining from social justice vitriol. Abstractly, a recurring theme I find is the blaming of those in power, rather than the asking for help for those in need. For the case of affirmative action, minorities may criticize white privilege at large, and continue by saying the rules are not equally suited to each race. I think this is a deference from the point, which should be simply to ask for help, because in legislative terms, races are equal. It is not equal rights, but equal opportunity, for which argument should be held. Blame is not always warranted for systems which inherently, but subconsciously, allow certain groups to succeed above others. These systems are not doing harm by rule, but could simply be altered to favor certain groups which experience other disadvantages in life, like structured poverty and lack of access to certain resources.

The public debate about prejudice is often tense, but it is largely unnecessarily so through our own doing. When we lose precision, we lose meaning, find more ways to lock ourselves within our own bubbles, and alienate others into their own. These needless divisions drive us apart and leave us more fragile. As we continue to try to improve our social structure, we must be sure that it does not break apart in the process.