When the "Racism" Doesn't Seem Racist

To fight bigotry, we must not overuse this term. Otherwise, we risk diluting a vital taboo.

Naked racism is far outside the range of acceptable behavior today, and people agree that less is unambiguously better than more. Most wouldn’t knowingly engage in acts likely to increase racial hostility, least of all antiracist activists. Yet this is exactly what is happening, as many keep pulling the wrong lever in the effort to reduce prejudice. That lever is the term “racist” itself.

“Racist” is one of the most-damning charges that can be leveled at a person, and for good reason. In any society, social penalties for violating norms act like guardrails: They keep people from spinning off the road of acceptability. The charge of racism can be reputation-destroying and have long-term psychological effects. Yet its excessive application dilutes that power—for example, applying the word “racist” to both Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who murdered nine black worshippers at a South Carolina church in 2015, and a local-business promotion in Seattle involving decorative monkeys. The antiracist strategy is not only weakening its own best weapon. It’s backfiring.

For a long time, “racist” meant believing that one’s race defined who a person was, and that races could be categorized as superior and inferior. This belief was linked to falsehoods about different groups being innately dishonest or inscrutable or violent. But in recent years, under the influence of the antiracist movement, some people have begun characterizing a range of situations and infractions as part of a broader system of racial domination. 

One list of “racial migroaggressions” includes the statement “America is a melting pot.” Is that really racist? Other activists have questioned the morality of saying “Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe” when making a random choice. A long-inappropriate extended version of this children’s rhyme included the N-word. But, stripped of that indisputably offensive slur, is “Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe” immoral, when people don’t have the slightest bigoted thought when uttering it?

Even an argument like my own—one based in strong support for racial equality, yet that questions the antiracist approach—might be judged an expression of racism under the new definition. The argument of antiracist activists is that, if you stand against their methods, you oppose their ends, no matter how much you insist otherwise. Unsurprisingly, this has narrowed the spectrum of acceptable views on sensitive topics. 

For example, opposition to affirmative action and support for increased border restrictions are two positions labeled racist under the expanded definition. Racial hostility is a possible motivation for those positions. After all, affirmative action was intended to benefit members of under-represented minorities; and much of the immigration to the West in the 21st century involves non-white migrants.

But one might have non-racist motives for such views, including concerns over whether affirmative action is the best way to help the targeted groups. And supporting restrictions on immigration could be rooted in concerns about the economic implications. Even if you dispute those positions, you would be mistaken to label their advocates with one of the most negative terms we have—not only because that would be unjust, but because it’s counterproductive.

Two negative consequences follow from that mistake: desensitization and resentment. Desensitization matters because we must not lose the power of this taboo, as some figures on the far-right suggest has already happened. Consider the YouTube star Lauren Southern, who has not been shy about exhibiting apparently racist views—for instance, shouting at demonstrators in a 2015 sexual-assault protest march, “Go to Africa, and you’ll see a real rape culture!” Three years later, Southern remarked: “The word ‘racist’ just means nothing to me anymore. … It’s been so overused, I just have no respect for the term.’ ”

You could argue that Southern is simply a racist who is trying to evade a justified accusation. That may be so. But she and her ilk attract large audiences who are flirting with alt-right ideas online. Those viewers might hear her claim and look around, seeing a large range of situations dubbed “racist,” including obviously unintentional acts, and wonder just how evil the label really is. Suddenly, the guardrail is weakened. With this mistake, the antiracist emboldens the racist.

Resentment is a second unintended consequence. When people feel unjustly labeled, they may drown out all criticism, and grow more radical. This came up regarding the popularity of Donald Trump, when his opponents suggested that the president’s supporters could only be motivated by bigotry. In an article headlined “We’re All Tired of Being Called Racists,” the journalist Elaina Plott described a 2019 Trump rally in Cincinnati, in which many attendees were nonplussed “not so much that Trump had been roundly condemned in recent days as a racist, or a bigot, but that they, by virtue of association, had been as well. But rather than distancing them from Trump, the accusations have only seemed to strengthen their support of this president.”

To be clear, not everyone who resents being deemed “racist” will spiral into far-right extremism. Nor do desensitization and resentment mean that we can never apply the term, lest it makes someone more racist. Rather, we must define the taboo carefully, and strictly, or someone who started out doubting affirmative action, for instance, could end up embittered and alienated, and find comfort among the real bigots.

At the same time that the application of “racist” has grown, so has the use of the term “white supremacy,” creating an analogous set of problems. As the New York Times reporter Michael Powell wrote of this term, “Now it cuts a swath through the culture, describing an array of subjects: the mortgage lending policies of banks; a university’s reliance on SAT scores as a factor for admissions decisions; programs that teach poor people better nutrition; and a police department’s enforcement policies.”

Not only is this approach counterproductive, it’s a costly distraction. Every hour spent debating shop displays of monkeys that had no racist implication is time taken away from discussing problems that affect people every day, like poverty and bad education.

Anyone who cares about racial animus should try to push back against the wrongheaded expansion of these potent terms. Understandably, people fear the consequences of being cast on the wrong side of this issue, and having their protestations of innocence ignored. But think of it this way: If the discipline strategy you attempted with a child was making her behavior worse, made her not care about your criticisms anymore, made her move closer to precisely those bad influences you wanted her to avoid, would you change your approach?

We need a recalibration to again connect this important taboo to infractions that are recognized by a cross-section of the population, not just by antiracist activists who—passionate about justice though they are—have a view of the world that bewilders many people.

Ilana Redstone, founder of Diverse Perspectives Consulting, is a professor of sociology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a faculty fellow at Heterodox Academy. She is the creator of the “Beyond Bigots and Snowflakes” video series.