To fight bigotry, we must not overuse this term. Otherwise, we risk diluting a vital taboo.
I truly appreciate this article and agree 100%. I have non-white children and taught international students, many of whom were from Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia, for my entire career so I have seen plenty of overt racism. However, I left the Unitarian Church due to what I considered its mission to find racism in every corner everywhere and to ascribe ALL the evils of the world to white supremacy.
One conversation I vividly recall consisted of the leaders of the church saying "being on time" was a racist, white supremacist concept. I told them my Black friends would be terribly offended to hear that they were judged not capable of being on time and that if they wanted to see "time sensitive" people, then they should meet my Japanese students. Crickets.
I certainly believe that there is white privilege AND class privilege; often the two are the same. I am also Jewish but don't look it at all, so I've heard more anti-Semitic slurs than I can recount. I KNOW racism and anti-semitism exist. However, if you go looking for micro-aggressions everywhere, you will find them. The world and people in it are more nuanced that the "woke" warriors proclaim.
I came to the US as a STEM graduate student a few years ago. For a long time, I was perfectly content and happy to immerse myself in my research. To the extent that I thought about identity (to use the narrow definition of identity employed in the culture wars), it was something to transcend as I stared at an equation or a line of code that didn’t care about my skin-colour or surname. To the extent that I thought about being part of a just and fair society, I hoped it was enough in my role as a researcher (and not a politician or activist) to treat people with dignity and respect regardless of their identity, and to value universal rights, liberties, and a social contract that protects people from the worst effects of bad incentives and bad luck.
Then came the Summer of 2020, and I was forced to confront many ideas, mostly covert and a few overt, that suggested I was deficient and inadequate in my anti-racism. I needed to educate myself with long lists of books with the suspects that have now become usual in this discourse; my understanding of the rule of law and civil liberties in the US was not enough. Asking questions of my students that required deductive reasoning and command of the written word was subjecting them to the tools of ‘white epistemology’ (in the words of one of my colleagues). And in one particularly egregious instance, I was advocating for amoral science when I observed that some STEM Ph.D. students may prefer to spend their time thinking about something besides overturning systemic biases in their field.
To use a term of the current lexicon, as an immigrant, I never felt quite as ‘other’-ed as I did during some of these discussions.
What a great article! Thank you! This is why we have Trump, and Trumpism will last until it stops.
An innovation that would help would be a more nuanced vocabulary to describe the range of undesirable attitudes and behaviors, so that poor word choice isn't equated with lynching. For a time some scholars made a concerted effort to develop this language. "Unconscious bias" was originally a way of acknowledging that well-intended people might discriminate without animus. All has been swept under in the tide of antiracism.
On a darker note, I can't help but wonder about the motives of the antiracist movement. Ad hominem arguments are generally illogical, poor strategy and mean-spirited. Of course, antiracism is itself an exercise in the ad hominem, so perhaps the bridge has been crossed. In any event, there's a maxim in the criminal law that people are presumed to intend the natural and foreseeable consequences of their actions. The obviously counterproductive nature of pervasive charges of racism make me question whether eliminating racism is truly the goal of antiracists.
Redstone's focus on the misuse and abuse of "racism" and "white supremacy" is not only correct, it is crucially important. As a sociologist myself (though sometimes I consider myself a lapsed sociologist), I have considered writing almost exactly such a commentary several times.
To Redstone's spot-on points I would add that in my view, these redefinitions are the essence of an anti-intellectual sophistry among good people who consider themselves sophisticated and intellectual.
What we have here may be the inverse of what Daniel Patrick Moynihan was arguing in his famous (or infamous) commentary "Defining Deviancy Down" (about 1993). As many Persuasion folks likely know, at times a sociology professor and a U.S. Senator, Moynihan was a heterodox and unwoke liberal long before his time. His point, simply put, was that it was possible to redefine deviant behavior in such as way that practically nothing would be seen as deviant, or, as our conservative friends used to like to say (before Trump) we'd get a moral relativism in which just about "anything goes." Moynihan's view was not that we were there, but that perhaps we were heading too far in that direction. (More specifically, Moynihan's concerns, going back to the 1960's and 70's, were largely about family issues, and particularly the long term decline in marriage rates and increasing rates of single-motherhood among Black Americans. For this he was called names, even back then.)
In this light, Redstone's article might be titled "Defining Racism and White Supremacy Up." Instead of fewer and fewer objectively problematic behaviors being recognized as problematic, we are confronted with a situation where -- as Redstone and others have well documented -- more and more previously mundane behaviors and attitudes have been redefined as "racist" and "white supremacist," -- and in fact, "racist" and "white supremacist" have become interchangeable synonyms among many in the woke community.
Redstone of course aptly points out that this means that intellectual concepts, "racist" and "white supremacist" lose their meaning, and as terms of insult (name-calling) lose their potency. I want to add that this also shines a light on the anti-intellectualism of those engaged in the redefining. After all, what is intellectualism if we lose perspicacity and discernment? In the old days, sociologists used to be criticized (and mocked) for creating to many new words for old things -- and there certainly was some merit to the criticism. But the goal was to develop more precise concepts and terms for important distinctions among such "old things," as well as to see genuine similarity across otherwise different things.
Thus, many have asked why the woke set, and many "critical theorist" anti-intellectuals, keep using "racism" and "white supremacy" when there are all kinds of better, more precise, more meaningful, and more perspicacious ideas already out there -- "unconscious bias" being one that Dr. Redstone indicates. To consciously fail to distinguish in your name-calling between David Duke and his ilk, on the one hand, versus well-meaning non-hating people who-hate-David Duke-but-who-disagree-with -you, is lacking in discernment and anti-intellectual. Similarly, to fail to recognize that David Duke and Louis Farrakhan are both extraordinarily odious racists, while accusing those well-meaning non-hating people of racism, is intellectually dishonest. (I say "dishonest" because, I honestly believe that almost all of these folks know better.)
So why would intelligent (and presumably well-meaning) people be so intellectually dishonest and anti-intellectual? I suggest in part because they are "activist-scholars" (and it appear difficult for new academics in the liberal arts to define themselves in any other way, these days). That is, many of these intelligent people are not intellectuals in the old (presumably racist, sexist, etc.) sense of humble individuals setting out to understand what is going on in the world. Rather, they are proud activist-scholars, who already know everything, and are ready to impose what they know on everyone else. In this context of anti-intellectual, unscientific certitude, skepticism becomes heterodox, a subversion of the revolution, and you get called names, be that by the nation's president on twitter, or by some effete representative for all of the oppressed, in a New York Times op-ed.
Stuff like that. Anyhow, thanks, Dr. Redstone, for writing this, and to Persuasion for the forum.
Thanks for this essay, Ilana Redstone. I think the same arguments also go for other appellations that get a workout on the academic and political left, including homo- and transphobic. I've advised LGBTQ activists to minimize their charge that the other side "hates" them, pointing out that most people don't recognize themselves or their loved ones as haters and that this might be a poor political strategy for reaching people in the persuadable middle. Of course, it's also intellectually lazy and indefensible, but that hasn't stemmed its popularity.
Great and important essay. The high opportunity cost of this movement really resonates with (and scares) me.
And I suspect that the pervasive moral grandstanding I associate w/the misapplication of the term 'racist' really does both dilute its value and inspire targets to go find association elsewhere. Often, that elsewhere is a really unproductive place and creates a 'versus' where we could be seeing more collaboration and cultural cross cultivation. But that may be the point for some antiracists, which is even more disturbing!
I’m uncomfortable with holding people responsible for others’ radicalization. I see all manner of accusations directed in my direction, and I can consciously manage my response to them and choose not to radicalize. It even gets easier with time and practice.
I think the message here would be better if accompanied by a call for all people to be the first line of defense against their own radicalization and to their own deafening to important words.
Thank you so much for this article and the link to the videos. I will share both and plan for some follow up discussions. Great resource.