I got over 1,700 comments on my column last Monday calling for America’s outrage industry to refrain from playing the race card so much. It made the Drudge Report and Real Clear Politics.
A lot of people agreed with me that “shouting ‘racism’ in a crowded media and political theater has become a substitute for thought and debate in America,” and that “careless accusations of racism can sometimes do as much damage to race relations as the expression of prejudice and ignorance can.” But some didn’t, and I’d like to address one of their key concerns. I’ll also reveal academic research that some liberals tell me demonstrates why they shouldn’t play the race card, even when they think it’s valid. Bear with me, it’s worth it.
First, my liberal critics. An academic named Beverly told me that I was misusing the word “racism” by employing it in its old meaning, of “prejudice or discrimination based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.” She argued that “racism” now refers to anything that reveals how a “white power structure” dominates the country.
I’ll agree that the term has become muddled. As Wikipedia notes, “the exact definition of racism is controversial because there is little scholarly agreement” about it. But that’s precisely why we should be careful about hurling it around. Many people now know only that “racism” is an evil term, and that it can have drastic consequences for those accused of it — but not much else.
The definition of racism has become so all-encompassing that anyone can be tarred with it. Christopher Driscoll, a Rice University scholar and co-chair of the American Academy of Religion’s “Critical Approaches to Hip-Hop and Religion” group, argued in a 2012 paper that “we might be better served by recognizing that multiple racisms operate in the 21st century and consequently, so should multiple definitions.” He had space to list only “a few types of racism” in his paper; they included overt racism — “Think Bull Conner [sic],” the infamous Birmingham, Ala., sheriff who used police dogs and fire hoses against civil-rights demonstrators in the 1960s — and dispositional racism, which “happens when I am viscerally more fearful of a black guy walking towards me on the sidewalk than occurs for his white counterpart.”
Driscoll is white, and he acknowledges that he himself has exhibited the latter type of behavior. But so too has Jesse Jackson. As the Chicago Tribune’s Mike Royko reported, Jackson, at a 1993 Operation PUSH meeting in Chicago, admitted that “there is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery, then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved.” He then added this observation on urban street crime: “This killing is not based on poverty. It is based on greed, violence, and guns.”
But that was the Jesse Jackson who used to, as Royko put it back in 1993, “talk about individual responsibility and black community action” and “attack drug use, teenage pregnancy, gang membership, and dependence on government.” That was then. Now Jackson is a race hustler, who actually said recently that Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson’s comments that he didn’t observe blacks being mistreated in the 1950s Louisiana of his youth were “more offensive than the bus driver in Montgomery, Alabama, more than 59 years ago” who sent Rosa Parks to the back of the bus.
I guess shouting racism in a crowded political theater pays better than speaking uncomfortable truths to powerful liberals.
A third form of racism Driscoll mentions is “institutional racism,” which, he says, “is found in the extremely disproportionate numbers of black and brown individuals who face poverty, prison, death row, lack of adequate education or housing etc., etc.” He suggests that scholars shouldn’t focus just on overt or dispositional racism but instead “pay closer attention to other forms of oppression, like poverty and education level.”
Using Driscoll’s reasoning, we can all be accused of racism, at any time and for any reason. If there is any inequality of conditions it is ipso facto true that racism is involved. Down this road lies madness, and an avoidance of discussing real solutions to problems such as poverty or poor schools. Our discourse will remain frozen in mutual suspicion and name-calling.
But there is a way for conservatives and liberals to agree that the race card shouldn’t be played as often as it is. Conservatives have a natural stake in this. After all, they don’t think they are racists — using whatever sweeping definition is out there — and resent the fact that so many arguments default to charges of racism. But a liberal named Phil pointed out to me a good reason liberals should worry that they are overemphasizing racism. Because it’s based on academic research by three noted sociologists from Massachusetts, liberals should be open to the idea.
Social norms have shifted over the past couple of generations, making openly racist thoughts unacceptable. But there’s plenty of evidence these prejudices have merely retreated into the unconscious parts of people’s minds, where they still influence feelings and behaviors.
That said, this research strongly suggests that labeling people as racists for their political views is counterproductive. Even if there is some truth there, admitting as much would destroy their self-image as well as their social standing.
So that argument is a non-starter. All it does is drive people to the safe confines of friendly media, and help fuel the ongoing outrage machine.
Other liberal pundits agreed with Jacobs. Kevin Drum of Mother Jones acknowledged that “it’s also obvious that, in many ways, a liberal focus on race and racism is just flatly counterproductive.”
— John Fund is a national-affairs columnist for National Review Online.