No Such Thing as Accidental Racism?

by Jonah Goldberg

I just sent off my column on Brad Paisley’s “Accidental Racist” (and Rand Paul’s Howard University speech). I’ll leave all that for tomorrow. But while reading up on all this stuff, I found this mostly interesting and thoughtful review of the song by Kelefa Sanneh at The New Yorker. In the middle of his analysis, he writes:

 Intriguingly, Paisley never resolves the tension in the song’s title—that is, he never suggests that “accidental” racism is a contradiction in terms.

This assertion stopped me in my tracks. Is that really true? Is accidental racism really an oxymoron?

I assume that Ta-Nehesi Coates wouldn’t agree. In a post titledWhy ‘Accidental Racist’ Is Actually Just Racist” he makes the case that the song is, well, you know. He makes some good points, even if I don’t completely buy it (by the standard he sets up, almost any discussion of “black people” or “white people” becomes racist because it overgeneralizes).   But even if I were persuaded, I don’t think Coates is arguing that Paisley meant to be racist. In other words, Coates’ indictment of Paisley amounts to the lesser charge that Paisley’s “Accidental Racist” is … accidentally racist. 

But the more you think about it the more crazy the claim that “accidental racism” is a contradiction in terms becomes — at least by liberal standards. For instance, what is the point of “disparate impact” laws if not to punish accidental racism? For the sake of time, let’s refer to Wikipedia’s entry on disparate impact:

The doctrine entails that “A facially neutral employment practice is one that does not appear to be discriminatory on its face; rather it is one that is discriminatory in its application or effect.”[2] Where a disparate impact is shown, the plaintiff can prevail without the necessity of showing intentional discrimination unless the defendant employer demonstrates that the practice or policy in question has a demonstrable relationship to the requirements of the job in question.[3] This is the so-called “business necessity” defense.[1]
In other words, in the eyes of the law, something can be racist even if nobody intended it to be racist — i.e. accidentally racist.

And then there’s whole Critical Race Theory schtick which insists that “the system” is racist because it was set up to protect and preserve white privilege. The fact that white people don’t know or think they are racist is irrelevant. Aren’t white people then, as a class, accidental racists? 

And then of course there’s kabuki dance of accidental racism we are most familiar with. A public figure says something the wrong way with no ill-will or racist intent, and he is flayed alive for it. Think of the D.C. bureaucrat who (temporarily) lost his job for using “niggardly” correctly in a sentence. Or the trouble Howard Cosell got into. Or a billion stupid gotchya incidents that keep the cameras on at MSNBC. (Of course, actual racists sometimes say something racist by accident too, but that’s increasingly rare at the national level — because old-fashioned racism is, thankfully, vanishing from American life.) 

Personally, I like the notion that accidental racism is a contradiction in terms. I think racism should be defined as knowing and intentional ill-will or negative actions aimed at an individual or group solely because of their race. Or something like that. But what I want doesn’t much matter. Maybe there’s a better term for it, but accidental racism doesn’t strike me as a contradiction in terms in the real world. It strikes me as the most discussed form of racism in our lives.