This electoral season has marked a dramatic distancing of the political left from the right, to a perhaps unheard-of extent. With ideologies deeply polarized and entrenched, and “bipartisan” frequently a dirty code word for ill-advised over-compromise, dialogue across the aisle has never been as rife with both unintentional miscommunication and seemingly deliberate obstruction. A prime and frustrating example of this problem can be observed in what is one of the most hot-button dialogues of our time: the dialogue on racism in modern Western society.
To explain to those not frequently exposed to it, the debate typically takes the form of a highly-polarized rhetorical war over the scope and prevalence of racism in our country and society. As a general rule (although certainly not always), it is typically more liberal intellectuals who argue that racism in America is widespread, endemic, and deeply-entrenched, while more conservative intellectuals hold racism to be a largely bygone issue, only perpetuated and re-inflamed by continued focused discussion. The argument often devolves into a heated blame game, with liberals calling conservatives racist and immoral while conservatives accuse liberals of using racism as a politically-correct trump card to gain votes from disadvantaged populations. Yet both conservatives and liberals, in their rush to profess their own self-righteousness, tend to overlook one
very important aspect of their conversation—that their violent disagreement is frequently not so much about actual ideology as it is about the frame within which that ideology is presented.
Most people are not aware that there are actually at least two separate and widespread definitions of the word “racism”. The most common definition of racism has traditionally been one which delineates racism as prejudice or bias based on an assumption of the superiority of one race over others, and the actions or crimes committed in the name of that assumption. This is the definition on which intellectuals and politicians acted during the original civil rights movement for people of color in this country, the default operating definition for millions of Americans of all walks of life. Yet many people, particularly youth, intellectuals in the social sciences, and those exposed to social justice-related social media, frequently utilize a different definition. This definition describes racism as acts, behaviors, institutions, and beliefs that actively or unintentionally subordinate certain racial or ethnic groups below others; it relies heavily on concepts of agency, ability, unconscious privilege, and systemic violence taken from social justice and post-modernist intellectualism, and in fact is the definition taught widely and exclusively in those circles.
The first definition of racism, by its nature, primarily describes the individual and/or the intentional—for example, prejudices that a single person has due to assumptions and stereotypes of a race, or a broader system like apartheid or American racial segregation based on those assumptions and stereotypes. By this definition, anybody can be racist or commit racist acts, regardless of their own race, creed, etc. The second definition of racism incorporates the individual and intentional, but considers them only expressions of the collective/systemic and the unintentional—for example, the ways certain more dominant racial or ethnic groups retain subtle and unrecognized privileges over others simply due to the laws and institutions of a government. By this definition, in some ways everyone of a more dominant race is “racist”, while it is impossible for a subordinate group to be such towards anyone they are not themselves hierarchically above. I personally believe both definitions have multiple aspects of validity to them, but many people appear to adhere strictly to one or the other, or not recognize that there may be more than one definition in the first place.
Unfortunately, this can make dialogue and critical debate about racism problematic when opposing debaters each assume that the other is using the same definition, the same terminology, which they are using. A person arguing from an assumption of definition one would of course think it insulting to be called inherently racist, or illogical to assume that only one particular group of people can be prejudiced, and summarily reject both notions. A person arguing against them from a baseline of definition two might naturally take such a rejection as willful ignorance, denial, or sublimated guilt. It seems likely that the escalation of such arguments contribute greatly to the kinds of accusatory dialectics we are all used to.
It surprises me how infrequently these kinds of discrepancies in language are openly and civilly discussed in politics and political intellectualism. More often than not, it seems that the emphasis in discourse is to invalidate and erase the opposing definitions, framing them as either absolutely wrong or simply less relevant than the speaker’s own in order to justify the eraser. While it is only my personal opinion, I can’t help but be deeply concerned that by refusing to discuss these issues in each others’ languages (or via clearly-defined alternatives) we do nothing but obstruct ourselves from examining and dealing with real problems of equality of opportunity, civil rights, and social justice—and not just with regards to race, but with a whole variety of other, similar issues. Worse, I can’t help but wonder if the discrepancies are the result of deliberately-maintained obfuscation, a form of abstract intellectual gerrymandering by pundits and ideologues on both sides of the political spectrum, trying to get votes at the expense of our peace.
I write to you from before the presidential election. I have no way of knowing how this election has turned out, and whether the results will quell the mudslinging and more violent debating for another few years, or whether the ideological gaps we have engendered for ourselves over the past few months have grown too large. All I can do is wait, and write, and hope our wounds have not grown too deep to mend.