Racism is not permanent

Photo by Casey Gomez

In the past few years — spurred on, perhaps, by the election of Donald Trump — some progressives have initiated a conversation about how to most effectively advance their agenda without alienating moderates. At the very least, it has become popular to talk about softening progressive language to avoid shutting down political discussions. More and more liberals advocate for avoiding labels and attempting to sympathize with moderate and even conservative voters. 

Debates over who is the most electable Democratic primary candidate have often centered on which presidential hopeful can most effectively appeal to the moderate, working class white voters that carried Donald Trump to victory in 2016. It is certainly difficult to imagine any of the Democratic candidates for the 2020 election labelling Trump’s base a “basket of deplorables.”

Still, the measures which liberals are discussing are largely aimed at political ends, rather than at achieving practical progress. The narrative around avoiding labels and sympathizing with moderates is that it will help progressives with the immediate political goal of defeating Donald Trump in 2020, and, to a lesser extent, wresting control of the Senate from the Republican party. 

Framing the discussion around political name-calling and shaming distracts from the actual effects that changing our discourse might have. Avoiding name-calling and alienating those that disagree with us has the power to encourage change in a variety of areas, but perhaps the most obvious example is the issue of race. 

There are few words more powerful in American politics than “racist.” It is a label that can torpedo entire careers, political or otherwise, exile individuals from the mainstream both online and in real life, and end any debate or discussion instantly. 

In addition to ending political conversations, calling an individual a “racist” can change the way that we view the person. After all, that racism is evil is a nearly universal principle in progressive politics, so those who perpetuate racism must themselves be evil, right? Thus, using the word “racist” makes others less likely to want to work with us, and us less likely to want to work with others.

Because of the term’s unique power to end conversations, many progressives have advocated for avoiding the term “racist” or “racism” when having discussions about race. While this approach is better than throwing the term around anytime you find someone’s opinions on race problematic or uninformed, it fails to alleviate the effect that applying the label to an individual has on our perception of that individual. Even if I do not call my political opponent a racist out loud, when I think it to myself I change my opinion of that person, thus making me less likely to sympathize with and work with that individual. 

Clearly, then, simply treating the word “racist” as a political obscenity, to be avoided in polite company, is not enough. Rather, we need a full redefinition of what the term means and how it can
be used. 

Ibram X. Kendi, a prominent author on the history of race in America, argues that we attach too much emotion to the word “racist.” Kendi believes that every action, policy and institution is either racist or antiracist, and that in every moment a person is either a racist or antiracist. He argues that over time — or even moment to moment — people can change between being racist and antiracist. 

In his view, it is perfectly normal and okay to have moments of racism, and we should continue to label people as racist in the moments in which they are, but that we should attach less sentimentality to the term. The term “racist” should not be an inescapable definition of a person’s character, as it is generally used today.

I would go further than this. If a person can be racist in one moment and not in the next, then why apply the term to the person in the first place? Perhaps only actions, ideas and — possibly — institutions, not individuals, can
be racist.

We use “racist” as a term of ideology. Someone is racist in the same way that he is Christian or Jewish, progressive or conservative, intelligent or unintelligent. The way that we use the label, the state of being racist is, if not permanent, long-term. If we could deliberately both use and interpret the label in the way that Kendi suggests it would be great, but the reality is that society does not see it that way.  If “racist” is taken to be a permanent state of being, then it is inaccurate to apply it to individuals. People are not anything permanently. I am not arguing that we should excuse racist ideas or actions. Rather, we must acknowledge that humans are inconsistent, irrational and temperamental. Simply having a racist idea once does not make someone a racist. Believing racist ideas for one’s entire life does not make him a racist. People change, and we should use language that acknowledges this, especially if that language can also bolster political discourse and facilitate progressive change. 

The word “racist” is a powerful weapon, and its use has profound consequences for the way that we think about whatever we apply it to, and the way others think about us. While dropping the word from the political lexicon entirely just ignores the issue, redefining the way in which it can accurately be used can bring us and those we disagree with closer together. Ultimately, it may even make a difference.