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On Ascriptions of Racism

December 31st, 2010 · 37 Comments

It’s a tedious exchange we’ve seen play out countless times before, and in the aftermath of Haley Barbour’s confused praise for the old white supremacist “Citizens’ Councils” we’re watching a slew of fresh iterations. The ideal form of it goes something like this:

A: Wow, what conservative X said sure was racially offensive/ignorant/insensitive.
B: Are you calling him a racist? You just called him a racist! You’re saying he’s exactly like a klansman!
A: Well, look, the problem with what he said…
B: Don’t you understand the deep pain a slur like “racist” inflicts on white people? Why are you such a bigot?
A: [INCREDULOUS STARE]

It’s a weird bit of judo that seeks to leverage the social consensus that racism is beyond the pale by parsing criticism of an idea or statement as an attribution of this binary, all-or-nothing property—”racist”—to a person or group. The focus then shifts from the propriety of the idea or statement to whether the deployment of this rhetorical nuclear option is justified. (Even if, as in this case, it hasn’t actually been deployed in so many words, except in the imaginations of conservatives.)

  Interestingly, we don’t really seem to have this problem to the same extent with “sexist.”  We can point out sexist remarks or attitudes without getting derailed by pointless discussion of whether a particular person “is a sexist.” It even sounds a bit weird to pose the question as though it were a simple matter of “yes” or “no,” with the world neatly divided into sexists and non-sexists. Rather, we all get that, the culture being what it is, basically decent people—and occasionally even level-seven gender studies Jedi—will have imbibed unexamined sexist presuppositions or adopted mistaken empirical beliefs about gender differences. 

This is, presumably, because for all that our society may have historically denied women full equality, even at its worst it stopped short of denying their humanity. “Racism” is associated, in its practical consequences, with a system of violence and repression so irredeemably evil that we want to think of it not as a species of error, but as something so monstrously “other” that it creates a chasm between those contaminated by it and those free of its influence. This is understandable, in a way, but ends up being awfully convenient in practice: “I’m no Klansman, so clearly I have no need subject my tacit attitudes and beliefs about race to critical scrutiny.”

We’d probably have more productive conversations if we just agreed that its not hugely useful to ask whether someone like Haley Barbour “is” a “racist,” or to reflexively read that accusation into every criticism involving race. Then we could focus more narrowly on what ought to be a relatively uncontroversial proposition: That his misguidedly sanguine view of the Citizen’s Councils reflects a lamentable (and perhaps self-serving) ignorance of the uglier aspects of his own state’s history, and that we should expect our elected officials to be better informed.

Update: A handy video guide (via Alan Pyke):

Tags: Language and Literature · Sociology


       

 

37 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Pithlord // Dec 31, 2010 at 6:40 pm

    You are right, and it is a problem. If a woman tells a liberal man that he is being sexist, he doesn’t assume he is being identified with Marc Lepine. He is being told two things:

    1. Your perspective on this is male.
    2. The male perspective is not the appropriate perspective.

    The liberal male may disagree with either or both proposition, and might be right, but it isn’t the end of the dialogue.

    A black American may well want to say his or her interlocutor’s perspective is white and the white perspective, in this case, is not the appropriate perspective. But that’s not what “you are being racist” conveys.

    This may be because the civil rights movement succeeded in really, really stigmatizing overt white supremacism, and some feminists may regret that sexism is not stigmatized to the same degree. But there needs to be a word here.

    Maybe “ethnocentric” or “Eurocentric” would do the trick better.

    The tradeoff is that if you said Barbour is exhibiting “ethnocentricity”, you aren’t stigmatizing what he’s doing as much. You are relativizing the traditional racial attitudes of white Southerners, saying they aren’t that different in kind from those every other person has as a result of being born into some ethnic identity or other. I’m not sure whether the liberal coalition wants to make that tradeoff.

  • 2 Chuchundra // Dec 31, 2010 at 6:58 pm

    Calling someone sexist is such a weak accusation that you rarely even see it on your more strident, feminist blogs. The preferred line of attack is to call someone or something “misogynist”, literally “woman hating”. And where that term seems insufficiently insulting, they’ll reach for something truly vile like “rape apologist” or “rape culture”.

  • 3 The “nuclear option” of criticisms § Unqualified Offerings // Dec 31, 2010 at 7:23 pm

    […] Julian Sanchez says something that I’ve had rattling around and been meaning to blog about for… I basically agree that if somebody says or does something that’s offensive in a racial manner, it’s worth pointing out, and pointing this out doesn’t mean that you think the person in question is (necessarily) on the same level of evil as a Klansman or whatever.  Read his post, because he says it better than I could. […]

  • 4 Dave // Dec 31, 2010 at 8:01 pm

    You write:

    “This is, presumably, because for all that our society may have historically denied women full equality, even at its worst it stopped short of denying their humanity.”

    What you mean here is “it stopped short of denying *non-black* women of their humanity.” Black slave women were fairly well denied their humanity for centuries.

    I’m not calling you a racist or anything, but that’s quite the oversight (and I’m neither a woman nor non-white). D

  • 5 EmmaZahn // Dec 31, 2010 at 10:18 pm

    Puh-uh-leeze. Rewrite much?

    The actual sequence of events from this side of the board:

    1) Southern white politician says something complimentary about another southern white who was known to have been involved with a racist organization of the past.

    2) A sanctimonious group of non-victims with an unquenchable desire to punish someone, anyone for some perceived wrong that happened to somebody sometime somewhere pounces on what they perceive to be an easy target.

    3) Southern white politician tries to explain or just plain back away from previous remarks.

    4) Holier-than-thous dance even harder on his/her head because what they really, really want is to hurt someone or at least watch them squirm.

    5) Other Southern whites who refuse to play with sanctimonious sams and holier-than thou hannahs grow more and more disgusted with both the players and the game.

  • 6 Sean Landis // Dec 31, 2010 at 11:48 pm

    This reminds me of Jay Smooth’s advice on how to tell people they sound racist. He even uses the same judo metaphor.

  • 7 Jeb // Jan 1, 2011 at 6:42 am

    Emma, I’m interested in exploring your fantasy world further. Can you map your steps onto the Haley Barbour incident? I’m particularly interested in steps 1 (in this case the praise was directed at an actual white supremacist organization) and 2 (Jim Crow as a perceived wrong that happened to somebody sometime somewhere). Thanks.

  • 8 MichM // Jan 1, 2011 at 4:03 pm

    “What you mean here is “it stopped short of denying *non-black* women of their humanity.” Black slave women were fairly well denied their humanity for centuries.

    I’m not calling you a racist or anything, but that’s quite the oversight (and I’m neither a woman nor non-white). D”

    Good grief… pedantic, bad faith, political correctness, FAIL. Black women were not dehumanized because they were women. They were dehumanized because they were black. That they were women was incidental and in no way takes anything away from the point that being black led to dehumanization and being a woman led to oppression but not dehumanization.

  • 9 David // Jan 1, 2011 at 6:56 pm

    Yes, MichM, I’m still looking for that tongue-in-cheek emoticon. . . was mostly kidding with that one, but I did think the phrasing was quite poor given the topic.

    Political correctness isn’t something I relish, really at all, although I have been shocked at the few times I’ve heard my own race casually disparaged in public.

    I like Sanchez and obviously don’t think that he’s racist, or, frankly, care at all for the interminable arguments about what people “are.” This was just a bit of sloppy writing, imo, and I thought I’d call him out on it. Apologies to both of you if my own was too sloppy to make that clear. . .D

  • 10 JohnMcG // Jan 1, 2011 at 10:06 pm

    I get the point, but I think that “A” is an overly charitable summary of the “liberal” position on this.

    Which of the following is more likely:

    * Those who objected to Barbour’s comments were deeply offended and were seeking an honest conversation about why they were so.

    * Those who objected saw an opportunity to hang the poison title of “racist” on Barbour in particular and Republicans/conservatives in general, since Barbour is being discussed as a presidential candidate.

    That there is no such thing as misdemeanor racism cuts both ways. It is, in face, a rhetorical nuclear weapon. Nobody can survive an unchallenged semi-plausible charge of racism, hence the tendency to resist it at all costs.

  • 11 MFarmer // Jan 2, 2011 at 12:41 am

    Yes, I have to say that A is an ideal liberal. And B, well, B is over-reacting a bit.

  • 12 UserGoogol // Jan 2, 2011 at 12:44 am

    JohnMcG: Nobody said they were “deeply offended.” Haley Barbour said something stupid and they responded to it. Responding to your political opponents saying stupid things is what people do on blogs.

    Also, there IS such a thing as misdemeanor racism, that’s the whole point of this post. You can do something that is inappropriate with regards to race and not be a full-out racist. Everyone’s a little bit racist.

  • 13 Freddie // Jan 2, 2011 at 11:27 am

    Hey, look at what I wrote two and a half years ago– very similar ideas.

    http://lhote.blogspot.com/2008/07/race-and-minefield.html

  • 14 Adam // Jan 2, 2011 at 3:46 pm

    > Which of the following is more likely:

    > * Those who objected to Barbour’s comments were deeply offended and were seeking an honest conversation about why they were so.

    > * Those who objected saw an opportunity to hang the poison title of “racist” on Barbour in particular and Republicans/conservatives in general, since Barbour is being discussed as a presidential candidate.

    This is an easy one: the former is far more likely. I say this based primarily on introspection: I am a liberal who finds self-serving attempts to whitewash the horrific racial crimes of America’s recent past to be both objectionable and actively harmful to discourse. Speaking as a liberal, I would very much like to see an honest conversation around these topics, including (contrary to the hysterical claims of southerners) examination of the horrible legacy of northern racism and also (contrary to the hysterical claims of conservatives) examination of racism and cultural pathology within historically oppressed communities. Perhaps I’m the one liberal in the universe who feels this way, but I kind of doubt I’m all that special.

  • 15 Josh Maurice // Jan 2, 2011 at 4:11 pm

    Just happened to be listening to Robert Anton Wilson as I delighted to see Julian put “is” in quotes.

    Robert Anton Wilson – The New Inquisition 4 of 6
    http://deoxy.org/video?v=Btv2ryiYPP8

  • 16 MFarmer // Jan 2, 2011 at 6:01 pm

    ” Perhaps I’m the one liberal in the universe who feels this way, but I kind of doubt I’m all that special.”

    I’m sure there are many liberals who feel this way, and plenty on the right who would not react as B reacted. From my experience, a third response would likely have defended A, and it would be someone on the right responding to B, saying “Calm down, A seems like a reasonable guy and Barbour’s comment did disregard the reality of many blacks. It look like Haley was supporting some of his supporters and failed to realize how it would sound to African-Americans.” B would probably say “But these damn liberals jump on any comment to accuse someone of racism — yeah, Haley wasn’t thinking, but damn, they could cut him some slack — he doesn’t have a track record of racism.” Then the third party would likely say “Yeah, the left is bad about making mountains out of molehills when it comes to stuff like this, but think if George (a black banker in town they eat breakfast with from time to time) had heard this from Haley — he probably wouldn’t say anything, but he would likely think that Haley is being insensitve to the black experience.” B would probably say “Yeah, you’re right, but, shit, I wish these damn liberals would look in the mirror every once in a while.”

    I’ve made the amazing discovery that there are some reasonable people on the right, too. I know, I know, 99% are evil, but there are some smart, reasonable ones, too.

    So I agree with Julian, it would be best to call it cultural blindness or something like that unless it’s overt racism.

  • 17 Julian Sanchez // Jan 2, 2011 at 9:47 pm

    Josh-
    I almost went into a tangent about RAW & “E-Prime” but restrained myself. But yeah, that was explicitly in my mind when I wrote this.

  • 18 Pithlord // Jan 3, 2011 at 12:43 am

    If “racism” gets on people’s nerves, how about, “Majoritarian Ethnic Identity Politics (MEIP)”?

  • 19 Barry // Jan 3, 2011 at 10:48 am

    “Then we could focus more narrowly on what ought to be a relatively uncontroversial proposition: That his misguidedly sanguine view of the Citizen’s Councils reflects a lamentable (and perhaps self-serving) ignorance of the uglier aspects of his own state’s history, and that we should expect our elected officials to be better informed.”

    The point really is that Mr. Two-term Governor/RNC chair/big-time DC lobbyist is unlikely to be so ignorant.

  • 20 Libby // Jan 5, 2011 at 5:46 pm

    This post calls for privilege denying dude: http://fyeahprivilegedenyingdude.tumblr.com/post/2553104962/picture-background-8-piece-pie-style-color

  • 21 Ann // Jan 6, 2011 at 10:01 am

    Actually, I think the problem is that sexism is more deeply entrenched in our society, precisely because men dehumanize women every day.

  • 22 nolo // Jan 6, 2011 at 12:36 pm

    I agree with Ann. Your argument, in a nutshell, is this: It’s less of a derailing insult to call someone a sexist than it is to call someone a racist -> racism is worse than sexism. I agree with your premise. Your conclusion, however, needs to be amended somewhat, because it doesn’t necessarily follow from your premise that racism is objectively worse than sexism. The only thing that really follows from your premise is that racism is less socially acceptable than sexism. YOU are then assuming that “less socially acceptable” necessarily equates with “objectively worse.” I’m hoping you can see what’s wrong with this logic all on your own.

    All you’ve established is that sexism is more socially acceptable than racism. Whoop de do.

  • 23 erichorow // Jan 6, 2011 at 12:55 pm

    I think one explanation is that in certain situations (for example, i a hypothetical giving-birth competition), there are accepted, observable differences between men and women. On the other hand, it’s almost never acceptable to imply a real difference between the abilities of different races. This allows for a “sexist remark does not a sexist make” type of attitude that doesn’t exist for racism.

  • 24 Julian Sanchez // Jan 6, 2011 at 2:26 pm

    nolo/Ann-
    I didn’t mean to deny that sexism is often dehumanizing, or to endorse a judgment that racism is “worse” than sexism on net—I doubt it’s useful or meaningful to even compare such broad categories.

    I only meant that in public perception, “racism” is associated above all with the horrifying brutality of slavery and Jim Crow, while sexism—maybe in part because it is more pervasive?—is something we’re more prone to understand as manifesting in a wide variety of more and less pernicious ways.

  • 25 mollyrogers // Jan 6, 2011 at 2:41 pm

    I agree with Ann and nolo.

    You have established only that sexism is more socially acceptable than racism. Now what?

  • 26 nolo // Jan 6, 2011 at 3:10 pm

    Julian — thanks for responding, but you’re making my point. That aside, it’s not like you haven’t hit upon a really fertile ground for inquiry. Why is it, for instance, that racism (in the public discourse, anyway) automatically gets equated with slavery and Jim Crow when it is, in fact, no less pervasive and tolerated than sexism? And why is it that we are much more blase about sexism even when there are horrors as great as slavery and Jim Crow regularly perpetrated as a result of sexism?

    It’s worth thinking about.

  • 27 Pithlord // Jan 6, 2011 at 4:20 pm

    The problem is Americans are unable to bring the kind of objectivity to their own ethnic history that they might bring to Ethiopia’s or Serbia’s. An American wouldn’t have a problem accepting that the Amhara and the Oromo both engage in identity politics. They wouldn’t react viscerally to the suggestion that these two species of identity politics cannot be equated, since Amhara domination of Ethiopian politics is of recent memory, and the Oromo have legitimate continuing grievances. And our American could simultatenously accept that the Amhara might have some perceived grievances as well and that just solutions to ethnic issues in Ethiopia require their buy-in.

    But Americans (and here I think we speak mostly of white Americans) see their own ethnic politics as a matter of personal morality, rather than a difficult and perennial political problem.

    Barbour had a point that the peaceful white supremacist CCC was preferable to the violent white supremacist KKK. And a futher point could be made that it was a good thing that post-Dixiecrat white Southern Republicans like Barbour — while continuing to practice white identity politics — abandoned a defence of legally-mandated segregation. That’s good in the same way that it is good that Ian Paisley and his supporters no longer object in principle to Catholic participation in the governance of Northern Ireland.

    The problem is that the moralization of American ethnic identity politics means we are not supposed to mention that Barbour: White Southerners :: Paisley: Protestant Northern Irelanders, even though that is of course the case.

    White liberals would like to maintain the “nuclear” use of the word “racism” because they are motivated primarily by wanting to feel superior to other white people. Black politicians, very much including Obama, are more interested in advancing the interests of their constituency and are happy to regard white identity politicians as rivals it is possible to do positive-sum deals with. Hence Obama’s desire to denuclearize the racial charge with his reference to his grandmother and so on — a desire completely misunderstood by those whose main concern is relative status within white America.

  • 28 mollyrogers // Jan 6, 2011 at 4:38 pm

    Insights from Shirley Chisholm:

    “Prejudice against blacks is becoming unacceptable although it will take years to eliminate it. But it is doomed because, slowly, white America is beginning to admit that it exists. Prejudice against women is still acceptable. There is very little understanding yet of the immorality involved in double pay scales and the classification of most of the better jobs as “for men only.”

    “I’ve always met more discrimination being a woman than being black.”

    “In the end antiblack, antifemale, and all forms of discrimination are equivalent to the same thing – antihumanism.”

  • 29 nolo // Jan 6, 2011 at 4:51 pm

    White liberals would like to maintain the “nuclear” use of the word “racism” because they are motivated primarily by wanting to feel superior to other white people.

    Why would “white liberals” want to maintain a use of the word ‘racism’ that immediately derails all discussion in favor of the person upon whom the word was used? You make no sense.

  • 30 Shani // Jan 6, 2011 at 5:10 pm

    @ Ann/nolo/mollyrogers

    I think Julian is pretty much spot on that comparing racism and sexism isn’t useful in this context (and, I’d argue, in any other). They’re two issues that influence each other in ways that are so complicated that setting up a false binary is more harmful than anything else.

    Plus, it depends on who you ask — ask a black woman if sexism or racism is worse, and depending on where she is, what she does, who she knows, and whom she’s talking to, you’ll get varying answers. Ask a black man how often he experiences racism, and ask a white man how often he observes it, and you’ll likely get two different answers. Ask those two men about sexism, and again, at least two different answers.

    (And like Shirley Chisolm, I’m a black woman. But as black women often hold varying opinions on the same topic, I think it’s worth noting that I disagree with her assessment. I’ve often found sexism directed at me has been complicated by racism.)

  • 31 Pithlord // Jan 6, 2011 at 5:34 pm

    Why would “white liberals” want to maintain a use of the word ‘racism’ that immediately derails all discussion in favor of the person upon whom the word was used? You make no sense.

    The difference Julian identifies between the accusation of “sexism” and of “racism” is a difference between an issue thought of in terms of harm/fairness and an issue thought of in terms of purity/impurity (to use Jonathan Haidt’s typology). Racists aren’t understood as people being unfair in a particular instance: they are unclean. Racism isn’t understood as transparent social practices, but as a hidden and shameful psychological urge. This is obviously a culturally contingent post-1965 development.

    From an anti-racist standpoint, the good thing about identifying racism as unclean is that people want to avoid the label much more than they would want to avoid being called sexist. The bad thing is that it is impossible to talk rationally about the unclean, unlike the unfair.

    For mainstream Democratic politicians, who want a governing coalition, that’s a bug. But for those of us who are whites with better education than our relatives, it’s a feature — since at least part of what motivates us is a desire to have higher status than those relatives.

    If we started talking about race relations in America the way we talk about sectarian relations in Northern Ireland or ethnic relations in Ethiopia, we would have to abandon some of the highly moralized vocabulary used about white identity politics. I’d argue Obama (for instance) gets a lot more resistance from the high-status highly-educated white part of his coalition (as overrepresented on the Internet) when he tries to do that then he gets from African Americans.

    I think Julian is pretty much spot on that comparing racism and sexism isn’t useful in this context (and, I’d argue, in any other).

    Historically, it was critical for the second-wave feminist movement to analogize itself to civil rights and anti-colonial movements. That analogy is in many ways what got the whole thing off the ground. But of course gender is never going to be the same kind of thing as race, and comparing them always tends towards moralizing.

  • 32 mollyrogers // Jan 6, 2011 at 6:21 pm

    @Shani I didn’t mean by my selection of quotations from Chisholm to imply she would not agree with you about sexism and racism complicating one another (in her own experience, as well).

    I do think her statements that I quoted should be seriously considered in the discussion here.

  • 33 Julian Sanchez // Jan 7, 2011 at 3:03 am

    Let me be a little more concrete. “Racism” and “sexism” both encompass a huge range of behaviors and attitudes. At their worst, they entail justification of slavery, segregation, rape culture, and so on. At the other end, you might have relatively (with emphasis on the RELATIVELY) benign tacit stereotypes: “I assume this randomly chosen black person would rather hear Kanye than Sufjan”; “I assume this randomly chosen woman would rather watch a romcom than a scifi flick.” And there’s a lot of space between. All the points on the gradient, of course, merit (at least) critical scrutiny—and even the stuff on the “relatively benign” end is part of a complex network of beliefs and practices that lend at least indirect support to the more seriously repugnant stuff.

    That said, it seems both morally confused and (for many discursive purposes) practically counterproductive to treat every point on the gradient as a member of an undifferentiated class—”racism” or “sexism.” And this could be true *even if* the reason we’re better about making these more nuanced distinctions in the latter case is that there’s more acceptance of casual sexism. The attractiveness of the social facts that make one or another frame more prevalent don’t necessarily determine the utility of the frame for making further progress.

  • 34 Racism v. Sexism Redux // Jan 7, 2011 at 4:11 pm

    […] the comments to my recent post about differences between how we deal with charges of “racism” and […]

  • 35 Zo // Jan 20, 2011 at 12:41 am

    “… I didn’t mean to deny that sexism is often dehumanizing …”

    No, wait. Sexism is by definition, by it’s very nature, dehumanizing.

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