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):