Who Can Be Racist?
If you don’t win the argument just change the dictionary.
One of my college professors said to me that black people cannot be racist. I try to be open-minded, and she was right. The idea was that anyone could be prejudiced, but only those with institutional power could be racist. Black people couldn’t be racist because they didn’t have institutional power, which is an article of faith on campus. By extension, racism could not be committed against white people.
I was shocked, especially because there was only one race that people with institutional power on campus were comfortable denigrating, and it was not black people. It was, however, trivial. If the world were anything like the boomer Republicans I knew, my classmates would forget most this stuff and vote Republican after they have paid their first check to Uncle Sam.
Never trust a Republican over 50.
On Saturday, several Twitter users noticed that the Anti-Defamation League had changed its once-colorblind definition of racism to mirror the color-conscious one given by my professor. Until August 2020, the ADL had defined racism as “the belief that a particular race is superior or inferior to another.”
After George Floyd’s death and the “racial reckoning” that ensued, however, the ADL changed its definition to the “marginalization and/or oppression of people of color based on a socially constructed racial hierarchy that privileges white people.”
The ADL was reflecting a change in racial discourse that had been percolating through the academy and the fringes of national politics for several years. The sentiment was mainstream enough in 2018 that CNN contributor Symone Sanders felt comfortable saying this after Sarah Jeong’s anti-white tweets were unearthed:
Racism is not just prejudice–it’s prejudice plus power. It is possible to argue that some of her [Jeong’s] tweets, [show], may have been a result of prejudice against white men. However, this does not make her racist.
Jeong had said “it’s kind of sick how much joy I get out of being cruel to old white men.”
Word-games about race–and the campus radicalism that inspires them–have tangible consequences. New York City is phasing out its gifted and talented program–a lifeline for talented, low-income students–on the grounds that it contributes to racial injustice. Primary-school students are being taught “intersectionality” by health departments across the country. They also tell them to give up their “white privilege”. In New York, racial minorities are given priority access to Covid therapeutics.
The state health department says it adopted that policy to address the “systemic health and social inequities” that “have contributed to an increased risk of severe illness and death from COVID-19.” It counts race as a qualifying “risk factor,” but only counts age as a risk factor in people 65 and older. In effect, the policy gives an otherwise-healthy 18-year-old access to life-saving drugs on the basis of his race, while denying it to a 64-year-old white person who, on the basis of his age, is 25 times more likely to die from the coronavirus. It’s called DIE for a reason.
To move racial politics away from the colorblind ethic of the late 20th century and toward the color-conscious politics that have infected college campuses, progressives have to change the language. Most Americans don’t believe that racism is a result of abstract systems or institutions. It is interpersonal. When Sarah Jeong, at the time a prospective member of the New York Times editorial board, says she gets “joy” out of “being cruel to old white men,” most normal people think that is a racist thing to say. They do not think that Jeong, because she is a “person of color,” is incapable of being a racist, nor do they do not think that a would-be New York Times columnist has less “institutional power” than a white greeter at the Bloomsburg Walmart.
In 2020, Merriam Webster added “a political or social system founded on racism” to its (now-self-referential) definition of racism. After Kennedy Mitchum, a woman, forced them to make the change, it did. According to Vox, Mitchum had grown “tired of having conversations about racial injustice, just to have people point to the dictionary as a defense.” If you can’t win the argument, just change the dictionary. You can wait for the ADL.
about the author
I’m a journalist who specializes in investigative reporting and writing. I have written for the New York Times and other publications.