Different Definitions of Racism

Over at The Federalist, David Marcus writes about the problems America has because of the starkly different definitions of "racism" progressives and conservatives have. He suggests ways we could compromise on action without compromising on principles. I generally agree with his points, but I don't think the left wants to compromise on actions. I could be wrong, of course.

Here are the definitions and some key points about them:

There are two basic definitions of racism in the United States, one roughly associated with progressives and one roughly associated with conservatives. The former describes racism as the failure to acknowledge and seek to redress systemic discrimination against select disadvantaged minority groups. It is very broad and captures everything from unconscious bias to white supremacy. The latter views racism as making assumptions about, or taking action towards, an individual or group on the sole basis of their race. It is narrow and generally requires belief, intent, and animosity.

These definitions don’t simply differ; to a great extent they actually contradict each other. Much of the contradiction stems from the fact that the progressive definition of racism requires that an advantaged individual or group must be attacking the less privileged. The more conservative and narrow definition of racism requires no appeal to power structures, only to bias, and can be committed by anyone towards anyone.

There is a double standard here that progressives don’t actually deny. It is, in fact, baked into their definition of racism. Under their rubric, the definition of racist has a double standard precisely because society has double standards that they argue overwhelmingly disadvantage the less privileged. It is internally logical and consistent in a way a lot of conservatives don’t quite understand.

On the other hand, those on the left are often shocked when polls show that majorities of white people believe that they are discriminated against in the United States. They will point to economic data, political power, and cultural representation and say, “You people are crazy.” But under the narrower definition of racism, it makes perfect sense. These white people are reacting to the fact that they can be attacked on the basis of their race in ways others can’t. In addition, whites — and increasingly Asians — look at programs like affirmative action as inherently racist.

I think he's done a good job in teasing out the definitions and why conservatives and progressives misunderstand each other on this point.

What to do about it is another thing altogether.


james said...

"Rectification of names?" The left's definition needs a neologism: depowerism? The traditional definition should have one too, so that everybody can know, if they want to, what precisely is being talked about. Refuse to use the old term anymore; always translate.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I see his point, and think I understand it, yet I cannot credit any equality here. The left's definition of racism is quite new; it can be brought forth equally well with good evidence and bad; it admits of no refutation; it brands opponents as evil people, not merely people with wrong ideas; it steals its power from the old definition, which everyone agrees is wrong.

They are not on all fours.

E Hines said...

why conservatives and progressives misunderstand each other on this point.

There's no misunderstanding on this, at least by Conservatives of the Progressive position. Once again, I decline to surrender the lexicon to the Progressives or their Left cronies. I'll stay with the ordinary meaning of "racism" as presented in the dictionary, here the American Heritage online dictionary:

1. The belief that race accounts for differences in human character or ability and that a particular race is superior to others.
2. Discrimination or prejudice based on race.

The Progressives' definition is nakedly, stinkingly racist, as their affirmative action programs--among a plethora of others--so eloquently demonstrate, and so there can be no compromise at all with them.

Eric Hines

Christopher B said...

The Left/Progressive definition is Marx rewritten with white substituted for capitalist, and black for proletariat.

MikeD said...

AVI and Eric knock this out of the park. The issue isn't that we have differing definitions. It's that the Left has moved the goalpost (so to say) and is now claiming racism is something other than it was. Why? For the very reason that both sides agree that racism (the 'old' definition to the Left) is bad. So now that we've established that "racism is bad", they move the definition of racism and throw a fit when the Right does not agree, and thus... claims the Right is supporting racism.

Tom said...

Yep, good points all.

I do think a lot of conservatives don't really understand the progressive definition, and I think a lot of people on both sides who do understand it don't know it's just Marxism translated into race (and gender, sexual orientation, etc.).

Eric, today the dictionary is on our side, but Marcus makes the point in the article that the people who will write dictionary definitions tomorrow are in universities today, learning all about social justice. Expect to lose the dictionary.

I agree that we should insist on our definitions, but to be effective, we have to address why theirs are wrong, which means addressing the demographics of their propositions and offering rational alternative explanations for what appears to be systemic racism, sexism, etc.

Also, for all that I detest the microwaved Marxist leftover origins of their worldview, many of them are honest in it and truly believe they are striving for justice. We have to work with that.

No one just gives up their worldview. They always give it up as the last act of adopting a new one.

E Hines said...

Expect to lose the dictionary.

We'll lose the dictionary only if we meekly surrender it--in which case we'll deserve whatever our timidity serves to us.

I will not go gentle into that good night.

Nor are those who write tomorrow's dictionaries, of necessity, limited to today's "university" graduates.

Yes, Tom, all of that demands serious addressing of the demographics of their propositions and offering rational alternative explanations for what appears to be systemic racism, sexism, etc. But if (when?) that fails, sterner measures will be required.

Eric Hines

Roy Lofquist said...

"Racist" is the word used when they can't get away with saying "sh'hed" or "M'fr".

Tom said...

I completely agree that we should fight for our definitions, but I don't have the cash on hand to buy Merriam-Webster.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Descriptivist interpretations of words are not always our enemy, though they often are. Language has an unpredictable, wild-card factor that academics try to control, but eludes them. It is more their friend than ours, but it is not a reliable ally for them.

Racist once had only the meaning of discrimination. It then acquired a second meaning of "seeing any difference at all among races." It is now acquiring a third meaning of something like "acquiescing in power structures that can be in any way construed to be unfavorable to people of color." It is fair to point this out in live conversation or internet discussion and ask people to spell out their definition. Racism used to only mean discrimination. RECENTLY, it has been expanded to include seeing any difference at all, and starting about last Tuesday inside the college community, it means something totally new. What do YOU mean when you use the word? It is better to ask them to define rather than attack the definition you suspect they have.

Tom said...

AVI, I agree.

You might be interested to know that an early step in the development of the most recent definition was a declaration that "color blindness" is actually racist.

So, it seems to have gone like this:

First, racism is just discrimination.
Then, racism became discrimination, or even just seeing differences.
Then, racism became discrimination, or NOT seeing differences.
Finally, last Tuesday, racism became a failure to acknowledge or seek to redress systemic racism against select disadvantaged minority groups.