Monday, March 23, 2009

What is Racism? (the long version)

Sunday afternoon, I came home to find out that another blogger (Denis Navratil), one who has offered thoughtful and challenging comments on my own writing, chose to use the way that I define racism as a launching point for one of his own post. After reading what he wrote, realized that, neither on this blog nor in the comments that I had made on his blog, I had never explicitly offered my own definition of racism. I also came to the conclusion that he had not fully comprehended all that I had said. So, what follows is my appraisal of what racism is.

First, for the sake of background, the post that started it all is here. That post was followed by comments back and forth between the two of us. You can check out my post for the past week or so to see his comments. Then, there was the post Denis's post that mentioned me specifically. Here's how it started:

Kevin Lockett (see comments on most recent post) is an advocate for the new definition of racism (prejudice plus privilege plus power) as it acknowledges "the history of racism and the power structure in this country" and it acknowledges that racism is not just an individual problem but also a collective problem.
Now, of course, I never explicitly said that this is how I define racism. However, I can see how he would get the idea that I do define it in this way. Denis then goes on to list his critique of my argument. He says that I use the word racism to define racism, which, of course, we all learned not to do in elementary school. He also argues that I focus only on the United States, when racism is a global phenomenon. For much of the rest of his piece, he explains why he thinks that "changing" the definition of racism is wrong.

Now, I don't want to sound too much like I'm picking on Denis. It's just that, he's such a good representative for one side of the discussion on how to define racism. He started out on the subject by criticizing a local YWCA leader for defining racism as "prejudice plus privilege plus power to oppress." It appears to me that Denis agrees with a more "basic" definition of racism that basically boils down to not liking people of other races (Denis, my apologies if I am misrepresenting your view). The contrasting view is that racism is tied to those who control the power structure. This is the view that Denis is challenging, and the idea that I want to discuss a little further.

Let's take a look at some of the various definitions of racism. First, the definition that people from Denis's side of the argument would be more likely to agree with: the dictionary definition. Here's an offering from Merriam-Webster:
1 : a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race
2 : racial prejudice or discrimination
Now, that is a very brief, easy to understand definition. It is likely in line with how many of us are used to having racism defined. However, some (like me) would say that this is a somewhat cowardly definition. It is completely divorced from the history and context of racism. In addition, it is reasonable to question whether or not the dictionary should serve as the final authority on such an issue. After all, there are other definitions of racism, offered by people who have devoted their lives and professional career to studying, researching, and analyzing subjects relevant to this discussion. Let's consider some of the definitions offered by sociologist and anthropologist - people who study human behavior.

In 1993, David Wellman defined racism in this way:
Culturally sanctioned beliefs, which, regardless of intentions involved, defend the advantages whites have because of the subordinated position of racial minorities
First of all, this definition can be applied to a variety of countries. Even though it mentions whites specifically, it could conceivably be tailored to nearly any imaginable scenario. It also acknowledges the historical context of racism, which was created for the purpose of subjugating and oppressing particular groups, but we'll get to that later. This definition also deals with the systematic and societal nature of racism, instead of looking at it as only individual instances of prejudice.

Wellman is not the only sociologist to offer a definition of racism. Noël A. Cazenave and Darlene Alvarez Maddern define racism as follows:
A highly organized system of 'race'-based group privilege that operates at every level of society and is held together by a sophisticated ideology of color/'race' supremacy. Racist systems include, but cannot be reduced to, racial bigotry

Again, the systemic nature of racism is emphasized. Cazenave and Maddern are defining racism as a system or force, and not simply something someone does or feels toward another person.

Anthropologist have also made attempts at defining racism. The following definition was written by Dr. Helen Enoch Page for the Center for the Study of White American Culture. This long, and fancily worded definition is actually the first part of a much longer definition of racism, but I think it captures Dr. Page's main argument:
Racism is an ideological, structural and historic stratification process by which the population of European descent, through its individual and institutional distress patterns, intentionally has been able to sustain, to its own best advantage, the dynamic mechanics of upward or downward mobility (of fluid status assignment) to the general disadvantage of the population designated as non-white (on a global scale), using skin color, gender, class, ethnicity or nonwestern nationality as the main indexical criteria used for enforcing differential resource allocation decisions that contribute to decisive changes in relative racial standing in ways most favoring the populations designated as 'white.'
Let me make a [lame] attempt as summarizing that in a way that is easier to understand: racism, according to this definition, is a tool used internationally by the dominant white culture to maintain their own benefit and at the expense of non-whites.

Now, there's one last piece that I want to bring into this conversation, and then I'll stop with the long, boring, academic quotes. See, at this point some people probably think that we're I'm just beating up on white people. "Why are whites the only ones who can be racist? Don't some blacks not like whites?" Yes, certainly there are many prejudiced blacks, and we need to have serious conversations about how we can all deal with our personal biases. However, in discussing race and racism, we must also take a look at the history of this phenomenon. So, i want to bring in some of this history. Now, If you find this kind of stuff boring, skip the long quote and read my summary at the end. This is from the American Anthropological Association's Statement on Race:
Today scholars in many fields argue that "race" as it is understood in the United States of America was a social mechanism invented during the 18th century to refer to those populations brought together in colonial America: the English and other European settlers, the conquered Indian peoples, and those peoples of Africa brought in to provide slave labor.

From its inception, this modern concept of "race" was modeled after an ancient theorem of the Great Chain of Being, which posited natural categories on a hierarchy established by God or nature. Thus "race" was a mode of classification linked specifically to peoples in the colonial situation. It subsumed a growing ideology of inequality devised to rationalize European attitudes and treatment of the conquered and enslaved peoples. Proponents of slavery in particular during the 19th century used "race" to justify the retention of slavery. The ideology magnified the differences among Europeans, Africans, and Indians, established a rigid hierarchy of socially exclusive categories underscored and bolstered unequal rank and status differences, and provided the rationalization that the inequality was natural or God-given. The different physical traits of African-Americans and Indians became markers or symbols of their status differences.

As they were constructing US society, leaders among European-Americans fabricated the cultural/behavioral characteristics associated with each "race," linking superior traits with Europeans and negative and inferior ones to blacks and Indians. Numerous arbitrary and fictitious beliefs about the different peoples were institutionalized and deeply embedded in American thought.

Early in the 19th century the growing fields of science began to reflect the public consciousness about human differences. Differences among the "racial" categories were projected to their greatest extreme when the argument was posed that Africans, Indians, and Europeans were separate species, with Africans the least human and closer taxonomically to apes.

Basically, the point of this quote and of the entire AAA document is to say that race has not always existed. Rather, it was created as a way to control and oppress non-whites. Once created, race was used to justify the enslavement of African Americans, the oppression of Native Americans, and the mistreatment of various other groups around the world. This system of classifying, labeling as inherently inferior, and oppressing is racism. This is how the sociologist and anthropologist mentioned above come to their definition of racism. This is why it is important to look at the historical context of this issue.

Now, some may say that this type of definition leaves out many prejudiced people. Certainly it does. However, I would argue in some instances these people are products of racism. They don't always represent racism itself. Rather, their prejudices are created from this process. An individual white may not feel that they have "power to oppress," but their prejudice may be the result of this system of racism, which operates apart from that individual. There are some African Americans who are express prejudice against whites. Is this racism? I would argue that this is not racism, but rather a response to racism. Is it wrong? Yes. But it is important to be honest about what it is and why it is wrong. In many instances, the solution to the prejudices of minorities is not to simply label them as racist. Instead, we must address the racism that is responsible for creating their prejudices. Likewise, we can not deal with the issue of white racism if we view it only as many instances of individual prejudices. Instead, we must address the system, the force that is racism, that has caused such a twisted way of thinking.

Now, someone like Denis may argue that this is letting minority groups off the hook. I would argue that his definition of racism lets white people off the hook. Why should we not acknowledge the unique role that whites play in the creation and perpetuation of this phenomenon? By using the same terminology to describe whiter racism and minority prejudice, or by using phrases like "both sides are wrong" or "we all need to stop the hate" we're ignoring this unique role. What such language does is place an equal responsibility for racism and an equal burden for fixing the problem on all races. However, when one looks at the history of race, it is clear that not all groups are equally responsible. When one looks at the present situation that has been wrought by that history, it is clear that we do not all share the same burden. So, my question to those who want to stick with the strict dictionary definition: Why do you want to let white people off the hook?

So, clearly I have a lot, maybe too much to say on this topic. I think you can see that I agree more with the definitions offered by people who actually study this topic. Racism is not when one person does, thinks, or says something bad to another person. Racism is a systemic force created tosubjugate the non-white people's of the earth. It is based on the idea that certain groups (defined by physical traits, and increasingly in combination with culture) are inherently inferior. Racism creates privilege and power for whites, even those who are not racist, and even those who do not feel particularly privileged or empowered.

I've talked long enough, but before I go, I just want to clear up some things between me and Denis. He wrote:
It seems to me that the most charitable explanation for the redefinition (including the power element) is to accomodate or account for the differing expressions of racism. I do understand this argument. A great example is anti-semitism. This could range from a mildly harmful attitude to death in a gas chamber. But the range of actions that might flow from a mindset (anti-semitism or racism) is not sufficient, imho, to justify changing a definition and confusing an already difficult issue.
Sadly, it does not appear that I made my opinion clear, and Denis misunderstood what I was saying. When I talked about different types of prejudice, I was not simply pointing out the differences among racism and anti-semitism and xenophobia (actually, I consider the last two part of the system of racism). What I mean was that a white racist who feels he has the right to subjugate blacks because he is biologically superior is a lot different than an African American who doesn't like to be around whites because he is angry about racism. A white voting public that refuses to fund pubic education in black communities on the basis that black cultural deficiencies are to blame for academicweaknesses is a lot different than a black student who doesn't like whites because they refuse to fund his school. The fact of the matter is, many minorities feel that whites can't be trusted. And while it is inaccurate to create such a generalization, it's notsurprising that people feel this way. As far as those individuals are concerned, whites have not shown themselves to be trustworthy. Their hatred, hanger, and prejudice is a result of the ways in which they andtheir community have been harmed by racism. So, to call them racist is inappropriate.

Denis has characterized my opinion on racism as hinging solely on one's ability to inflict harm. He writes:
So my point is that if we are to change the definition of bad attitudes, like racism, to reflect the varying ability of people or nations to act on said bad attitudes, then we should do the same with good attitudes.
However, in trying to shift responsibility off of whites, he has totally missed my point. It's not just about one's ability to act on bad attitudes. It's about the source of those attitudes. Are they birthed out of the system of racism defined above? Or are they in response to the pain of being oppressed by that system? I think this is a key question to ask in such a discussion. I hope that all who read (or, let's be real, skim) this post will join in this discussion by posting a comment.


Denis Navratil said...

Kevin, apologies for misrepresenting your position. I knew that you had not defined racism but had written on the subject such that I felt that I could make a good faith attempt to accurately represent your viewpoint. Now, after reading your lengthy essay on the subject, I know how foolish it was to attempt to represent your viewpoint. Anyway, perhaps I will have more to say on this subject after a day of rest. I have been working alot lately. By the way, I enjoy the exchange, even though I quite obviously prefer the dictionary to your lengthy and, to me, confusing thoughts on the subject. It isn't as complicated as you are making it, again, imho.

Kevin Lockett said...

I enjoy the exchange as well. It's hard to have a good discussion on racial issues because it's rare that people on both sides are actually sane and listen to what the other person is saying.

Go get some rest.

Denis Navratil said...

All righty, I have had some sleep and a chance to take another read of your comments.

My first thought is that there aren't cowardly or brave definitions, only accurate or innacurate ones.

Your somewhat elusive definition, or redefinition, can be found in here somewhere:

"I think you can see that I agree more with the definitions offered by people who actually study this topic. Racism is not when one person does, thinks, or says something bad to another person. Racism is a systemic force created to subjugate the non-white people's of the earth. It is based on the idea that certain groups (defined by physical traits, and increasingly in combination with culture) are inherently inferior. Racism creates privilege and power for whites, even those who are not racist, and even those who do not feel particularly privileged or empowered."

By your definition, racism is limited to whites.

And by my definition, or rather the correct definition, this makes you a racist insofar as you are espousing a philosophy wherein whites, collectively at least, are morally INFERIOR to non-whites who are incapable of being racist and who are therefore morally SUPERIOR to whites.

Just for the record, I am not in the least interested in letting white people off the hook for racism. I am not interested in anyone getting off the hook for racsim.

Racism (Websters version, not yours) is in my view a sickness that poisons relationships before they can even begin. It is as harmful to the racist who has to rationalize his racism and hold abhorent views of other peoples as it is to his victims. OK, obviously there are times when the victim has it worse. There are no winners with racism, only losers.

For this reason, I hope for your sake (and that of your students) that you reevaluate your rather elaborate rationalization of the morally inferior white race.

Oppression of people by other people is a phenomenon that has existed throughout every country in every time period. People have enslaved others throughout the history of the world. The word slavery I believe derives from Slav, a people of light skin who were enslaved largely because they did not have the resources to protect themselves. You can be sure that in every case of oppression there is an accompanying rationalization for the oppression. Obviously peoples of European desent created a rather elaborate race based philosophy to justify their oppression. They also were the people responsible for virtually wiping out the institution as well so perhaps some credit is due as well as blame.

My larger point is that people will create whatever philosophy is needed to justify their behavior and attitudes. My hope is that you Kevin will catch yourself before going hopelessly down a path of racial anamosity via your own elaborate justifications.

Kevin Lockett said...

First, let me say that by your definition, I am not a racist. I don't believe that only whites can be racist.

Let me be more clear: I believe racism is a tool used primarily (but not exclusively) by the dominant culture (which can vary from society to society) to systematically oppress groups not included in that dominant culture. I believe racism is a system with clear historical origins. American racism was created to oppress persons of African and Native American ancestry. Of course, this morphed over time to include other groups. Believing this does not make me racist, because I don't believe that the use of this tool is a behavior inherent in one race or another. I don't believe that any race is incapable of using this tool should circumstances make it possible. In fact, I think racism is just way bigger than person-to-person interaction. Like I said, racism is a system with a clear historical origin.

I think we should be looking toward the history of race, not the dictionary, to develop a definition of racism. What about the dictionary makes it the ultimate authority on defining racism?

I see where you're coming from, and, trust me, I don't think you're that off base. I think your basic premise that all people are capable of having what I would call prejudice or bias or in some cases hatred is true. I agree that all racial and ethnic groups in this country are guilty of this and that this behavior must change for the good of our society. I am frequently disgusted and embarrassed when ramped prejudice in the black community rears it's ugly head. However, I think that those who I have cited, who have built their careers on studying this issue and others like this, have a point in that we must consider the historical origins of race if we are to construct an accurate definition of racism. After all, the very fact that we have the racial categories that exist today is a byproduct of the creation of racism. If we only hold to the current dictionary as the ultimate authority on defining racism, we rob ourselves of the opportunity of including this historical context in that definition.

Denis Navratil said...

Kevin, your words:

Racism is a systemic force created to subjugate the non-white people's of the earth. It is based on the idea that certain groups (defined by physical traits, and increasingly in combination with culture) are inherently inferior. Racism creates privilege and power for whites, even those who are not racist, and even those who do not feel particularly privileged or empowered."

And then you write:

I don't believe that only whites can be racist.

It sounds to me like you are trying to have it both ways.

I can only speculate as to why you want it both ways. So I will. Redefining racism puts the spotlight on our disgraceful history of slavery and racism. By collectivizing the notion of racism, all white people are tainted in some way, either through their ancestry or because of unearned "privilege" that is granted to white people. Thus white people are being brought or shamed to the negotiating table by activist, and they are guilty until proven innocent by black liberal activists and liberal whites who accept the collective guilt heaped upon them. Proving innocence typically involves caving to every special interest that invariably involves larger and larger government.

As for me, I am not accepting the redefinition or the white guilt. As for the political objectives of the majority of black activists and their white liberal allies, I really think they benifit the black elites mostly while keeping regular black folks in a useful though destructive state of dependency.

My hope is that some on the left will start to feel some guilt for the millions of lives harmed by todays version of liberalism.

Kevin Lockett said...

I don't see a contradiction in what I am saying. Racism is a tool created to subjugate non-whites. Not all white people use this tool. If a non-white participates in the system of racism, they are racist. Furthermore, I'm not stupid enough to believe that all whites are racist or to assume that they are until they prove to me otherwise.

Again, I ask the following two questions:
1. What makes the Merriam-Webster Dictionary the final authority on defining racism?
2. Should we ignore the historical context of race as we seek to define racism?