Who are you calling racist?

I recently came across a four-page document meant for use in the classroom. Entitled “A Contemporary Glossary: Definitions of Racism,” it was published in 1983 by the Council on Interracial Books for Children. Most of its source material dates to the early 1970s. One professional educator (now retired) looked at my copy of this document and declared it badly outdated. However, I suspect many people my age were taught these definitions and still believe them. Moreover, I also suspect that they have passed along these definitions to younger generations of students who also believe them.

The document opens with a dictionary definition of prejudice: “Unfavorable opinion or feeling formed beforehand without knowledge, thought, or reason.” It follows with a certain person’s definition of racism: “Racism is different from racial prejudice, hatred, or discrimination. Racism involves having the power to carry out systematic discriminatory practices through the major institutions of our society.”

I do not object to an effort to define prejudice as an opinion or feeling and racism as practices based on prejudiced opinions or feelings. I fear, though, that a focus on power and on major institutions of our society presents a distorted view of racism. Indeed, the rest of the document makes its premise clear. “In the United States at present, only whites can be racists, since whites dominate and control the institutions that create and enforce American cultural norms and values… blacks and other Third World peoples do not have access to the power to enforce any prejudices they may have, so they cannot, by definition, be racist.” It also says, “Racism and white racism mean the same thing….” And, “All white individuals in our society are racists. Even if whites are totally free from all conscious racial prejudices, they remain racists, for they receive benefits distributed by a white racist society through its institutions.”

I see no benefit and great risk in the statements that only white people can be racist and that all whites are racist, even if they have no racial prejudices. But I do understand why certain individuals, certain statements, and certain actions have been labeled “racist” even when I could find no racial prejudice in what the target of the label said or did. If every white person in the United States is assumed to be racist—even defined as racist—then it is easy to put a racist spin on anything a white person says or does.

I acknowledge that racism still exists in the United States. Some managers, sifting through a stack of resumes that are virtually identical, are more likely to arrange an interview with Jennifer than with LaKisha. In some workplaces, white English-speaking people are more likely to be promoted to higher-paying positions than black people or Spanish-speaking people. Black individuals are more likely than white individuals to be denied a loan for buying a car or a house, and if they get the loan they are likely to pay more than white individuals with the same income. These things happen. They are morally wrong. They are also illegal. When persistent patterns of racism in a workplace or other institution can be revealed, those guilty of making racist decisions are penalized.

But in schools and workplaces, black people and people of other minorities have risen to positions of power. They can hire, promote, or fire employees. If they should favor members of their own minority over whites, would that not be racist? And is anyone willing to go out on a limb and say that such things never happen in America?

Maybe it is true that the handout I found is outdated and no longer relevant. My questions are: when did things change, and what changed them? Was there a time that every white person in America was racist and no black person in America could be racist? When was that time, and what brought it to an end? Was it ended by court decisions and legislation? Was it ended by the Civil Rights movement? Was it ended by education, such as the document I found, which taught students about racism and so brought it to an end? Or, since racism can still be found, is it still true that every white person is racist and no black person can be racist?

I teach college students. I have had white students that did well and white students that did poorly; I have had black students that did well and black students that did poorly. Since I teach history, race and racism are mentioned in the classroom. I make the point that, biologically, all humans belong to the same race. Modern racism, as it developed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, was a result of evolutionary theories, assumptions that people are different because of the traits they inherited from their ancestors. Racists assume that strength, intelligence, endurance, and other qualities differ from race to race. But DNA tests do not bear out those assumptions. A white student and a black student in the same classroom might have more DNA in common with each other than either of them shares with a brother or sister of the same two parents. That’s simple science.

A student once asked me why we still talk about racism if there are not different races. It was a sincere question and a good one. I think the label remains useful to discuss prejudices based on the perception of different races, even though different races do not exist. And if someone—black, white, or any other appearance and culture—has the power to treat other people differently based on those prejudices, I say that misuse of that power is racist.

All people are sinful. Prejudice is one aspect of human sinfulness, stronger in some sinners and weaker in others. Humanity has developed many different cultures, and I believe that all of them are worth celebrating. Irish, German, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Jewish, Arab, African, Hispanic—they are all good. Each member of a culture should have pride in his or her cultural identity—pride, but not a sense of superiority. In fact, as we celebrate our various cultures, we should also take note of the celebration of other cultures and learn about our neighbors from their celebrations. By itself, that attitude will not eliminate prejudice and the possibility of racism, but openness to cultural diversity is better than automatic labeling with the word “racist.” Or so I believe. J.