Racism: Language Matters

Racism -- the belief that a particular race is inherently superior -- is thoroughly interwoven into our social system. It’s a prime example of how the System nurtures domination and submission. Undoing racism and transforming America will require multi-dimensional personal change as well as social, cultural, and political change.

That work needs to be careful and compassionate. Some change efforts backfire. Clarity about “race,” racism, and systemic racism can help.

In 1950 the United Nations proclaimed “all humans belong to the same species…. ‘Race’ is not a biological reality but a myth.” All humans share 99.9% of the same DNA. Two people of one “race” may be more genetically similar to someone from another “race” than they are to each other.

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, “The idea of race was invented to magnify the differences between people of European origin and those of African descent whose ancestors had been involuntarily enslaved and transported to the Americas.” Racism was an attempt to justify injustice.

The United States refined and institutionalized racism and made it official, the law of the land. In the North prior to the Civil War, racist laws controlled the lives and employment of free African-Americans. Following the war, racist laws persisted.

After World War Two, the federal government funded whites-only housing projects, denied loans to people of color, and allowed banks to do the same. Real estate agents channeled people of color to certain neighborhoods, which led to (inferior) segregated schools. Many unions excluded people of color. Radio and television programs, churches, and schools reinforced racist stereotypes. People of color were denied the right to vote.

Those and other elements reinforced one another. Woven together, they established systemic racism and preserved white supremacy.

The situation is similar today. Skin color is still a potent force. Perhaps because of guilt about the ongoing legacy of slavery, discrimination against African-Americans is severe -- and darker skinned African-Americans are discriminated against most severely. Many real estate agents and employers discriminate against African-Americans. So does the criminal justice system, which has produced the highest rate of incarceration in the world. African-Americans are six times more likely to be locked up than are whites. At current rates, one-third of African-American men will serve time in prison. Phone cameras have recently helped expose widespread discrimination against African-Americans, including the use of deadly force by police.

Bias is deeply embedded in the unconscious mind. Studies consistently prove the reality of that conditioning. In one online test of “implicit bias” taken by two million people, only African-Americans revealed no bias on average.

All of us white people are victims. Without our consent, our culture has embedded prejudice in us. White people, for example, often have a negative gut reaction when a young African-American man turns the corner and approaches them. Similar automatic feelings emerge in other situations.

That unconscious bias calls on white people to take note of their prejudicial reactions, not allow that bias to influence their behavior, and steadily undo that conditioning. One strategy is to consciously think counter-stereotypical thoughts, such as “soul,” when we see an African-American individual or image.

Moreover, we can engage in political action to alter public policies that buttress racism, support cultural expressions that help undermine prejudice, and engage in multi-racial communities that enhance mutual understanding. And we can comment or ask questions when we hear statements that reinforce racial bias.

If we want to have a positive impact, however, we need to be careful with our choice of words. In particular, the highly charged word “racist” is often inaccurate. And it can be counterproductive when it provokes defensive reactions that interfere with honest communication.

“Racist” is a label that suggests a harsh judgment about the other’s essential character. Labels are dangerous. They tend to be global because they ignore other aspects of the person’s character. And they’re fixed because they declare that the other is unlikely to change.

Declaring “we are all racists” is neither true nor productive. We can have racist tendencies and be prejudiced or biased without being a racist.

A racist is someone who believes a particular race is inherently superior. When people say, “All African-American people are genetically inferior to whites,” it’s accurate to call them a racist. But unless they acknowledge that belief, there’s no need to use the word racist. Instead we can focus on specific actions and beliefs, talk about bias, and perhaps discuss how prejudice can reinforce systemic racism.

As Chris Mooney wrote in Mother Jones, “”We can’t just draw some arbitrary line between prejudiced people and unprejudiced people, and declare ourselves to be on the side of the angels. Biases have slipped into all of our brains. And that means we all have a responsibility to recognize those biases—and work to change them.”