October 02, 2009

Having the moniker “Southern Avenger” is like being named “Malcolm X.” Both have racial connotations and people assume the best or worst depending on their perspective. That advocates of Southern heritage might try to emphasize positive aspects of their philosophy—regional pride, states’ rights—is unacceptable to critics who see nothing but a front for anti-black racism. That advocates of Black Nationalism might try to emphasize positive aspects of their philosophy—ethnic pride, community control—is unacceptable to critics who see nothing but a front for anti-white racism. Indeed, sometimes Southern heritage has just been about hating blacks and sometimes Black Nationalism has just been about hating whites. And sometimes they haven’t.

Those on either side of the typical argument over “racism” have a knack for cherry-picking their own “facts” to manufacture their own conclusions. President Barack Obama automatically becomes racist for defending a black college professor who got into a tussle with a white police officer. Congressman Joe Wilson automatically becomes racist for misbehaving during a speech by a black president. Is there a racial dynamic or component to both situations? Perhaps, but it’s ridiculously simplistic to whittle down either man’s behavior to pure racism, as many have. The same goes for those who champion Southern or black pride.

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And the same goes for anyone, period. We have reached a point in our public discourse where the word “racist” has little definition. When I’m accused of racism these days, my reaction is usually an ambivalent “so?” It’s not that I’m necessarily comfortable with the term; I’m just not sure what it means anymore. Writes Jesse Washington of the Associated Press:

[I]f everybody’s racist, is anyone? The word is being sprayed in all directions, creating a hall of mirrors that is draining the scarlet R of its meaning and its power, turning it into more of a spitball than a stigma. ‘It gets to the point where we don’t have a word that we use to call people racist who actually are,’ said John McWhorter, who studies race and language at the conservative Manhattan Institute. ‘The more abstract and the more abusive we get in the way we use the words, then the harder it is to talk about what we originally meant by those terms,’ said McWhorter.

In a recent column, my friend and colleague, Charleston City Paper columnist Will Moredock argued that it is necessary to keep talking about racism so that it might eventually go away. But if we discuss racism more because the term is being stretched to mean more, what, exactly, are we talking about to begin with? By injecting race into controversies where its existence is questionable at best, do we not simply create racial animosity where little to none had existed prior? My definition of racism is very simple: malicious intent motivated by race. I do not believe Obama or Wilson even remotely fit this category. Moredock disagrees, writing the day after Wilson’s outburst “What we saw last night was racism, pure and simple.” Pure and simple? I have no problem talking about racism, but see no point in constantly discussing a concept that’s become so abstract there’s no longer any semblance of a definition.

The few hardcore, actual racists I’ve met are every bit as silly as hardcore anti-racists. What do you say, when discussing politics, to someone who is most obsessed with the fact that Obama’s black? There’s not much you can say to such inanity. What do you say, when discussing politics, to someone who is most obsessed with the fact that Obama’s critics are white? Once again, not much.

It does little good to argue with such people and in fact, their obsession over the constant specter of racism is the best way to kill a debate. If Obama is a racist, as some on the Right claim, then anything else he might stand for can be completely dismissed. If Wilson is a racist, as some on the Left claim, then his disagreement with the president is entirely discredited. In such an environment, Americans might get as much out of a national conversation with David Duke and Louis Farrakhan, men who admittedly allow race to color every issue, as they would hardcore anti-racists, who in seeing “racism” in everything can no longer see any other issue. 

Some will accuse me of pretending racism doesn’t exist. This is not true. Race is a significant part of our identity and our differences often fall along those lines, sometimes nastily. But this doesn’t mean racial lines are the sum of our differences. To assume they are is a mistake, leading one to ascribe the act of “racism” to every instance of criticism or disagreement. Unfortunately, this is where we stand today.

Though only a fool would claim racism doesn’t exist; only a fool sees racism in all that exists. And if everybody’s racist; no one is.


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