Being more careful about the racist label

The last couple of months I’ve written about racism. I would like to touch on the subject once more because my effort has been, as with several of my other columns recently, to show where we agree as Americans. But the problem with the question of racism is that while we almost universally agree that racism is bad, we don’t agree about when we can use that label, who can use it, and why.

For instance, I was listening some time ago to a podcast where the host, a white conservative, sat down with a guest, a black progressive, to talk about racism. The conversation was cordial and truly enlightening and a bit frustrating.

In it, the guest made the point that sometimes being racist means supporting racist policies, that is, policies that disproportionately affect minorities. And then she said the magic words: “Even if they don’t intend it,” they are being racist. In fact, she went on to say that when we talk about race, intent doesn’t matter. It’s the support for the policy, which may indeed disproportionately affect a minority community but does so accidentally, that makes one a racist.

What isn’t always considered, however, is that precisely because of our national consciousness around race and racism, the person accused of racism does not hear, “You are wrong.” Instead they hear, “You are bad.” The person being accused hears that their years of peaceable work for or with or around minorities doesn’t matter. What they believe in their heart and mind and soul about the evil of racism doesn’t matter. In fact, perhaps the fact that they don’t consider the skin color of the person they interact with and only think of other policy goals is itself as sign of their racism. In short, they feel attacked to their very core.

The result is that some rethink their position. More simply slink away with the lesson that they will never speak up again. And some in our nation have become numb to the accusation, since it is so overused.

For instance, in 2012 Vice President Joe Biden told a diverse Virginia crowd that included many African Americans that by “unchaining” Wall Street, Mitt Romney wanted to “put y’all back in chains.” This was the same Biden who in 2007 referred to then Sen. Obama as the first “articulate and bright and clean” African American candidate for president. In 2008 Sen. John McCain, who had defended Obama against a racist comment made by an audience member at one of his rallies, was accused by several outlets as being secretly racist, and by Ezra Klein, co-founder of Vox, of “running crypto-racist ads.”

So long as racism is detached from intent, it will become whatever one side says it is. In the world of politics, where the point is always to win, the accusations thrown out so irresponsibly are tearing our nation apart. And all of this gives shelter to real racists.

My father faced that racism throughout his life. However, despite his “funny” name, his thick accent and his dark skin, he was able to become a physician in this country and raise his family. He dreamt of retiring to his home country of the Dominican Republic. But when he’d visit and return to the States, the first words out of his mouth – every time – were, “This is the greatest country in the world.”

Let us be more careful about whom we call racist so that we might root out real racism. Charity in truth demands it.

Sign up for weekly updates and news from the Archdiocese of Omaha!
This is default text for notification bar