Thinking About 'Racism'

A word's meaning, then and now.

Community-Stand-Against-Racism-SignI don't remember when I first heard the word “racism,” but I suspect it wasn't until quite a while after I'd actually experienced the phenomenon itself in person. When I was a grade-school kid in the early to mid 1960s, our family spent summers at the beach in South Carolina and in my mother's hometown in that same state. My mother's father – who had died before I was born, and who in addition to his day job had worked as an evangelical singer, performing at churches around the South – had been viewed by some of his white fellow townspeople with a certain skepticism. One reason was that his best friend was a black man; another was that he spent many Sunday mornings singing and worshipping with local black congregations, often taking my mother along with him. Hearing my mother's stories about him when I was young, I came to think of him as having been something of an Atticus Finch without the law degree.

He was one face of the family. Another was Uncle John, who had been married to my grandfather's half-sister and who, when I was a kid, was a widower who lived across the street from my widowed grandmother. Uncle John was very old, old enough to have ridden with the Red Shirts (a version of the KKK) in the late 1800s. Every summer, my grandmother would pressure my mother to take us over there to talk to him. My mother always resisted. She hated him. He wasn't my grandmother's cup of tea either, but this was the South, and she had a sense of family obligation. So each year we'd eventually visit Uncle John, who we always found sitting in a green rocking chair on his screened-in front porch, chain-smoking stinky cigars. Invariably, he was waited on attentively by his sweet, gentle black housemaid, Janie, whom he treated with contempt. She wasn't the only object of his disdain. If a black man walked down the sidewalk in front of his house, Uncle John would shout: “Nigger, walk in the street!” And the pedestrian, scared to do otherwise, would obey.

Although my mother always made it clear that she despised Uncle John's views, I never in my childhood had a serious conversation about racism with her or anyone. I didn't need one. I observed. I reflected. And I stored up memories that remain vivid. I saw everything. I saw that the black people who worked for my relatives were uniformly uncomplaining and devoted. Walking home with them in the evening, I took in every detail of the tumbledown shacks they lived in. I noticed, too, that while some of them enjoyed their employers' respect and affection, others, like Janie, were cruelly insulted and exploited. When I became aware of Martin Luther King, Jr., nobody had to explain to me what he was about. I understood.

In short, I witnessed racism. Real racism, plain as day. I might not have had a word for it, but I knew it was ugly. And wrong.

Back then, right and wrong, when it came to such subjects, were clear. But then things changed. Quickly. Not so many years later, attending college in New York – in a world that, owing to the radical disruptions of the Sixties generation, was already remarkably different from the one I'd grown up in – I encountered ideas that baffled and appalled me. For example, the claim that all white people are, by definition, racist – but that, also by definition, no black people can be considered racist, because whites, as a group, are in the driver's seat in the U.S. and blacks aren't. Which meant that even whites who'd risked their lives fighting racial prejudice were racist, while Jesse Jackson – who'd called New York City “Hymietown” – was not. This twisted kind of “analysis,” I recognized, was as unjust as the white-on-black racism it was meant to supplant – for it, too, judged people not according to their virtues or vices but by the color of their skin.

I thought things were bad enough in the late 1970s, when I was in college. But after that, they only got worse. To my astonishment, shouting “racism” developed into an academic discipline. The black American cultural heritage, especially in literature and music, is remarkable, and if young black people were taught about it properly they might be inspired to make worthy contributions to it. But Black Studies (as I've written about elsewhere) is less about studying that heritage than about inculcating a sense of aggrieved victimhood. At the moment I happen to be reading a fascinating new biography of the great songwriter Duke Ellington. Who wrote it – one of the hundreds of people who teach Black Studies in American colleges? Nope. The author – who also wrote Pops, about Louis Armstrong – is Terry Teachout, the Wall Street Journal's (caucasian) drama critic. In these two books, Teachout does precisely what a discipline called Black Studies should be doing – but isn't.

At the heart of Black Studies is a poisonous take on race that has spread throughout the academy – and, alas, infected most of American society. It has made possible absurd stories like that of Shannon Gibney, a black English comp teacher at a Minneapolis community college who, until recently, made a habit of telling her white students that they're racists. Surprisingly, her students had the guts to complain and Gibney's higher-ups had the nerve to tell her to cool it; unsurprisingly, Gibney saw this as racist. Meanwhile, at UCLA, black students of Val Rust, a white education professor, held a sit-in to protest his correction of their grammar, spelling, and punctuation – which, they said, created “a hostile and toxic environment for students of color.” Racists used to try to keep black people from being educated; now people who actually seek to educate black students – as opposed to reciting victimhood mantras – are tagged as racists.

In 2008, Americans chose a black president. One might have expected the practice of reflexively shouting “racism!” to subside. But no: recognizing the election as a threat to their enterprise, the “racism” racketeers only intensified their efforts – providing us with such memorable episodes as MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry's declaration, last Sunday, that the word “Obamacare” is racist. The other side of this coin, of course, is that the very same folks who manage to discover white-on-black racism where it doesn't exist (turning, for example, in the Trayvon Martin case, a Latino into a white man for sheer ideological purposes) decline to acknowledge the explicit black-on-white antagonism underlying, for example, the so-called “knockout game.” The ideological guidelines are clear: even where there is no sign of white racism, one must assert that it is ubiquitous; as for black antipathy for whites, one must, despite any and all evidence to the contrary, be prepared to affirm that it simply doesn't exist.

Once upon a time, the word “racism” stood for a very real and utterly hateful phenomenon. Great Americans, black, white, and otherwise, struggled bravely to overcome it. To a remarkable extent, they succeeded. The major threat to racial harmony in America today is not white-on-black racism itself but the aggressive use of the word “racism” as a weapon by purportedly powerless people who, in fact, wield considerable cultural power and are out to disempower their ideological adversaries. The whole shabby business is a cynical abuse of American history, a heartless disservice to American society – and, not least, a cruel offense against everyone, like my Uncle John's long-suffering Janie, who has ever been a victim of real racial prejudice. It deserves to be stamped out as much as racism itself.

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