Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Racism vs. Race-ism: The changing language of Race in America

I’ve always been fascinated by words… Like how the word “Dialogue” once a Noun and Verb, lost it Verb form early in the 20th Century and is now poised to reclaim it. Or how words like “enormity” used to describe an act of extreme wickedness, can somehow soften over time to now commonly describe anything that is ‘large in scale’. The process is simple enough; common usage over a long enough period of time results in a redefinition of the word. Our language is constantly shifting and reinventing itself by the words we speak…

I have also been fascinated by the power of words. I’ve marveled at how the assimilation of a given word, phrase, or slogan has the power to construct, modify, or retard mental imagery and ideas. Just think “War on Terror”, “Forced Busing”, “Tax and Spend”, “Illegals”, "Special Rights" or “Culture War”…

In a sense, words are weapons in a war of ideas. A well turned phrase can incite or pacify ones passions, inspire or discourage action, or can stimulate or halt discussion. When it comes to the language of Race, the latter pair, the ability to stimulate or terminate discussion is foremost.

There is a perceptible shift in our National dialogue on race. We are experiencing a move away from definitions that describe the relationships of different groups of people to newer definitions designed to stifle discussion by negatively characterising discussion, dissent, or protest.

Consider the word "Racism".
The American Heritage Dictionary defines Racism as: a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human races determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one's own race is superior and has the right to rule others; a policy, system of government, etc., based upon or fostering such a doctrine; discrimination. The definition describes a hierarchial belief system and the use of this belief system as doctrine or the basis for policy.

But this is far different from our contemporary uses of the word. I googled blogs and articles that used the word 'Racist' and found these quotes:

McCook Daily Gazette "Frankly I don't care about race the way Democrats do, but race is apparently the single issue to black Americans. So important was race, I contend that they acted as racists."

"I don't believe that the American Presidency is the place for affirmative action. Obama is the affirmative action President. Affirmative action is racism. You cannot have respect for a person who gets a job they did not earn."

Ubersite "It seems to me that black people are more racist. Just the fact that their always bitching about racism is racist. I believe fully in equality."

The articles and commentaries from which these quotes were culled suggest a new context in which racism (for the sake of clarity I will present this new idea as "Race-ism") is synonymous with race-consciousness. Thinking about, speaking about, or dealing with Race in any detailed or deliberate manner is "Race-ism". Oddly enough, in this context, comments clearly indicative of the type of hierarchial belief system the dictionary definition of the word "Racism" describes, are often passed off as non-racist or even anti-racist. This is possible because if Race-ism = Race consciousness, then claiming personal indifference towards race and racial issues would make one non-raceist regardless of the tone and tenor of one's comments. It is only in this context that people could describe President Barack Obama, a summa cume laude graduate of Harvard Law, a former Constitutional Law Professor, and former US Senator as nothing more than an Affirmative Action President, or "Barack the Magic Negro", while simultaneously declaring their statements to be non-raceist on the basis of their personal dispassion.

When we do engage the subject of Race, our conversations seem to evince a growing segregation of ideas, visions, and understandings. The chasm grows as new definitions seek to supplant old understandings and we dutifully avoid the courageous conversations necessary to repair the breach. Is Institutional Racism a lingering blight on our society that must be challenged and eliminated? Or is it a thing of the past, existing now only in the rhetorical ramblings of racial-hustlers and opportunists? The answer depends largely on who you ask.

A real tragedy of Race in our contemporary society is that it has become such a polarizing subject that at its very mention, it causes us to reflexively retreat to our ideological battle positions, thereby preventing us from truly listening to each other and understanding each others concerns. Any real understanding is impeded and we find ourselves unable to move beyond this stasis because of our refusal to 'dig deeper' and to give real consideration for opposing views. It's as though we fear that any substantive examination of the cauldron of race might uncover some degree of our own complicity thereby introducing a cognitive dissonance that would be psychologically traumatic.

"Race" is ideological "sausage"; we indulge, but with no real or sustained interest in understanding it's origins or composition. In fact, we consciously recognize that truly examining and understanding the phenomena of race would be disturbing. So instead, we ignore the deep and foundational issues, choosing to focus on the trivial, such as on how many blacks are on a specific TV show or the existence of BET. And any incident, immediate or remote, that hints at a larger underlying issue sparks an immediate and passionate response. All the while the chasm grows.

I've noted a few terms whose colloquial usages are seemingly based on new or alternative definitions:

RACE-IST = someone who talks about race or racism [see:diversity],
RACE-ISM = Any action taken containing or suggestive of a racial component or consciousness.
EQUALITY = the 'neutral' state reached no one speaks about race, racism, discrimination, inequality, or unfairness,
RACE CARD = any discussion that suggests an act of racism, racial discrimination, or race consciousness, negatively directed towards Blacks; whether modern or historical,

In its contemporary colloquial context, to even Talk about Racism, is to exhibit Race-ism.

Therefore, when groups like the NAACP protest or speak out against a perceived wrong or injustice, people are not necessarily motivated to act, nor are they motivated to make change. In fact by changing definitions, our society is insulates itself against criticisms and charges of racism by creating a virtual reality wherein inequality doesn't exist as long as nobody talks about it. (It reminds me of an old B-movie named 'Mystery Men' about a group of superheroes with useless super-powers, one of whom could turn invisible, but only as long as nobody looked at him)

But as these subtle semantic shifts move us towards a social environment that is increasingly hostile to critical analysis and societal introspection, we are really losing something of value... We've made tremendous progress in this country on racial issues in far more visceral and violent times than these. Yet progress has never come as a by-product of silence, apathy, or indifference. We've never moved forward, by simply closing our eyes and "moving on". Change is only achieved by those who are willing to look honestly and critically at where we stand, looking hopefully and optimistically at where we must go, and working passionately and deliberately to get us there. In this light, the shift in our national dialogue is clearly counter-productive.

We are faced with a myriad of solvable problems, but solving them will require our attention and it will require honest dialogue. Not for the purpose of assigning blame (there's enough blame to go around on all sides), but these courageous conversations are desperately needed so we can complete the work of designing solutions.

We need to talk about the fact that Public school districts with large minority populations receive nearly $1,000 less per pupil. We  need to talk about the recent data showing that within primarily minority school districts, approximately 78 percent of teachers do not teach in their accredited subject area. We need to talk about the fact that when white and black youths are arrested for the same crime and with similiar criminal records, minorities are three times more likely to be incarcerated than whites. We really need to address the seemingly permenant disparities in unemployment rates and the linkages to disparities in sickness and deaths from treatable diseases and afflictions as 52% of minorities are currently without health insurance...

But when race matters are equated with race-ism, when discussion of racial issues is characterized as race-ist, and when enumerating racial disparities is dismissed as the race-card, the creative conversations necessary to resolve these issues is impossible.

When will we ever talk about employment law and the 'shifting standards' that make discrimination cases virtually unwinnable? When will we really talk about immigration policy as it applies to all nations? Will we ever discuss the concept of "excess death" and it's roots?  Are we prepared to talk about why the gap in white and black unemployment rates never closes? Are we ready to talk about how teacher union contracts and how they impact the academic achievement gap?

I think THIS is what Attorney General Holder was speaking about when he spoke of our nation's cowardice in soberly and forthrightly addressing racial issues; before he too was shamed back into silence.

But what about us... Can we talk?

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INTJ - "Mastermind". Introverted intellectual with a preference for finding certainty. A builder of systems and the applier of theoretical models. 2.1% of total population.
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