What is Racism?

In the heat of a passionate campaign we can lose sight of fundamentals. Trump’s “shithole countries” remark was dumb and offensive, but was it racist? As people make their case for or against, everyone seems to be skipping an essential step – defining the term. What does the term “racist” actually mean?

A new post at Forbes explores reasons for the apparent reluctance to settle on a definition and some of the roots of the concept of race in an American context. It also proposes a definition, and I’m interested in your thoughts on that.

Racism is the belief that race determines certain individual human qualities, and those qualities render some races inherently superior to others.

What’s missing in that definition? Do the president’s comments fit under that rubric?

46 Comments

    1. What is missing? Conscious understanding by the general public accompanied by changes in personal actions and policies that impact racism. Change will only come when people demand it. Those in politics and power who choose not to change their minds, hearts, and practices, will either be forced from their positions of authority by we, the people, or they will succeed in their agendas. It will take time but mostly, it will take courage and individual commitment.

    1. Bart, I think most of us agree with Chris’s definition in the Forbes post.

      “Racism is the belief that race determines certain individual human qualities, and those qualities render some races inherently superior to others.”

      Of course there is the problem that race doesn’t exist, at least the way we usually think of it. And the fact that when you mention race and racism in the United States, we are usually talking about a Whites and African Americans descended from slaves.

      What are your thoughts?

      1. I have no problem with that definition, as it is straight out of Webster’s. Just wonder about the lack of address for his asking “what is missing?”. Or “Does Trump’s comments about Haiti and African nations fit under that rubric?”

    2. To follow unarmed’s comment, racism is the notion that people can be judged superior or inferior to some objective norm based on easily observable physical characteristics. This is fundamentally a false concept. This is not to say that objective norms do not exist, or are unreasonable – but rather the aforementioned criteria mentioned are not indicative of coherence with them.

    1. Just listened to Episode 31, the first episode. Sounds like a very interesting approach. The way it’s structured (by episode with different voices), it could be utilized as the basis for discussion across many platforms – group dialogue, college courses, faith-based programs. Looking forward to Episode 32.

      1. Mark, There a a whole lot of really smart people here but mostly, those who comment are caring, well read, critically thinking people. There is no pedigree imposed. So – welcome, please comment as we all learn from one another. You won’t be criticized but you will be challenged, and that is the strength of Chris’ blog!

        Have at it!

  1. I don’t have a lot of time to post today, so will leave a short question. What do you call someone who detests a culture that originated with, or at least is strongly ascribed, to a small segment of a specific skin color?

    I could be talking about the typical redneck hillbilly, but in this case, I am talking about rap/ hip hop music culture, and all the various attributes of that culture.

    I can’t stand anyone, black or white, that identifies with that culture. Though it is typically associated with one race, I have had direct dealings with both white and black wanna be thugs, but most are black. Obviously, only a small percentage of the population is part of this culture, but what do you call a guy like me?

    1. Hip hop isn’t my thing either, but I operate on a “to each his own” philosophy. Unless you’re blasting it in my ears uninvited, I don’t care what music you listen to, nor do I worry much about what you wear. But I will privately laugh at saggy pants, because I think they silly. JMO

      Not into the redneck culture either, except the the country songs with the funny lyrics.

    2. I could go on and on at length and beyond scope about the nonsense use of the word ‘culture’ in, like, 99% of public discourse today (anything from feckless progressives who truly believe that ‘stopping appropriation’ is an action item that can achieved without essentially defining taxonomies of various specific ‘cultures’ and then conferring rigid intellectual property laws on the lot of them, to the rightwing nationalists who would use such IP laws to be able to claim actual legal precedence on what does or does not constitute ‘Americanness’), but suffice to say culture is amorphous, in constant flux, and as much defined by the parts the group is unaware of (such as the concept of hegemony) as the parts they are.

      More specifically to your comment, it’s really hard to appraise what you’re talking about when you talk about ‘rap/ hip hop music culture, and all the various attributes of that culture’ because of course this classic:

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gtkQGG8vlPA

      was written by a completely different group for a completely different audience under a completely different context than this classic:

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hChKXNpoPI8

      and whereas one can’t argue taste, in every case you discover art other people like, it’s better to ask them why and listen to their answers than write off their ‘culture.’

      Oh and by the way, both links are to hip hop songs I selected because you might like them. No problem if you don’t, but give ’em a whirl at least.

      1. Actually I made a mistake here. I basically did what is annoying me about other people right now when they post pretty pictures of Haitian beaches to argue that the country isn’t a shithole, as if that confronts the underlying problem of the statement. I posted good hip hop songs as if it confronts the underlying problem you have with hip hop culture.

        I don’t mean to be disingenuous, I know what you mean when you say “rap/ hip hop music culture, and all the various attributes of that culture” the same way you know what 45 means when he says “shithole countries.”

        The problem isn’t his appraisal of economically distressed poorly managed third world geographies. The problem of his statement was the question, “Why should we allow these people in?” If he were truly concerned about the qualities of the geographies they hailed from, then the answer is in the question: we should let in people from shithole countries because they’re better off here than living in a shithole. But his statement is targeting people, not geographies, and to their exclusion, not toward the resolution of their problems. THAT’S the racist part.

        In the same way, you state, “I can’t stand anyone, black or white, that identifies with that culture.” Who that group of people is and how we define them isn’t the issue here, the problem is your attitude toward them.

        And that attitude shouldn’t be maintained, because it only services animus between you and that group to no gain to either. That’s why I recommend asking the question “Why do you like this music?” with the sincere intent to listen to the answers. But that takes effort and patience, so at the very least if you don’t feel up to being curious, you should probably just let go.

        Which is Flypusher’s “to each his own” philosophy in hundreds more words.

      2. “That’s why I recommend asking the question “Why do you like this music?” with the sincere intent to listen to the answers. ”

        To flip that I can very specifically explain why hip hop isn’t my thing- it is very sparse in the elements of music I enjoy the most – melody, harmony, lyrical musical phrases. It has complex rhythms, and sometimes a bit of melody in the choruses, but that’s not enough for me. I’m an amateur musician and the stuff I enjoy playing is classical, big band and R&B adaptations for wind band. I like listening to all that and plenty of rock and roll too.

    3. Sorry, in retrospect, given the higher level of discourse on this site, I should have not whipped out a quick ambiguous post, and left. I should have been more explicit. When I say “hip hop/ rap culture”, I am referring not to the music, as awful as it is. I am talking about the misogyny, the “get rich or die trying”, the lionizing of criminality attitudes that are pervasive in that group.

      I have had first hand dealings with an example of that culture. I had a wanna be thug, who was white, who lived one floor above me. His crew, which was virtually all black, were at his apartment all the time. I won’t detail all the incidents that occurred, all the times the police were called, until the tenants of the building rose up and finally forced the building managers to evict the scum. Only detail I will give was the last straw. It involved one of these psycho’s throwing a bull terrier from their 3rd story balcony. Four tenants called the police over that one. I told the punk, with a cop 3 feet away, that I would kill him if anything like that happened again. The cop did not say a word.

      I recognize that only a small segment of the black population is involved in that kind of culture, or finds it acceptable. I also realize that there is a culture, typically dominated by old white men, that is just as misogynistic, just as obsessed with accumulating wealth, just as comfortable with the ends justifying the means, and who are far more powerful.

      But bottom line, the members of my “hip/hop rap culture”, albeit a small segment of the population, are predominantly black, and are highly visible in public. The “political/economic establishment”, old white guys, you only recognize their membership when you watch news channels or news websites.

      I hate members of both groups. But, I can certainly see, based on day-to-day visibility, how blacks who embrace this “hip/hop rap culture” negatively impact the opinions of the masses towards all blacks far more easily than white men in Washington and Wall Street negatively impact the masses towards whites.

      I ask again, am I a racist?

      Last thing, with respect to the puppet tyrant’s shithole comment. As far as I know, no one chooses where they will be born.

      1. The way I see it Dinsdale, bad behavior is bad behavior, regardless of your music and fashion choices.

        If you missed it Chris had a post some months back about some of the bad boys of country music. I have no use for thuggish posturing and behavior, but it’s not just hip hop culture that has indulged in it. I think embracing thuggish culture is a bad choice for anyone, but it seems to be an even worse choice for Black people, because of very selective perceptions.

    4. Dins – I’d call a guy like you perfectly normal, the times we’ve crossed swords in the past notwithstanding.

      The term “race” has no meaning in the human context. The term “culture” damn sure does. Therefore, the criticism of race is meaningless and ignorant. Criticism of a culture is valid – relativists be damned.

      I share your view of “hip-hop” as a toxic subculture. It seems exempt from criticism for its overt misogyny, racism, and violence because of its association with a particular skin color, which is, in itself, a racist viewpoint.

      When we conflate this thing called “race” with culture, we lose the ability to discuss the latter intelligently. It’s exactly like failing to discern the difference between a religion and its adherents. Except in this case, both are real.

      To the point of the parent post, yes there are shitholes on earth – cultural ones. The ‘Stans’, North Korea, Somalia, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and many others, of all colors, are the homes of the absolute antitheses of the values we hold dear. Somehow I doubt this was that to which the Orange One was in reference however, and neither is that enumeration a comment on the worth of their inhabitants. Nationality is also a characteristic we don’t discriminate against and rightly so.

    1. I suspect your daughter is very cautious about what she tells her daddy, and that speaks well of her and you. I feel certain if it were something she felt she couldn’t handle, she would tell you. Seems like you’ve raised her up to be a strong woman, Texan and that is the best any dad can do for their girls.

  2. “Swedes apparently have 25 words for snow. In a cold, damp climate, snow is a force that shapes their life. It makes sense that they would evolve language to express its many nuanced forms.”

    That’s a very important point. Racism is not an all or nothing situation; there are degrees. I think most people think of the worst extreme when they hear the word “racist”: somebody who actively hates that group of other people, and wishes to cause them pain, fear, and even death. Disgraced comedian Louie C.K. had a very good point with his “mild racism” bit. The people who don’t actively seek to harm people of other races, but regard them with a condescending and uninformed attitude are understandably upset if you equate them to a Richard Spencer or David Duke. We need some better way to define the degrees of racism and get a dialog about how even the milder forms are problematic. Take the example of the uproar over the NFL players (most if not all Black) who protest by taking a knee during the National Anthem. Probably the most common complaint I’ve heard from the offended side is “Those guys make a ton of $ playing a game! They should be more grateful!” Probably a lot of the people making the complaint are struggling to get by financially. But even millions of dollars aren’t going to protect you if the society at large isn’t protecting everyone’s rights equally. Seattle Seahawks player Michael Bennett found himself targeted by police when he was in the wrong place at the wrong time and had that moment when he faced the reality that all his $ wouldn’t do a damn thing to protect him if one of those police officers had decided that he was a threat. Lebron James had a lesson in fame and wealth doesn’t shield you from racist graffiti sprayed on your house. At the risk of invoking Godwin’s Law, wealthy Jews in Central Europe in the 30’s learned the hard way that wealth is no substitution for a government that protects your rights as citizens.

    My thinking is that one of the ways to counter this mild racism is better education. Now I’m pretty well read, but there were a few things about race relations that I didn’t know until I started reading this blog and some of the links/ books recommended. Someone less curious is probably going to know even less. I heard this on the radio this morning (driving into Houston to play music for Marathon Hoopla):

    https://onbeing.org/programs/isabel-wilkerson-the-heart-is-the-last-frontier-jan2018/

    This fits in very well this for topic. A couple especially relevant points:

    “Empathy is not pity or sympathy, in which you are — pity, you’re looking down on someone and feeling sorry for them. Sympathy, you may be looking across at someone and feeling bad for them. Empathy means getting inside of them and understanding their reality and looking at their situation and saying — not “What would I do if I were in their position?” but “What are they doing? Why are they doing what they’re doing, from the perspective of what they have endured?” And that is an additional step. There are multiple steps that a person has to take to really be open to that.”

    and

    “And I think one of the reasons that we’re in the situation that we’re in in our country is because — the laws have been changed; lots of laws were passed, actually, in the 1860s, [laughs] and then they had to be revisited in the 1960s. And why is that? Partly, I think it’s an indication that the laws are necessary, but they’re not sufficient, and that we recognize that the laws can be changed, if the hearts have not changed. And so I view myself as on kind of a mission to change the country, the world, one heart at a time. And it’s a tough thing to do. I feel as if the heart is the last frontier, because we have tried so many other things. And the laws that we’ve passed that we thought were written in granite, we see can be erased and are in peril, if, as a collective, we do not recognize why.

    I also believe that — in the time of working on this book — it’s multi-disciplinary. There’s sociology, there’s psychology, there’s economics — all of these things are in there. But I think the foundation of all of those disciplines comes down to the history. When you go to the doctor, before you can even see the doctor, the very first thing they do is, they give you all of these pages to fill out. And they — before the doctor will even see you, he wants to know your history. He doesn’t want to know just your history, he wants to know your mother’s history. He wants to know your father’s history. They may go back to your grandmother and your grandfather on both sides. And that’s before he will even see you. You cannot diagnose a problem until you know the history of the problem that you’re trying to resolve. I think — you were asking about this book and how it’s moved around in the world. I think this book is proof, or the response to it is proof, that it’s not as hard as it has to — as you might fear it will be; that, actually, you can find it not just enlightening, but healing.”

    You can’t feel empathy if you don’t know enough history. Our ignorance of our history is a major reason why we have this divide. At the elementary and secondary level the subject is mostly a sanitized myth, and plenty of people (all conservatives from what I can see), are trying to apply even more bleach (remember the uproar over a proposed textbook calling slaves “workers”). In college you may get a peak into some of the more unsavory corners. But for the whole truth, the good with the bad, you’ll have to read on your own and/or have some history major friends. The thing I learned in my independent reading that gobsmacked me the most: anti-Quaker laws during Colonial times. Many people resist this- they love the myths they grew up with. But only the truth is going to get this gap bridged.

    1. The challenge is, will they listen? I saw this post on FB and it states what has become so prevalent when we try to have a conversation with Trump supporters…which doesn’t mean progress can’t be made…just that people have to be open to change….

      “If you support Donald Trump, You are what he is and you do not understand the implications of what I just said.”

      1. “If you support Donald Trump, You are what he is and you do not understand the implications of what I just said.”

        Trouble is, that’s getting into a one size fits all, like the one degree of racism. I see at least 3 subgroups of Trump supporters. You have the loud and proud deplorables, who love the fact that Trump is a racist and will cause misery to the people they hate. Those are the Bannons and the Millers and the Spencers. Then you have the people who will admit to Trump’s sheer awfulness, but decided they were willing to accept that in exchange for a tax cut or conservative judicial picks or backing their side in the culture wars. Those are the Ryans and McConnells and Fallwells. But I think there’s a 3rd group, who were lying to themselves, who really wanted to believe that Trump would have good people around him who would guide him/check his worst impulses. It’s obvious that they were wrong, but most of them don’t want to admit it yet. I have nothing but contempt for the first two groups. I am exasperated with the 3rd group, but trying to keep my patience.

      2. Note the framework within which I re-posted the comment, whereby this is “after” you have tried to have a dialogue…not, instead of. Group Trump supporters as you will, but if they persist in ignoring his ugly rhetoric, his irrational behavior, and the consequences to our democratic institutions, I’m through spending any time trying to ‘splain it to them. If that makes me part of the problem, so be it. Each of us has to decide how to handle this problem.

      3. That is exactly where I am. See you Jan. 20th, downtown for the Houston Womens March! I’ve got my pussy cap and signs done. Fired up and ready to go! Hoping for decent weather..

        It is interesting to read the news accounts that are suggesting momentum is building on the left across the nation….which I can affirm I’m seeing locally, but the numbers needed to send enough Republicans packing will have to be huge.

        Momentum. Hard work. GOTV. Registration. Remember: if you have children or grandchildren attending college/university out of state, it is important that they confirm what their voting rights are on their campuses for mid-term elections. Remember, Republicans in several key districts changed the rules to make it more difficult for students to vote…knowing that out of state students would be discouraged by this tactic. Just something to keep in mind. Every vote will count!

      4. I’m there too! Long range forecast says low temp in the low 50s, high temp in the low 70s, with a minimal (20%) rain chance. Looks like great matching weather, but I’d go in any weather short of a hurricane. I’ll reuse the brain hat from the Science March.

        Debating my sign options. There’s “Hey GOP Congress- What’s your RED LINE??” and “Trump is Archie Bunker on Steroids” and “If you don’t like bad press, CLEAN UP YOUR ACT!!” to choose from.

      5. I’m looking at my sign stash…not nearly as creative as yours, (more pro-women than anti-T) but then, you have the first Houston Womens March as inspiration! My favorite: “Women Rock! “, “2018 – Elect More Women!” I did have one “TIME’S UP – YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE!”

        Fun. For my prudish younger female neighbor who “disdains” women’s marches (while being unable to find work)….I will have a sign in my yard to remind her where I plan to be on Sat, Jan 20th: marching for her rights and all women.

    1. The article didn’t link to it, but there is a video that shows changing messages….I don’t know how these things are “accomplished” but it’s creative….and def sends a message. I want to send a really big one next November. One that isn’t temporary but permanent.

    1. I love this quote from the NYT piece on racism: “…a racist is not who a person is. A racist is what a person is, what a person is saying, what a person is doing.”

      I do disagree with the author for his generalities on assigning racism to Trump’s opponents. That is not to deny that there are liberal racists, but the author needed to do a better job of supporting that charge than he did. I don’t appreciate generalities on subjects as important as this, and this author failed to offer substantive reasons. He needs to be challenged on that.

    2. I see I’m not the only one who saw this little problem with Senator Durbin’s comment:

      ‘On Friday, Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, affirmed that Mr. Trump did use the term “shithole” during a White House meeting on immigration with lawmakers. Mr. Durbin rightfully described Mr. Trump’s words as “hate-filled, vile and racist,” and added, “I cannot believe that in the history of the White House in that Oval Office, any president has ever spoken the words that I personally heard our president speak yesterday.” ‘

      I think the better way to frame the outrage (and he was right to be outraged) is “this sort of talk has no place in government in 21st Century America.” This doesn’t deny or forget the past, and makes it clear we strive to do better.

      1. “I think the better way to frame the outrage (and he was right to be outraged) is “this sort of talk has no place in government in 21st Century America.” This doesn’t deny or forget the past, and makes it clear we strive to do better.”

        Yeah, I had the same thought. Of course vile, racist shit has been uttered in the Oval Office. We still have Nixon’s tapes.

  3. The probability of being misunderstood is the reason I’ve never used the term racist. It’s too easy for people who want to misunderstand to think “I’ve never owned slaves, never burned a cross, don’t hold any ill will towards those people, I’m not racist.” It seems more useful to point out how attitudes and actions affect people without reference to race, than it is to label actions racist.

      1. Exactly. It’s like saying “I am a good person.” What, exactly, does that mean? I believe that we are all a mixture of good and bad, but those who try to live lives that respect other people as they are, not as we think they ought to be, are at least making a good faith effort to be good people. I’ll take that and forgive the errant slip anyday.

      2. My daughter who is biracial will tell you nothing makes her madder more than being at college and having someone ask where she is from . Is it racism or curiosity, I don’t know, but why would someone ask that question because of her darker completion and/or skin. Who does that. Do they assume that she is foreign? Is that not preconceived racism in its self?

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