Racism ≠ Prejudice + Power; “Reverse” Racism = Racism

by Alexander Zubatov

[In the course of discussions of the often blatant anti-white racism that has now gone completely mainstream and is emanating on a daily basis from Tweets, twits and major media outlets, I often hear people thoughtlessly repeat something they heard told to them by some ostensible authority figure or consciousness-raised friend: black people can’t be racist because racism = prejudice + power, and black people have no power. In lieu of having to explain each time why this is a total falsehood because it reflects a fundamental misunderstanding about how the definitions of words work, I decided to write up the explanation once and for all. Brace yourselves: your raised consciousness is about to be lowered back down to earth. Here we go.]

“9 Clueless Things White People Say When Confronted with Racism” (http://www.dailydot.com/opinion/clueless-things-white-people-say-racism/).

“8 Things White People Really Need to Understand About Race” (http://everydayfeminism.com/2014/07/8-things-white-people-race/).

“7 Reasons Reverse Racism Doesn’t Exist” (http://www.dailydot.com/opinion/reverse-racism-doesnt-exist/).

You can try singing that to the “12 Days of Christmas” countdown melody, but no, it’s a bit too clunky and wordy, it’s not Christmas-time, and the last time I checked, the 12 days of Christmas weren’t supposed to be about turning white people into self-loathing white people by the time they made their way down to #1 … though if you’re concerned about instilling self-loathing, you can check out #4 on this helpful list of “6 Things White Parents Can Do to Raise Racially Conscious Children” (http://everydayfeminism.com/2014/08/raising-racially-conscious-kids/), which starts off with the consciousness-raised white child saying, “I wish I wasn’t White. Then I wouldn’t have to feel guilty about everything we’ve done.” (Who exactly is we? I don’t know, but I can say that when #3 is “Take advantage of every opportunity to talk about race in America,” we shouldn’t be too surprised about #4, but I’d suggest that #5 should have addressed the quandary of what to do when, after you’ve race-talked your little one silly, he or she starts categorizing everyone by race and thinking race is a real thing and not just some outdated, regressive nonsense we humans made up to shove people into overbroad bins labeled with stupid generalizations.)

Nor is this mini-list of listicles one I’ve scoured the Internet long and hard to find. Believe it or not, those first three pieces happened to appear back-to-back-to-back on my playlist in an app I used to use a little while ago to listen to narrations of articles. That this could occur means we’re already talking a lot about race (so that you can look forward to hearing many more white children tell you they wish they weren’t white) and repeatedly making many of the same points aimed at re-educating all those clueless, incorrigible and oppressive white people. (They’re just awful, aren’t they!?)

But the similarities among these articles do not end there. All three listicles also include, among their contents, one particular point of special note: each states flatly that, despite what we might believe or see going on all around us, reverse racism just doesn’t exist. But everyone’s making all these broad and terrible generalizations about white people based on their race, you might protest. Isn’t that racism … or at least “reverse racism”? No, these articles (and many others where those came from) will tell you. That’s because race-based prejudice isn’t a sufficient condition for racism. Rather, according to the newly uncovered formula, racism = prejudice + power (or “prejudice + privilege” in some trendier renditions). White people are the ones with all the power and privilege here, so, per the formula, they cannot possibly be the objects of racism. Hence, reverse racism doesn’t exist. There you go. Q.E.D.

Not quite bowled over? Well, E = mc2 this most assuredly is not. The formula is false, and you should not allow yourself to be fooled into believing it. Allow me to explain.

Although the concept of “race” first surfaced in the early 17th century to refer to the large, purportedly distinct sub-groups into which people of that time (and many backward-minded people of our own time) saw fit to divide humanity, the use of the term “racism” emerged significantly later. No firm consensus exists as to its original use, but some sources record that use as being in 1902, by an American, Richard Henry Pratt, who ran an assimilationist boarding school for Native American children in Pennsylvania and used the term in conjunction with the evils of race segregation, arguing that association of people of different races and classes rather than segregation was “necessary to destroy racism and classism.” Others trace the term’s origins to the 1930s, when it came into currency as the French “racisme,” deployed largely in connection with descriptions of Nazi racial superiority theories. In that use, it replaced an earlier term, “racialism,” which had emerged at the beginning of the 20th century and was employed in British and South African contexts. Some sources claim the first use of the term in English was in a 1936 book entitled The Coming American Fascism by the fascist Lawrence Dennis. Another landmark came with the posthumous 1938 translation and publication in English of a book bearing the title Racism. It had been written in German some five years earlier by a German Jew, Magnus Hirschfeld, an early advocate of homosexual rights and a proponent of race-mixing in the effort to undo the fiction of race entirely. This is a view upon which the argument in his book expanded.

Whatever the term’s original provenance, its meaning was not reducible to any formula and certainly not to “prejudice + power.” Racism, rather, was conceived of as a belief system, and whether or not the individual espousing that belief system had power was simply irrelevant. “Racism” was, generally speaking, “the theory that distinctive human characteristics and abilities are determined by race,” or, alternatively and relatedly, the “belief in the superiority of a particular race.” These are both definitions from the Oxford English Dictionary. Google around for other dictionary definitions, and you will find significant overlap with the ones adduced here. But, unless you are looking in a very specialized, ideologically motivated (rather than purely descriptive) source, you will not find the would-be formula.

This is because, unlike E = mc2, this particular formula was not discovered but invented. The Einstein that sought to relativize our notion of racism and render it dependent on our position in a power structure was the American University adjunct professor Pat Bidol. In her 1970 book, New Perspectives on Race (new, indeed!), she concocted the formula, without giving the reader much of a sense of what was wrong with the traditional formulation, the one we actually employ in everyday life. Regardless, her formula was picked up and disseminated to a somewhat larger audience by the academic diversity consultant Judith H. Katz in a prominent 1978 book, White Awareness: Handbook for Anti-Racism Training (1978), which, whether these listicle writers know it or not, serves as their Urtext, a foundational foray into the expanding genre of white self-flagellation. Katz repeated and expressly cited Bidol’s formula but then went beyond Bidol. In one of the many Orwellian re-educational exercises suggested in the book, Katz furnished these instructions to the facilitator:

(The term “Third World people” was replaced by the more current dystopian nonsense term, “people of color,” in later editions.) We need to note, in considering this excerpt, that the prescriptive goal of effecting a sea change in how we view racism is stated expressly. Katz is well aware that the new formula is not actual but aspirational, an attempt to further an ideological agenda by redefining what was, by the late 1970s, a commonly used word. As cultural studies, critical race theory and the diversity industry established greater footholds in academia and in society at large through the 1980s, 90s and 00s, that ideological agenda began to take over, bringing with it its unintuitive re-definition of “racism.” And so it is that we arrived at a point where these listicle authors and many others like them can flatly inform us, as though it were written in the stars, that racism is prejudice + power.

This, of course, is not how definitions of words actually work. There exists a current (wrong-headed) approach to meaning known as “causal reference theory” now popular among analytic philosophers which would set in stone the definitions of specific terms known as “natural kinds,” and which argues that the definitions of certain naturally occurring substances such as water are not a matter of how such terms are used by some consensus of relevant real people in the real world, but rather, are purely reducible to their chemical formulas, viz., H2O, or in other cases, such as animals or humans, to their DNA. This is not the place in which to rebut such hokum, however, because even the most ardent proponents of causal reference theory would not presume to argue that “racism” belongs to this narrow category of specialized terms. It, along with most other everyday words, would, instead, fall under the aegis of the general Wittgensteinian approach to language, which holds (sensibly) that the meaning of a word can be understood only by recourse to its ordinary use. The dictionary definition is, therefore, a descriptive endeavor which aims not to fix a word’s absolute, eternal, Platonic meaning but simply to capture with accuracy its predominant uses by a relevant subset of the linguistic community at a given point in time. For some terms, such as “pants,” there might be more than one relevant linguistic community determining two distinctly different definitions, depending on which side of the Atlantic Ocean one finds oneself on, while for some esoteric terms, such as “Weltanschauung,” that relevant subset might consist of a certain narrow category of philosophers, since, if we merely looked to the general public, that word, at least as far as the English language is concerned, might not be thought a word at all. But for other general-use words, such as “racism,” whatever the ideologically motivated academics and their adherents might wish, the relevant linguistic community would be no more and no less than ordinary speakers of English. For these people, for us, “racism” still means what it’s always meant: race-based prejudice. This does not in any way imply that its meaning cannot change with time, of course. But right now, in our time, racism means what it means. And the ideologues just have to deal with that reality. They are entirely free to try to convince you that they think “racism” should mean something else, but if they try to tell you that racism is actually prejudice + power, you can tell them that, no matter their own prejudices, their simple say-so doesn’t arm them with the actual power to make a word change its meaning. (Or, if you want to impress them with your erudition, memorize and repeat these words: “As Saussure clarified, although the langue is fully mutable when considered across time, i.e., diachronously, it is nonetheless the case that from the necessary standpoint of any individual speaker at any given historical moment, i.e., considered synchronously, it is absolutely immutable.”)

But now, with that poltergeist soundly exorcised, let’s turn back to the question of what racism should mean. Is it, after all, a good idea for us to do the work that Judith Katz would have us do in trying to change the meaning of the word, in forcing the formula of prejudice + power to add up to racism, even if, right now, it adds up to no more than a half-baked revisionist fantasy? I would argue that such a project is foolhardy. Here are some problems to ponder in understanding why:

  • If racism were “prejudice + power,” what would the term “power” in the formula mean? What does it mean to have power? President Obama defines himself as black. We have several black cabinet members, black senators, black representatives. We have a black Supreme Court justice. We have black officials in all levels of government. The media, which has a lot of power to define our nation’s agenda, tends to lean left and to be highly sympathetic to a push for broader civil rights and anti-discrimination policies that are embraced by most blacks in the United States. There are communities in the United States that are predominantly black, where most of the elected officials, administrators, cops and other people in positions of power are black. It is certainly true that the United States, considered as a whole, is still fundamentally controlled by white people, who wield most of the available power in the land, but power is not an on-off switch, and as the prominent moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s research has suggested, non-white people increasingly are the ones who hold the reins of power and privilege in many types of discussions, including, most relevantly, discussions of race. (See my description of his research here: https://medium.com/@Zoobahtov/enslaved-by-history-parasite-privilege-and-the-silenced-majority-98eeea6b6151#.ikspkh26y.) The definition “prejudice + power,” then, is very tricky to apply and certainly shouldn’t give rise to a global presumption that only white people can be racist in the United States. Thus, if a black person in a position of power (e.g., the CEO of a big corporation) chooses to dictate a policy rejecting all qualified white applicants for a job in his company because she believes white people are evil, is that not racism? If a white person living in an overwhelmingly black community is repeatedly subjected to slights and exclusion, denied job opportunities or just regularly beaten up on the street, all on the basis of his race, are the perpetrators not fairly thought to be racists? If a black journalist employed by a prominent publication and, so, in a position of power and responsibility, chooses to use that platform to spout virulent anti-white rhetoric (as many do), shouldn’t that be considered racism?
  • Given the “prejudice + power” definition, is it the racial overtones of the belief itself or the race of the person who wields it that matters? Are we going to say that a white guy who believes in white supremacy is racist, but a black guy who believes in white supremacy is not? Conversely, if a white guy believes in black supremacy, is he racist just because he is white, or is he not racist because, while he himself, as a white person, may be in a position of power in our society, the belief he espouses would endorse the racial superiority of the purportedly powerless? And if we say he is racist in this scenario, why would we give the black guy who believes in black supremacy a free pass? What about a black guy who believes that black men are racially superior to white women and were destined to own and command a harem of such subhuman wenches, while treating their black counterparts with respect as prospective mates and equals, or even worshipping them as goddesses? Do we need to compare who has less power in our society, black men or white women, in order to determine whether or not this is a racist belief? If we relativize racism and come to conclude that it exists only when racial prejudice is deployed by those in power, don’t we roll down a slippery slope and find ourselves having to relativize racism all the way, having to refer to degrees of racism based on the extent of the power concentrated in the hands of the prejudiced individual and/or his racial community in a concrete situation under consideration? And, if so, isn’t this counterproductive, forcing us to weigh complex sociological factors and count angels on pinheads in order to form what should be a simple conclusion that someone’s race-based prejudice is a deplorable racist belief?
  • Isn’t having different rules in place for different races how we got into this messed-up muddle of a society in the first place? Isn’t it far simpler and more morally efficacious to embrace one single overarching principle that applies to everyone with equal force and that proclaims that any categorization ascribing superiority or inferiority or other positive or negative traits to anyone along racial lines constitutes racism? Is it really worth relinquishing this straightforward moral high-ground in order secure the dubious advantage of preventing white people from being able to draw a moral equivalence between racial generalizations they may make about black people and racial generalizations black people (or other white people) may make about them? Moreover, even if the traditional definition of the term “racism” could, in theory, be applied to white and black views alike, how would this in any way stop those still wishing to draw a distinction between white and black racism from availing themselves of other terms, such as “discrimination” or “oppression,” which already exist and the definitions of which generally entail exercises of power? To say this another way, if you really think there’s a difference between white racism and black racism or between anti-white racism and anti-black racism, then, as we sometimes tell kids, why don’t you use your words? There are many of them.

So, there you go; that’s the verdict on “racism.” But if you’re still in the mood to fiddle with the meanings of commonly used terms, how about this one: “reverse racism”? While racism against white people certainly can exist (and does exist in spades in our society, a fact you’ll realize if you take the time to notice some of the pernicious generalizations about white people in any of the ridiculous listicles I adduced above or, for that matter, in the thousands of similar content the media thoughtlessly spews forth about white people on a daily basis), the term “reverse racism” that is sometimes used to describe this phenomenon inherently incorporates certain pernicious presuppositions that are harmful to all concerned. As a threshold matter, it should be obvious that “racism” all by itself is perfectly up to this particular task, without any need for further modifiers. This is especially the case when one liberates “racism” from the power bonds that the re-definers would impose upon it. But, more significantly, “reverse racism” entails the underlying assumption that racism proper is directed against black people (or, perhaps, against all “people of color”), and when racism is, instead, directed against white people, it’s somehow reversed from what it’s supposed to be or usually is. Is this really how we want to think about such issues? (Hint: no.) If what we’re ultimately all aiming for is a society that treats everyone equally, i.e., on the basis of who they are rather than what race they are, isn’t it just better to drop these kinds of questionable, tendentious distinctions and stick to one clear, clean, easily graspable principle? What principle? Racism is racism is racism is racism is racism. And it’s a bad thing. So, regardless of whether you’re black, white or neither, don’t do it.

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Alexander Zubatov is a practicing attorney specializing in general commercial litigation. He is also a practicing writer specializing in general non-commercial poetry, fiction, drama, essays and polemics. In the words of one of his intellectual heroes, José Ortega y Gasset, biography is “a system in which the contradictions of a human life are unified.”

Some of his articles have appeared in Acculturated, PopMatters, The Hedgehog Review, The Montreal Review, The Fortnightly Review, New English Review, Culture Wars and nthposition.

He makes occasional, unscheduled appearances on Twitter (https://twitter.com/Zoobahtov).

I am an attorney specializing in general commercial litigation. I am a writer specializing in general non-commercial poetry, fiction, drama, essays & polemics.