Calling Out Racism, Calling Someone “Racist”

There is an interesting, if maddeningly shallow, discussion of racism happening in other parts of the blogosphere that deserves some further analysis.   The debate has spilled out in a back-and-forth across blogs, online news magazines and newspapers, and in this summary at The Atlantic they frame the issue with the question, “When Is It Right to Call Someone ‘Racist’?” The controversy grew out of Rand Paul’s comments about civil rights (which Adia talked about here and Joe wrote about here).

This back-and-forth started with a piece about Rand Paul’s views on civil rights at the Wall Street Journal, in which James Taranto writes that it’s possible that Rand Paul’s “eccentric views on civil rights will harm the Republican Party by feeding the left’s claims that America is a racist country and the GOP is a racist party. Certainly that’s what Salon’s Joan Walsh is hoping.” He’s referring there, of course, to Joan Walsh of   For her part, Walsh responds to Taranto and others, in piece that backs off the charge of racism, writing:

I’m coming to regret using the term “racist” about the Tea Party. “Racist” is a personal insult, and it’s almost as impossible to prove it as to disprove it. It’s not a terribly illuminating term, either: If you call me a racist, you haven’t really described anything I’ve done that’s objectionable. You’ve just somehow designated me, and my so-far unchallenged arguments, outside the pale, so to speak.

“Racist” has come to be synonymous with a belief in black inferiority, and with holding other noxious stereotypes about black people, or other minorities. Someone could conceivably not be “racist” in that sense, and still hold political views that will ultimately perpetuate the second-class citizenship of people who aren’t white; in most cases, African-Americans. I think they could. I accept that it’s possible.

It seems emblematic of the rhetoric of colorblindness that now the term “racist” is a personal insult.  Still, I tend to agree with Walsh when she says that it’s not a “terribly illuminating term” and that it’s “almost impossible” to prove (except, of course, for those folks who proudly claim that label). Later in the piece, Walsh goes on to say:

I’m not calling Paul racist. I’m just asking him to stand up for what he really believes, so we can have an honest debate about it.

The title of Walsh’s piece is “Asking the wrong question about Rand Paul” and what she’s trying to do here is to reframe the discussion about Rand Paul and his statements so that they’re not about race, racism or civil rights, but rather on “the real issue” which is what is the federal government’s role in any number of matters (as Rachel Maddow did in her “Why Rand Paul Matters” segment).  This seems like the classic white liberal side-step on the issue of race.  Here’s a politician who’s rather publicly and repeatedly said that he thinks the Civil Rights Act was an example of federal government interference, and the leading analysts on the left are trying mightily to reframe the issue so that it’s not about race.

James Taranto strikes back at Walsh with a piece called, “The Education of Joan Walsh,” in which he takes her admission of regret about using the term ‘racist’ to describe the Tea Party.  For Taranto’s part, he does not object to the term racism when is it used properly (according to Taranto), that is,  “when limited to its original definition: racial supremacy or invidious racial prejudice” (he goes on to cite the Oxford dictionary as his source for this definition).  What he does object to is:

“… the pernicious practice of falsely imputing racism to one’s opponents in order to discredit them–a practice so common among liberals that entire academic subspecialties are devoted to it.”

This seems to be the crux of where this debate has settled in, around the charge that some (e.g., Joan Walsh and other liberals) are “falsely imputing racism to one’s opponents in order to discredit them.”  And, it’s not just Taranto who is making this argument.  Law professor and blogger Ann Althouse makes a similar case when she writes the following about the Walsh-Taranto dustup:

“Taranto resorts to the dictionary … to tell us what “racism” means. It’s a restrictive definition that preserves the strong pejorative. This is like restricting “sin” to the truly terrible things that other people do, which allows you to maintain a pious sense that of course you are one of the good people. The sinners are those other people. It is possible to think of racism as a much more pervasive phenomenon that we should all contemplate in an honest and self-critical way.   But using the term to assault your political opponents is different. You’re not being self-critical. You’re still saying there’s something terrible about those other people. There could be a serious and valuable inquiry into widespread and largely unconscious racism in American society, but the cheap use of the term ‘racist’ for political gain pushes that inquiry out of reach.”

While Althouse again reiterates Taranto’s point about “using the term” racist for “political gain,” (a point with which I disagree), she does make an additional, relevant point about not being self-critical.  It’s the lack of self-criticism from whites – both liberal and conservative – that seems to be missing from this discussion.

The fact is we’ve been here before with this so-called debate.  Perhaps you remember the last national election here in the U.S. in which Geraldine Ferraro made some ignorant statements and was forced to resign her post in the Clinton campaign. This eloquent (as ever) piece Ta-Nehisi Coates in Slate written at the time (March, 2008) addresses the wrong-headedness of this alleged debate about “when is it ok to call someone ‘racist'” (quoting at length here because he’s just so cogent):

“The racist card is textbook strawmanship. As opposed to having to address whether her comments were, as Obama said, “wrongheaded” and “absurd,” Ferraro gets to debate something that only she can truly judge—the contents of her heart.

It’s a clever and unassailable move: How would you actually prove that Ferraro is definitively a racist? Furthermore, it appeals to our national distaste for whiners. It’s irrelevant that the Obama campaign never called Ferraro a racist. It’s also irrelevant that Ferraro said the same thing of Jesse Jackson in 1988. And it’s especially irrelevant that Ferraro apparently believes that Obama’s Ivy League education, his experience as an elected official, and his time of service on the South Side of Chicago pale in comparison with the leg-up he’s been given as a black male in America. By positioning herself as a victim of political correctness run amok, Ferraro stakes out the high ground of truth telling.

Fellow “not a racist” Ron Paul was busted last year when it was found that newsletters bearing his name were filled with hateful invectives directed at blacks. When the news broke, Paul swore that he was no racist and that the writings said nothing about his own beliefs. No matter that the newsletters were titled Ron Paul’s Freedom Report, the Ron Paul Political Report, and the Ron Paul Survival Report.

James Watson not only claimed that blacks had lower IQs than whites but scoffed at any notion of intellectual parity because “people who have to deal with black employees find this not to be true.” It’s true that Watson caught his share of criticism, but in its wake came a parade of defenders insisting that Watson was not a racist but a dogged, persecuted speaker of truth.


The idea that America has lots of racism but few actual racists is not a new one. Philip Dray titled his seminal history of lynching At the Hands of Persons Unknown because most “investigations” of lynchings in the South turned up no actual lynchers. Both David Duke and George Wallace insisted that they weren’t racists. That’s because in the popular vocabulary, the racist is not so much an actual person but a monster, an outcast thug who leads the lynch mob and keeps Mein Kampf in his back pocket.”


In some measure, the narrowing of racism is an unfortunate relic of the civil rights movement, when activists got mileage out of dehumanizing racists and portraying them as ultra-violent Southern troglodytes. Whites may have been horrified by the fire hoses and police dogs turned on children, but they could rest easy knowing that neither they nor anyone they’d ever met would do such a thing. But most racism—indeed, the worst racism—is quaint and banal. There’s nothing sensationalistic about redlining or job discrimination. No archival newsreel can capture what it means to be viewed as a person who, minus the beneficence of well-meaning whites, simply can’t compete.”

Coates names the central issue here: we have a collective notion of a racist as an “ultra-violent Southern troglodyte” when in fact most racism is banal.  Racism in the colorblind, post-civil rights era, is everyday, taken-for-granted, business-as-usual and goes unremarked upon.  So, when racism gets noticed in one way or another, when racism erupts into the mainstream press’ usual routine of ignoring racism as a regular ‘beat’ and the active construction of colorblindness, people start looking for an ultra-violent Southern trogolodyte, people start playing “pin the tail on the racist.”   Meanwhile, people who get the tagged as being “racist” get to lay claim to the high moral ground of being falsely accused and those who did the tagging get charged with ‘using race’ for ‘political gain.’

What this ridiculous children’s game of ‘tag, you’re a racist’ does is allow the continued lack of self-criticism on the part of whites – both liberal and conservative – who even when the game is played, don’t have to engage in any analysis of their own racism, their own position in the larger system of racial inequality.   If you’re white, born and raised in the U.S., you inherited racism, my friend.  It seems to me that if white critics like Walsh, Taranto, Althouse – and all the rest – would do be critical of their own position in a racist system along with the critique of Rand Paul’s racism, then we might move toward having a different discussion than the faux-debate that’s happening now.

Being committed to racial justice means seeing race, and understanding the complexities of racism.  It means calling out racism, not just playing “tag you’re a racist.”


  1. Adia Harvey Wingfield

    Re: your statement that “It seems to me that if white critics like Walsh, Taranto, Althouse – and all the rest – would do be critical of their own position in a racist system along with the critique of Rand Paul’s racism, then we might move toward having a different discussion than the faux-debate that’s happening now”, Barbara Trepagnier’s book “Silent Racism: How Well Meaning White People Perpetuate the Racial Divide” offers a theoretical and empirical frame for this sort of argument. It’s worth a read for those interested in following up this idea.

  2. Joe

    Clearly, a major trap here, as in almost all discussions of “racism” in US society, is thinking in terms of racial prejudices and bigotry, whether subtle or blatant. The reality is that a broad white racial frame is deeply imbedded in all minds spending any time in white Western societies. That frame is far more than racial notions and prejudices–it is about racist stereotypes plus racist prejudices plus racist images plus racist narratives (like Rand on civil rights) plus racist notions about language accents plus racist ideologies plus inclinations to discriminate. ALL whites are implicated in some or all of these features. This is what white-imposed racism is– systemic, deep, and foundational. And the major dictionaries are racist too, because they are writing definitions of racism from the white racial frame– and thus leave out its original meeting when Hirschfeld developed it, that is, systemic racism.

  3. Will

    Whenever whites engage in this “racist tag” game, it’s mostly out of hurt feelings rather than logic. If some are accused of doing or saying something that is racist, they will freak out, deny it, and try to say something that they think proves they are not racist like “I have black friends” or “I marched with Dr. King.” They will say or do anything to avoid the topic altogether.

  4. libertyspeaks

    All white men Americans are racist because they look down on people because of race mostly. If they think they are not racism they are much mistake because if it were them they’d know the pain of being pushed around by rascists white men. Then it would be a different story altogether. The table would be turned upside down then.


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