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.”

Professor Soto’s Speech, from a Listener: More on Arizona Whites Hostility to Immigrants

José Cobas encountered the internet uproar over the graduation speech by Prof. Sandra Soto at the University of Arizona on May 14, and asked me what I thought. Here is my response, with a few clarifying notes.

The clarifying notes: The occasion was the graduation ceremony held by the college of social and behavioral sciences, held separately from the main commencement so that all the SBS students can get individual recognition. The ceremony is held in a huge arena at the Tucson convention center. Students are seated on the floor of the arena, and family members and other guests are in the tiers of seats all around this floor. Faculty, department heads, and deans who are participating in honoring the graduates attend in academic regalia and are seated on a platform at the front of the floor of the arena. I was there to “hood” a new Ph.D. whose thesis I had directed, and the dean’s office asked me to join Sandy Soto and two other faculty members as a “name reader,” reading out the names of the graduates as they crossed the platform. Sandy and I were seated right behind the podium so we could change places quickly. Sandy was selected as graduation speaker. I’m not sure how the selection process works (I’m actually retired from the university), but I’m sure it was partly because she is a very well-regarded teacher. My email to José Cobas:

Hi, José

As it happens, I was sitting right next to Sandy on the podium and so right behind her when she made her speech. The booing was frightening. It was NOT coming from the students, seated on the floor of the arena. It was coming from families in the seats all around us. People tried to applaud to counter it but the booing just got louder. Sandy had to stop a couple of times because it was clear her words would not be heard if she continued. The booing finally died down when Dean Jones stepped to the microphone and urged the crowd to permit a “civil discourse”. After her talk Sandy was a “name reader” as each of the graduates came to the podium to be acknowledged, and she got warm smiles from students and at least one took a second (this was all very choreographed and went very fast since on the order of 1000 names were read) to thank her for the speech.

There were many, many Spanish-language surnames and first names in the list of those graduating (I was the reader who followed Sandy). If you read her talk you will observe that it is very carefully worded and very honest. She urges the graduates to use their education to think critically about these issues, and she inserts the “human” side, her own feelings, and those of the Tucson High School students she had met with earlier that week who are under attack for their support of Mexican-American studies courses. I do not think that she expected the kind of response she got, the talk was very judicious, in my view — nothing but facts and her thoughts about what the recent burst of anti-Hispanic legislation felt like to her as a person, no name calling at all. However, people were not listening.

I had the very strong sense from the booing that the tone was not just, “We disagree with you”, but something like, “Who does that greaser bitch think she is?” (I hope you will forgive me the vulgar language). I was surprised that even a couple of my own colleagues that I spoke to after the ceremony, while agreeing with the message, felt that it was an “inappropriate topic” for a graduation speech, which I guess is supposed to be nothing but the blandest platitudes for fear a “captive audience” would be offended. So much for the highest goals of the university … It does seem clear to me that many, many White people in Arizona are not ready to engage in dialogue of any kind. Their minds are made up, they dread the slightest loss of power, they utterly reject even the most thoughtful challenges to their ideas, they give lip service to “critical thinking” and “honest dialogue” but are not ready to in fact participate in that. It was not a happy experience. Since I was obviously a very senior person, all robed and draped in several kinds of medals, I made a conspicuous show of shaking Sandy’s hand as she sat down. I’ve realized watching the video clips that we were behind the banners and the podium so that probably didn’t make any difference at all. Anyway obviously Sandy should be very proud of what she said and the way she comported herself at the time and since, with great dignity.

I’ll also take this moment to share my own feelings about SB1070 (obviously the attack on Mexican-American studies is completely racist and ridiculous. Paolo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” is some kind of threat to the United States? It’s had 50 years to do its evil work (;-)) and somehow I don’t find among the many things that are wrong with my world much that can be traced to poor Paolo Freire). Anyway, back to SB1070 — I think there has been too little attention to how spectacularly counter-productive SB1070 is in the face of a real fear, that human smuggling is coming under the control of the Mexican drug cartels and their criminal allies in the U.S. Law enforcement people (except for that grandstanding idiot Sheriff Joe) have always, always taken the position that they do NOT want to be involved in enforcement of immigration law, the responsibility of the Border Patrol and ICE, because they want people to feel that they can come to the police to report crimes and to be witnesses. SB1070 absolutely ignores decades of that policy. Immigrants who are the victims of crime under SB1070 cannot go to the police.

The only place they can (and will) go is to counter-mafias. I don’t think SB1070 will survive a constitutional challenge, but if it does, Arizona is going to be like 19th-century Sicily. My own “policy position” is that the US, Canada, Mexico, etc. — whoever the “NAFTA’ countries are, must have something like the European Schengen agreements that permit the free flow of labor. After all, if Brits can handle Polish plumbers, we can surely cope with a handy flow of Mexican roofers, brick-layers, and who knows what else — maybe some rocket scientists or some of their entrepreneurial talent too. I don’t think this is going to happen and I think the reason it’s not going to happen is racism.