Nearly every designation of someone or something as “racist” in modern America raises legitimate questions, and leaves so many legions of people confused or irritated that no one can responsibly dismiss all of this confusion and irritation as mere, well, racism.
Has American society ever been in less basic agreement on what so many important words actually mean? Terms we use daily mean such different things to different people that communication is often blunted considerably, and sometimes even thwarted entirely. The gap between how the initiated express their ideological beliefs and how everyone else does seems larger than ever.
The word racism has become almost maddeningly confusing in current usage. It tempts a linguist such as me to contravene the dictum that trying to influence the course of language change is futile.
Racism began as a reference to personal prejudice, but in the 1960s was extended via metaphor to society, the idea being that a society riven with disparities according to race was itself a racist one. This convention, implying that something as abstract as a society can be racist, has always felt tricky, best communicated in sociology classes or careful discussions.
To be sure, the idea that disparities between white and Black people are due to injustices against Black people—either racist sentiment or large-scale results of racist neglect—seems as plain as day to some, especially in academia. However, after 50 years, this usage of racism has yet to stop occasioning controversy; witness the outcry when Merriam-Webster recently altered its definition of the word to acknowledge the “systemic” aspect. This controversy endures for two reasons.
First, the idea that all racial disparities are due to injustice may imply that mere cultural differences do not exist. The rarity of the Black oboist may be due simply to Black Americans not having much interest in the oboe—hardly a character flaw or evidence of some inadequacy—as opposed to subtly racist attitudes among music teachers or even the thinness of musical education in public schools. Second, the concept of systemic racism elides or downplays that disparities can also persist because of racism in the past, no longer in operation and thus difficult to “address.”
Two real-world examples of strained usage come to mind. Opponents of the modern filibuster have taken to calling it “racist” because it has been used for racist ends. This implies a kind of contamination, a rather unsophisticated perspective given that this “racist” practice has been readily supported by noted non-racists such as Barack Obama (before he changed his mind on the matter). Similar is the idea that standardized tests are “racist” because Black kids often don’t do as well on them as white kids. If the tests’ content is biased toward knowledge that white kids are more likely to have, that complaint may be justified. Otherwise, factors beyond the tests themselves, such as literacy in the home, whether children are tested throughout childhood, how plugged in their parents are to test-prep opportunities, and subtle attitudes toward school and the printed page, likely explain why some groups might be less prepared to excel at them.
Dictionaries are correct to incorporate the societal usage of racism, because it is now common coin. The lexicographer describes rather than prescribes. However, its enshrinement in dictionaries leaves its unwieldiness intact, just as a pretty map can include a road full of potholes that suddenly becomes one-way at a dangerous curve. Nearly every designation of someone or something as “racist” in modern America raises legitimate questions, and leaves so many legions of people confused or irritated that no one can responsibly dismiss all of this confusion and irritation as mere, well, racism.