How do we who consider ourselves antiracists define racism? This would seem to be the natural starting point when dissecting the notion of reverse racism (defined as racism against whites).
I view racism as a virus with many strains: conscious beliefs in special flaws in black people (i.e., the white myth of a characteristic black laziness used to explain disproportionate black poverty and welfare use); subconscious biases of the same nature; individual oppression; systemic oppression; or a simple dislike of black folk. I have described and do describe these beliefs, attitudes, and actions as racism (and destroying them as the work of the antiracist), and I’m sure many of you have done the same.
Some of my fellow Leftists will object. “You are confusing ‘racism’ with ‘prejudice’ and ‘discrimination,’ good sir.” And this strikes at the core of the matter, which is of course semantics.
I normally wouldn’t craft an entire piece on an argument birthed by varying definitions, but when the linguistic bloodshed reaches such a level that it begins to inhibit the antiracist cause, well, it becomes difficult to resist.
A liberal stance is that reverse racism does not exist because, as Tessa Thompson’s character in Dear White People put it,
Black people can’t be racist. Prejudiced yes, but not racist. Racism describes a system of disadvantage based on race. Black people can’t be racist because we don’t stand to benefit from such a system.
Franchesca Ramsey, whom I encourage you all to follow on social media, responded to the idea that mistreatment like bullying and racial slurs should be labeled “racism” by saying, “Those are examples of racial prejudice, not racism. That’s because racism isn’t just about individuals. It’s about institutional power.” Indeed, she defines racism as “individual feelings about people of color…supported by institutional power” — so for example, it would be bad enough if someone were to be seen as more dangerous, more aggressive, and more deviant just based on skin color, which Ramsey defines as racial prejudice, but when an institution like the criminal justice system uses its power to lock up this person for a longer prison term than someone of a “less threatening race” who committed precisely the same crime, that is racism (and a massive societal problem blacks face today and have for a long time, long before the War on Drugs).
Zeba Blay of the Huffington Post wrote:
Some people simplify racism as one group not liking another, and think “racist” and “prejudiced” are interchangeable. But racism is a concept that operates on both an individual and institutional level. At its core, racism is a system in which a dominant race benefits off the oppression of others — whether they want to or not. We don’t live in a society where every racial group has equal power, status, and opportunity.
In their definition of racism, Ramsey and Blay at least mention the working relationship between individual and institution, acknowledging the necessity of the former (“racism isn’t just about individuals”; it “operates on both an individual and institutional level”). Some don’t bother, which can really make things confusing. Here I’m reminded of what the great Black Panther Stokely Carmichael said: “If a white man wants to lynch me, that’s his problem. If he’s got the power to lynch me, that’s my problem. Racism is not a question of attitude; it’s a question of power.” S.E. Smith recently went so far as to say, “Racism is structural, not personal.”
In sum, they are saying only prejudice (defined as the belief in stereotypes about groups) and discrimination (acting on your prejudice in a harmful way) are strictly personal. Racism cannot be strictly personal. It doesn’t exist unless prejudice and discrimination are institutionalized: supported by government, the education system, the criminal justice system, corporate power, and so on. It’s privilege combined with power. If this is the meaning, reverse racism indeed does not exist.
This writer takes a slightly different tack. I see institutionalism as one of the five major strains of racism mentioned above, not the only strain. I much prefer how the Oxford Dictionary defines racism: “Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior” or “The belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race.” Here prejudice and discrimination fall under the umbrella of racism, rather than standing apart.
I don’t see my preferred definition as “more accurate” than what Ramsey and others use, though I do selfishly like that it encompasses my five strains. I also don’t cling to it because it is most common (the Marxist and the atheist are used to small herds) or for tradition’s sake (I say that while not forgetting Carmichael and others who long ago formulated their definition).
However, I believe viewing institutionalism as one of the symptoms rather than the whole disease does more for the cause of racial justice.
All respect to my comrades, I have been amazed that “reverse racism does not exist” is a hill many Leftists seem prepared to die on. Look at this article thus far. It has taken me this long just to sort through the opposing definitions! Surely such time and energy in discourse, whether in person or online, might be better devoted to actually proving that blacks receive longer sentences than whites for the same crimes, including hate crimes, which many whites still think is total nonsense, than arguing that no, a black kid beating up a white kid while spouting anti-white slurs is only prejudice and discrimination, not racism, because it has no connection to historical and modern institutional power. Surely we have bigger giants to slay.
It’s not just being too lazy to argue the point, nor saying the point has no value. We should simply seriously consider what is most productive when engaging with white folk who, as Cornel West would put it, are still “sleepwalking.” How do we best reach people? Many whites who hear “reverse racism does not exist” will immediately close off their minds to anything further you have to say. Granted, the mere words “race” or “racism” can have the same effect, but the denial of reverse racism is a line in the sand for the more reasonable and sensible whites — the reachable ones. Besides, justice won’t allow us to abandon our proselytizing concerning racism, but reverse racism is, I think, a different story. Now, using a broader definition of racism and thus acknowledging reverse racism exists isn’t suggested here to protect white feelings, allow shifty debate partners to distract or diminish from the injustices people of color constantly face (the usual strategy), or yield an inch to “the enemy.” What it does is quickly lay common ground down which the semi of reason can come barreling.
By my definition of racism, I can readily acknowledge reverse racism exists. Not the strain of systemic oppression, naturally, but rather others — the black American who distrusts or dislikes whites, prefers not to hire whites, commits a hate crime against a white person, believes all white people are innately racist or hateful, and so on. Given our brutal racial history and our modern problems, it would be quite remarkable if these types of attitudes and actions were beyond the realm of the possible. Other definitions call them prejudice and discrimination, mine labels them racism — both to incorporate what I see racism as and to create a starting point for a more effective conversation that might more easily change white thought.
With that short acknowledgement I have lost no ground. My ideological opponent and I have simply accepted the popular (and in no way inferior or inaccurate) definition of racism, and I can raise without delay the two points regarding reverse racism that matter most: origin and scale.
Scale addresses the deflection (“White people are discriminated against, too!”). We do not need to redefine racism to obliterate the deflection. Yes, no matter your race and no matter what race you’re thinking about or interacting with, harmful stereotypes and hateful acts are wrong, horrific, and deserve condemnation. But the racism of all strains that blacks face is an infinitely more colossal problem than that which whites face. It isn’t white names on resumes that are 50% less likely to get a call back for an interview. It’s black names. It isn’t white kids who are 2-3 times more likely to be suspended or expelled from school compared to others who commit the same offenses. It’s black kids. And on and on into every arena of life. Yet we live in a society where whites are so shockingly divorced from the facts that they can think discrimination against them is worse than against people of color at the precise same time the FBI finds only 10.5% of all hate crimes in 2015 were directed against whites (a typical percentage), even though the U.S. is still nearly 70% white! White supremacist and rightwing extremist violence is more frequent than that of Islam, the Left, and black nationalists combined. 23 of the 900 hate crimes that occurred in the 10 days following the election were against Trump supporters, mostly white, yet we somehow pretend this is just as egregious as all the rest combined (directed against Jews, Muslims, Hispanics, blacks, gays).
White delusions are quite astounding. It’s not that abuse against whites isn’t wrong and must cease, it’s that no knowledgeable or thinking person would use reverse racism to diminish the importance of dismantling anti-black racism and its effects, past and present. The difference of scale is huge.
Origin addresses where race hatred comes from. I don’t pretend to know the perspectives of black folk or the black experience, but I do not believe for a moment that anti-black sentiment and anti-white sentiment come from the same place.
As someone who writes often about racism, I occasionally have friends who send me videos of black people beating up or harassing white people — as if I was unaware such things were even possible. When that happens, I watch the video or read the article and say — earnestly — that such things are awful and as equally wrong as white folk beating up black folk. Then I speak frankly: hatred and violence do not always come from the same place (in fact, looking at history, they rarely do). We must not pretend hatred and violence against one group cannot be a reaction to hatred and violence against another.
I much suspect that anti-white racism is largely a reaction to anti-black racism. Racism against blacks largely stems from the idea that there’s something wrong with black people — laziness, aggression, deviancy, lower intellect, immorality — which racist whites use to explain black poverty, crime, broken families, lower test scores, etc., rather than bothering to look at history and economics. This blame inspires some whites to do horrific things. Racism against whites is largely an angry backlash against these racists myths, modern mistreatment at the hands of individuals and institutions, and perhaps the past oppression that dug this social pit African Americans are still trying to climb their way out of. This anger can inspire some blacks to do awful things.
These are not the only factors, and you are correct if you think racism from either side feeds racism on the other. But the point is that anyone who takes American history seriously or has an ounce of respect for social researchers who collect and analyze data on today’s world would conclude racist sentiment does not come from the same place, the same history and motives and feelings and thoughts. If we accept reality, it’s easy to imagine that if anti-white racism vanished tomorrow anti-black racism would continue to thrive, yet if anti-black racism vanished anti-white racism would be severely diminished. That is why I personally focus on ending anti-black racism.
I wonder how many conversations did not get to these important things due to semantics.
Arguing reverse racism doesn’t exist because of definitional differences is like spending your days searching for the perfect battlefield while two giants destroy your land.