A Sideways Glance with Richard Bogartz: Are we all racists?

Thursday, June 03, 2021

It has become increasingly popular to claim we are all racists. I disagree. Words matter. We shouldn’t recklessly destroy a word and the distinctions it helps us to draw.

For me the noun “racist” is shorthand to distinguish between people who engage in certain kinds of actions and those who don’t. I prefer speaking of racist actions rather than racist persons. The adjective “racist” describes actions involving overt, intentional advocacy of some race being superior to some other race. States of mind, no matter how bigoted, are not instances of racism. Racism requires action.

Racism is rooted in greed. Greed for money, power, control and fame. It strategically furthers such aims. Racism supports the use of persons as instrumentalities, and uses dehumanization to justify such actions.

The contemporary notion of race arose in the 18th century as a response to anti-slavery sentiment. In the U.S., to sing the praises of humanity and the human right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and yet for financial reasons justify the oppression of a captive subgroup of humans, it was expedient to reclassify humanity into humans and subhumans.

This strategy is not unique to slavery. Prosecutors do it in court when declaring the defendant an animal. Once the human/subhuman boundary was drawn there was virtually no action that could not be justified: ownership, breeding, enforced illiteracy, torture, execution.

Today, racism and greed are still linked. We might have to add popularity with the neighbors and political gain to the reasons for degrading others, but the story is fundamentally the same.

Science has debunked the falsity that race exists as a biological distinction between groups of people. The concept of race has no biological support. Giving a fancy name like social construct to the fact that lots of people act as if race is real supports the falsity even as it indicates the social reality that some people speak and act as if race is real, and believe race is real. This doesn’t make race real, even though such speech and action enables physical and mental events as real as if race did exist.

Race doesn’t exist but racism certainly does. Some people believe and declare that one race is inferior to another. Such meaningless ideas and their promulgators need to be recognized and refuted.

My older son argues that being in a position of power is a necessary precondition for racism. Otherwise, we are talking about bigotry. He suggests that for this reason “reverse racism” is an oxymoron. I’m not ready to agree about the power prerequisite but the conjecture is interesting.

I’m not a racist. How do I know? I reject the concept of race so I cannot declare that one nonexistent is superior to another. There is how I spend my money. What I say? What I condemn. What comedians I enjoy. The folks I choose to hang out with when I can. The guys I chose to play basketball with. How I vote. The candidates I donate to. Books I read. Do I agree or associate with people who utter racist remarks? Do I write columns like this? As he left, a Black Comcast serviceperson pumped his fist and replied “Ally!” to my “Black Lives Matter!” farewell. Should he have responded “Racist ally!” If someone thinks I am a racist then we use the language differently.

Let’s be clear. Those who declare we are all racists aren’t idiots. They have a point and support their point with evidence. Unfortunately, they make their point imprecisely. They want us to understand that though we are not racists, in that we do not publicly advocate falsities about race, we are living in a culture in which subtle, or not so subtle racist messages have affected us in various ways, such that we display — sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously — choices, preferences and mental associations similar or identical to those that racists display. I believe this.

Still, it’s a mistake to summarize such evidence as indicating we are all racists. It makes more sense to say most of us have been infected. Most of us are victims of racist ideas absorbed without our awareness. Ideas we would reject in an instant if they were overtly proposed to us.

I have been infected. I am reminded of this when I have thoughts, unsummoned, distasteful, that I reject the moment they occur. I think “There it goes again.” My next thought is that such thoughts reveal I am a casualty of racism, not a racist.

I am healing.

Richard S. Bogartz is professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.