Who Can Be Racist?
If you can’t win the argument, just change the dictionary.
One of my college professors told me that black people can’t be racist. I try to be open-minded—I heard her out. The basic idea was that anyone could be “prejudiced,” but only people with “institutional power” could be racist. Since black people had no institutional power—an article of faith on campus—they couldn’t be racist. White people, by extension, could not be the victims of racism.
I was taken aback, particularly because there was only one racial group that the people with “institutional power” on our campus felt comfortable denigrating, and it wasn’t black people. But ultimately, I thought, it was trivial. If the world was anything like boomer Republicans in my life had told me it would be, my classmates would forget most of this stuff and end up voting Republican after they cut their first check to Uncle Sam.
Never trust a Republican over 50.
On Saturday, several Twitter users noticed that the Anti-Defamation League had changed its once-colorblind definition of racism to mirror the color-conscious one given by my professor. Until August 2020, the ADL had defined racism as “the belief that a particular race is superior or inferior to another.”
After George Floyd’s death and the “racial reckoning” that ensued, however, the ADL changed its definition to the “marginalization and/or oppression of people of color based on a socially constructed racial hierarchy that privileges white people.”
The ADL was reflecting a change in racial discourse that had been percolating through the academy and the fringes of national politics for several years. The sentiment was mainstream enough in 2018 that CNN contributor Symone Sanders felt comfortable saying this after Sarah Jeong’s anti-white tweets were unearthed:
Racism is not just prejudice—it’s prejudice plus power. One could argue that some of [Jeong’s] tweets, even within context, [show] that she has a prejudice, perhaps, against white men. But that, in fact, does not make her racist.
Jeong had said “it’s kind of sick how much joy I get out of being cruel to old white men.”
Word-games about race—and the campus radicalism that inspires them—have tangible consequences. New York City is phasing out its gifted and talented program—a lifeline for talented, low-income students—on the grounds that it contributes to racial injustice. Primary-school students are being taught about “intersectionality” and told to renounce their “white privilege.” Health departments around the country have made non-white race a plus-factor in their triage policies. In New York, racial minorities are given priority access to Covid therapeutics.
The state health department says it adopted that policy to address the “systemic health and social inequities” that “have contributed to an increased risk of severe illness and death from COVID-19.” It counts race as a qualifying “risk factor,” but only counts age as a risk factor in people 65 and older. In effect, the policy gives an otherwise-healthy 18-year-old access to life-saving drugs on the basis of his race, while denying it to a 64-year-old white person who, on the basis of his age, is 25 times more likely to die from the coronavirus. It’s called DIE for a reason.
To move racial politics away from the colorblind ethic of the late 20th century and toward the color-conscious politics that have infected college campuses, progressives have to change the language. Racism, to most Americans, does not inhere in abstract systems and institutions. It is interpersonal. When Sarah Jeong, at the time a prospective member of the New York Times editorial board, says she gets “joy” out of “being cruel to old white men,” most normal people think that is a racist thing to say. They do not think that Jeong, because she is a “person of color,” is incapable of being a racist, nor do they do not think that a would-be New York Times columnist has less “institutional power” than a white greeter at the Bloomsburg Walmart.
In 2020, Merriam Webster added “a political or social system founded on racism” to its (now-self-referential) definition of racism. It made the change after a woman named Kennedy Mitchum pressured them to do so. According to Vox, Mitchum had grown “tired of having conversations about racial injustice, just to have people point to the dictionary as a defense.” If you can’t win the argument, just change the dictionary. Or wait for the ADL to do it for you.
about the author
I’m a journalist who specializes in investigative reporting and writing. I have written for the New York Times and other publications.