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Over the weekend, a sizable gaggle of the white nationalist "alt-right" convened at a federal building in Washington, D.C., to puff their chests. It was a motley crew, emboldened by the election of Donald Trump, with whom they shared a broad aversion to immigration and contempt for "political correctness." Their views were finally flitting around the mainstream of American politics.
I guess that's why they were so touchy about their branding when my Code Switch teammate, Adrian Florido, asked a leader of the assembled group if they were using the "alt-right" label to camouflage views better described as racist.
"As far as the term racist is concerned, it always had a pejorative connotation," answered Jared Taylor, a prolific white nationalist writer. "If racist were simply a neutral word ... fine. But that word cannot be retrieved or sanitized."
If you needed another illustration of how the word racist has been defined so preposterously that nothing might ever meet the criteria, here it was. One of America's most prominent white separatists — a dude who dreams of a whites-only America and has called for the full repeal of the Civil Rights Act because it bars discrimination in private enterprise; a dude who was attending an event that ended in a chorus of Nazi cheers — was arguing against being labeled a racist because it makes his ideas sound distasteful.
One of the many victories of the civil rights movement was casting racism as a moral failure of our society. But that's had the bizarre consequence of confounding the issue for many Americans, who have never been especially literate about race to begin with. That's how we've ended up in a place where anyone of any political stripe can use racist as a cudgel, no matter how outlandish the allegation. Just last week, Joel Pollak, the editor at large of Breitbart News, appeared on NPR's Morning Edition to defend Steve Bannon, the Trump adviser and former Breitbart editor, who once bragged about making that site the platform of the aforementioned alt-right.
You probably know where this is going: Pollak defended his former boss by saying NPR programming is racist.
"NPR is taxpayer-funded and has an entire section of its programming, a regular feature called Code Switch, which from my perspective, is a racist program," Pollak told host Steve Inskeep. "I'm looking here at the latest article which aired on NPR calling the election results 'nostalgia for a whiter America.' So NPR has racial and racist programming."
He was talking about a recent commentary by Beenish Ahmed (which was online only) describing the fear many Muslims in America feel about a president-elect who has regularly railed against Muslims and emboldened anti-Muslim sentiment. By Pollak's logic, complaining about racism is itself racist.
But many more, less cynical Americans seem to look at racism in an equally odd way: Good people should endeavor to be colorblind and never talk about race or its unequal effects on how we live. And real racism is the province of a small cohort of uncomplicated knuckle-draggers whose presence is overstated by the ax-grinding, "identity politics" crowd.
Our mainstream news media haven't done much to add clarity. We've developed a whole grab bag of tortured terminology for contentious racial subject matter — racially insensitive, racially charged or just plain racial — to avoid committing to calling anything racist. The dangers here are obvious. Because active racial discrimination and inequality remain defining features of American life — in housing, in our schools, in our criminal justice system, in employment — avoiding the word racist misrepresents the truth. The result is that racial issues have no meaningful distinctions, and racist in our mainstream discourse is defined only as something as extreme as the lynching of Emmett Till, or as an idea up for debate (Is THIS racist?), or as a phenomenon with no contemporary human vectors.
"It's like the N-word for white people," Robin DiAngelo, a professor at Westfield State in Massachusetts, told me when we discussed the Pollak exchange earlier this week. (We spoke over the phone, but her eye-roll was strongly implied.) "If you call me a murderer, I'll just laugh, because I'm not a murderer. But if you call me a racist, I'll lose my s***."
She offered up a recent example from the news: A small-town West Virginia mayor and a local official found themselves in trouble over a Facebook post that called Michelle Obama an "ape in heels." The official, Pamela Ramsey Taylor, wrote the post, and Clay, W.Va., Mayor Beverly Whaling added an approving note. The mayor resigned and Taylor, who was fired, later apologized, saying that her Facebook post was not racist and neither was she, and that the controversy surrounding her post was a hate crime against her.
"If ["ape in heels"] wasn't racist, what could possibly constitute racism?" DiAngelo wondered.
DiAngelo's specific academic focus is critical discourse analysis — the study of language as action. But outside the classroom, her job is to talk about racism. She leads seminars for faculty groups and nonprofit organizations. She kicks off those conversations by saying that America's political system and culture are racist in that they have always held whiteness as the threshold for legitimacy and authority. That idea that racism is foundational to American life isn't too controversial among social scientist types, but it still scandalizes many of the folks in DiAngelo's seminars.
"I sometimes wish we had new language because the baggage attached to these words is so deep," she said.
But even for folks who don't treat racism as radioactive, the word has undergone a kind of definition creep, shorthand for any host of phenomena — yellowface, Islamophobia, sombrero-wearing, hair-touching, police shootings, mass incarceration — that are different in expression, scope and consequence. Some of these things have the weight of institutions and policy behind them. Some are the result of individual people being awful. "Racism" can be a powerful, compelling descriptor, but sometimes I wonder if we might be muddying up conversations — and inviting frustrating, unhelpful digressions about the inner workings of people's hearts — by insisting on it.
That, of course, isn't where the mainstream conversation about racism is. DiAngelo, who spends her time trying to convince people that racism is A Thing, told me that she felt oddly buoyed by a small moment on the presidential campaign trail: Mike Pence's suggestion that there had been too much talk about institutional racism in policing during election season. She didn't agree with him, of course. But she was happy that the conversation had gotten to the point where he had to say those words — institutional racism — and treat it as a real idea.
"You take your victories where you can, I guess," she said.