A Primer on Racism

The many uses of the word and how legit they are.

More than a few naive souls hoped that the election of Barack Obama signaled a new era of racial harmony. Instead, alas, American race relations have entered a bizarre new phase in which tension is ubiquitous and almost anyone can claim to be the victim of racism. Former President Jimmy Carter lamented that “there is an inherent feeling among many in the country that an African-American should not be president,” in reaction to Rep. Joe Wilson’s now-infamous outburst during President Obama’s congressional address. Also of late, the Rev. Al Sharpton and many others cried racism over a tasteless New York Post cartoon, Cambridge police were accused of “racial profiling” after arresting  Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. at his home, and Newsweek asked “Is Your Baby Racist?” And although conservatives have long complained of unwarranted accusations of racism, two of their henchmen, Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, have been shamelessly playing the race card.

Politicians and pundits on both the left and right abuse the term racism to tar their political enemies. But decent people with good intentions also overuse the term as they struggle to draw attention to racial injustices that do not involve overt bigotry. With the R-word used to describe so many different things, it no longer has a clear and agreed-upon meaning. Attorney General Eric Holder has urged Americans to talk bravely and openly about race, but how can we when we aren’t speaking the same language? In the interest of democratic dialogue, I offer this rough-and-ready primer on racism for the not-so-post-racist era. Below, I’ll define several of the more commonly cited types of racism and offer my humble opinion as to whether they deserve the label.

Institutional racism
Many businesses, schools, clubs, and other organizations are racially homogenous or segregated, even though no one deliberately excludes racial minorities or tries to prevent them from succeeding. For instance, although roughly half of all college football players are black, only about 5 percent of head coaches are.

Retired NBA star Charles Barkley made headlines when he claimed that his alma mater, Auburn University, was racist after it hired a white candidate—Gene Chizik—over a black candidate—Turner Gill—who had a better coaching record. But the larger problem is probably the college booster networks that help raise money for college sports. If a white coach can more easily establish a rapport with alumni than a black coach—whether the underlying reason is cultural similarities, long-standing social networks, prejudice, or some combination of the three—the college might prefer him for a reason that has nothing to do with race. Namely, money. On the other hand, if alumni prefer white coaches because of their race, then racism is still the root cause. And even if no one involved is a bigot, many scholars and activists would insist that this is a form of institutional racism. The term institutional racism suggests moral fault and culpability when often the racial inequity is unintentional. But, intended or not, practices that create “built-in headwinds” for minority groups are a serious injustice.

Cultural racism
Studies have shown that employers prefer résumés with conventional names to otherwise identical résumés with stereotypically black names like DeShawn or Shaniqua. Some employers may be weeding out blacks, but others may dislike not individual black people but what might be called “black culture.” Employers who would be happy to hire a preppy Cosby kid might worry that people with “black names” are more likely to use ghetto slang, dress in gangster fashion styles, or cop a tough or sassy attitude on the job.

Is this racism? Maybe not. In a notorius speech, Bill Cosby lambasted poor blacks for contributing to their own misfortunes by using slang, dressing badly, and giving their children “names like Shaniqua, Taliqua, and Mohammed and all that crap.” Cultural misunderstanding and hostility is a serious problem in today’s increasingly cosmopolitan society. But when Cliff Huxtable can be called a racist, it’s probably time to rethink our terms.

Unconscious racism
Harvard psychologist Mahzarin Banaji has developed a test designed to smoke out unconscious racial bias. The test requires the subject, under intensive time pressure, to match black and white faces with value-laden terms such as good, smart, and diligent or bad, stupid, and lazy. If you find it easier to match white faces with good terms and black faces with bad terms, you have exhibited what Banaji calls an implicit association between race and merit or virtue. Although she scrupulously avoids using the term herself, almost everyone else has predictably described the results of her research in terms of unconscious racism. And the results are disquieting: Almost 90 percent of whites exhibit some unconscious racism against blacks, while around half of all blacks exhibit anti-black bias.

Banaji’s research suggests we have a way to go before we get to a post-racist utopia. But she warns against using the test to try to prove individual bias; in fact, she has pledged to testifyagainst anyone who tries to use her work to prove discriminatory intent in court. Other psychologists have questioned the whole approach. For instance, U.C.-Berkeley psychologist Phillip Tetlock thinks that Banaji’s test doesn’t prove anything about discrimination in real-life situations: “We’ve come a long way from Selma, Alabama, if we have to calibrate prejudice in milliseconds,” he argues.

Environmental racism
After the levees broke in New Orleans, it was hard to miss the overwhelming number of black victims of Hurricane Katrina. Some suggested that blacks suffered after the storm because of racially biased disaster-relief efforts. But the real problem was neighborhood segregation. Most blacks lived in the less-desirable low-lying areas of the city, which suffered the worst damage from the flooding. Almost every metropolitan area in the United States is home to such segregated minority neighborhoods, many of which are located next to environmental hazards such as garbage dumps, heavy industry, oil refineries, sewage-treatment facilities, and areas abandoned due to toxic contamination. Community and environmental activists have found common ground in condemning this pattern as environmental racism.

The term environmental racism refers to a serious problem, but like institutional racism, it muddies the issue by implying that bad people acting with racial animus are behind it, when poverty, bad urban design, and segregated residential patterns put in place many years ago are really to blame.

Reverse racism
Glenn Beck took the fear of anti-white racism to new extremes when he accused President Obama of being a racist, but political hacks have for decades used accusations of reverse racism as part of a well-documented, cynical political strategy. For instance, in 1990 North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms turned the polls around in his race against challenger Harvey Gantt * by playing the reverse race card. In Helms’  advertisement, a pair of white hands crumples a rejection letter while ominous music plays and a voice-over intones, “You needed that job … but they had to give it to a minority.”

There are real instances of anti-white racism, such as Louis Farrakhan’s crude diatribes against “white devils.” But they are relatively few and rarely amount to more than impotent blustering. Affirmative action—often tarred as reverse racism by its opponents—doesn’t qualify. Affirmative action is an imperfect but pragmatic effort to promote integration in the face of the effects of past and ongoing discrimination. There’s plenty of room for legitimate criticism, but suggesting that affirmative action is a form of racism is disingenuous and turns what should be a level-headed debate into a shouting match.

Racism is still a force to be reckoned with in American society. But we should think twice before jumping to the convenient conclusion that people who don’t agree with us must be bigots. And we should call the bluff of people who play the race card for rhetorical advantage or political gain, whether they’re leftist agitators or right-wing blowhards. There may never be consensus on what counts as racism and when it’s in play. But this lexicon should give you a place to start for deciphering the many conversations about race that will no doubt continue.

Correction, Oct. 1, 2009: The original sentence misspelled Harvey Gantt’s name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)