Dueling 'racist' claims defuse once powerful word
Associated Press | 9/23/2009, 3:46 a.m.
Everybody’s racist, it seems.
Republican U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson? Racist, because he shouted “You lie!” at the first black president. Health care protesters, affirmative action supporters? Racist. And Barack Obama? He’s the “Racist in Chief,” wrote a leader of the recent conservative protest in Washington.
But if everybody’s racist, is anyone?
The word is being sprayed in all directions, creating a hall of mirrors that is draining the scarlet R of its meaning and its power, turning it into more of a spitball than a stigma.
“It gets to the point where we don’t have a word that we use to call people racist who actually are,” said John McWhorter, who studies race and language at the conservative Manhattan Institute.
“The more abstract and the more abusive we get in the way we use the words, then the harder it is to talk about what we originally meant by those terms,” said McWhorter.
What the word once meant — and still does in Webster’s dictionary — is someone who believes in the inherent superiority of a particular race or is prejudiced against others.
This definition was ammunition for the civil rights movement, which 50 years ago used a strategy of confronting racism to build moral leverage and obtain equal rights.
Overt bigotry waned, but many still see shadows of prejudice across the landscape and cry racism.
Obama’s spokesman has rejected suggestions that racism is behind criticism of the president. But others saw Wilson’s eruption during the president’s speech as just that, citing his past support of segregationists and his labeling the emergence of Strom Thurmond’s secret black daughter after the senator’s death a “smear.”
“I think [Wilson’s outburst] is based on racism,” former President Jimmy Carter said at a town hall meeting. “There is an inherent feeling among many in this country that an African American should not be president.”
That’s an easy charge to make against the rare individual carrying an “Obamacare” sign depicting the president as an African witch doctor with a bone through his nose. But it’s almost impossible to prove — or refute — assertions that bias, and not raw politics, fuels opposition to Obama.
“You have to be very careful about going down that road. You’ve cried wolf,” said Sean Wilentz, a Princeton University professor who studies U.S. political and social history.
“It’s a way of interpreting the world, where race runs through everything — everything is about race,” said Wilentz, who supported Hillary Clinton in 2008 and claimed Obama’s campaign falsely accused her of stoking racial fears.
“Everything is not about race,” he said. “It’s not Mississippi in 1965 anymore. Even in Mississippi, it’s not Mississippi in 1965 anymore.”
Still, race remains a major factor in American life, said Brian D. Smedley, director of the health policy institute at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, which focuses on people of color.
“We know from a large body of social science that a large portion of Americans harbor racial bias,” Smedley said. “In the context of health reform, it’s quite evident that race plays a very large role in helping shape public opinion.”