Dueling 'racist' claims defuse once powerful word

Associated Press | 9/23/2009, 3:46 a.m.

Yet Smedley chooses not to deploy the R-word: “It’s difficult to say racism is the reason [for objections to health care] because people don’t believe they are racist.”

Many, though, have no doubt that other people are racist — even when those other people are black.

The Manhattan Institute’s McWhorter said that during the affirmative action battles of the 1990s, “racism” and “racist” began to be applied to liberal policies designed to redress past discrimination, then were extended to people who believed in those policies.

That’s how they have come to be wielded against Obama.

“A racist is a person who discriminates or holds prejudices based on race. Discrimination is treatment based on category rather than individual merit,” said Tom Molloy, a 65-year-old retired financial services executive from Brentwood, N.H. “Barack Obama favors policies that will give preference to groups based on race rather than individual merit. It’s called affirmative action.”

Mark Williams, one of the leaders of the Sept. 12 rallies in Washington, D.C., headlined a blog entry about the arrest of black scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. at his own home by a white police officer, “Racist In Chief Obama Fanning Flames of Racism.” And too many bloggers to count are saying that Congressman Jim Clyburn, who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. and has called Wilson and other health care protesters racist, is the real racist himself.

One result of this infinite loop: Actual racists can get a pass simply by denying it.

“Who does a guy have to lynch around here to get called a racist?” the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates asked in an article about charges and denials of racism in the Obama-Clinton primary.

The rise in whites accusing blacks of racism is the inevitable result of years of black identity politics, which created a blueprint for whites who feel threatened by America’s changing demographics, says Carol Swain, a Vanderbilt University professor and author of “The New White Nationalism In America.”

“We need to rethink what is racist and who can legitimately call whom racist,” Swain said, citing the argument that blacks can’t be racist because racism requires power.

“With a black president, a black attorney general, and blacks holding various power positions around the country, now might be a time when we can concede that anyone can express attitudes and actions that others can justifiably characterize as racist,” she said.

Perhaps this is a strange symbol of racial progress — equal-opportunity victimization, so to speak.

“In 100 years, when people chronicle how America got past race,” said McWhorter, “the uptick in white people calling blacks racist is going to be seen as a symptom of the end.”

Jesse Washington covers race and ethnicity for The Associated Press.

(Associated Press)