During this election season, various charges of “playing the race card” and “racism” have been made by and against virtually everyone involved. Often -- though not always -- the two charges are regarded synonymously: to be found guilty of “playing the race card” is to be found guilty of “racism.”
But what is “racism?”
Senator Barack Obama, while giving his speech on American race relations in Philadelphia, suggested that since we have yet to come to terms with our history on this score, it is was high time that we engage in an honest discussion of race. In writing this column, I happily accept his invitation. Yet a genuinely honest dialogue on race must involve a conversation over the meaning of “racism.” There are at least three pivotal reasons why this is so.
First, according to our “politically correct” racial orthodoxy, “racism” is regarded as something like a “deadly sin” -—indeed, the deadliest of sins. Thus, the charge of “racism” carries potentially dire consequences for those against whom it is leveled.
Second, while blacks and other non-whites can and have been accused of it —- think of Jeremiah Wright and Louis Farrakhan -— the charge of “racism” is usually made against whites. Considering the obscene levels of black on white crime, as well as the fact that “polite society” permits blacks and other racial minorities to say things for which it is all too willing to expel whites even remotely suspected of harboring similar thoughts, this can’t but strike the unprejudiced observer as, at best, bizarre, at worst, grossly unjust.
Third, in the epilogue to the Gospel of John, the evangelist writes that there aren’t enough books in the whole world to contain accounts of all of Jesus’ miracles. Similarly, it seems to be the case that there aren’t enough books in the entire world to contain all of the accounts of “racism” that have been entertained. The term “racism” has been employed in a dizzying array of contexts. The indiscriminate manner in which it has been hurled about as an epithet to indict the character not only of persons, but of policies, laws, and the most basic structural arrangements of American society itself, has greatly imperiled its intelligibility.
So a discussion of the meaning of “racism” is imperative. Yet if we are trying to decipher what, if anything, it means or could mean, it follows that all charges of “racism” are impermissible; for to treat it as an epithet, let alone a sin, is to assume that we already know what it means and that we know that it is something contemptible. This is both fallacious reasoning -— it’s question-begging -— and it is bad faith. Conversation requires honesty and civility. A participant in an inquiry who presupposes answers is intellectually dishonest. One who then abuses his interlocutors with ad hominem attacks when they are making good faith attempts to further the conversation is uncivil. In either or both cases, the charge of “racism” spoils the well of discourse.
In short, I am arguing that an honest conversation on race demands a moratorium on the use of “racism” as an epithet. Perhaps in our discussion, as well as when we engage in our everyday activities, we should refrain from uttering the word at all. We should then say that we are trying to determine what, if anything, “the R word” means. So poisonous is the accusation of “racism,” and so susceptible to abuse at the hands of demagogues who appropriate it as a weapon by which to advance their interests, that it may not be a bad idea to suspend the use of the very term indefinitely, until we have had time to really think about it.
There are no doubt some -- many, in fact -- who will accuse me of “racism” just for writing this column. To such critics, I will say only that your calls for an honest discussion of race —- and it is always those who most frequently deplore the lack of such a discussion who are the most ready to accuse those with whom they disagree of “racism” -— are disingenuous. They are disingenuous because a discussion of race has to include a discussion of “racism,” a discussion that many are clearly unwilling, and possibly even incapable, of having.
As for those who might discern some sense in my argument, it is with great pleasure and enthusiasm that I say, let the conversation begin!