September 25, 2009
The R-bomb: Are You A Racist?By Stewart Potter
You may think racism means prejudging or discriminating against people because of their race. All right: can you define race? Go on, try it.
Or host a party and challenge your guests to come up with an explanation that doesn't start a fight. Is race a biological classification, an ethnic one, a religious one, a geographic one, or what?
If the meaning of race is slippery, how precise can this term it feeds - racism - be? And if the definition is what enables us to evaluate the facts, where does all this leave us?
Racism today belongs to a class of words whose definitions have remarkably little fixed meaning. But racism once described unwholesome behavior that on its own was measurable -- like refusing to sell your home to members of certain minorities.
Somewhere along the line, what began to identify racism seems to have changed, from the behavior itself, to whether someone took offense. In other words, in figuring out whether some act was racist, America's focus appears to have shifted from looking at what the accused did - to feelings somebody had about what the accused did.
That's where the job of rooting out racism gets tricky: people's tastes, impressions, and feelings vary a lot. If we stretch the semantic scope of the racism to cover all offense anyone takes - until the word loses independent meaning - the word may remain useful for invective. But what good is it for identifying bad behavior?
The R-bomb in Action
Let's say you run a school district and issue a statement to your principals:
Were you just trying to head off fights in the classroom? Doesn't matter: if somebody finds what you wrote about Vulcans distasteful, you're in trouble. Mr. Spock goes on national television and confirms Vulcans are born with the emotional repertoire of a brick? Irrelevant. If you say anything about Vulcans as a group and offend somebody, a charge of racism can stick.
Actually, whether what you said is true may not be even an issue in the media's coverage, which likely will zero in on whether you have apologized yet.
Recent events indicate the epithet has grown even more adaptable. Now you can qualify as a racist just by taking issue with ideas that come from the mouth or pen of a member of a group that has been the victim of racism - even if what you say has nothing to do with the person.
Suppose you own a tavern. More often than not, when Vulcans walk in, they get wasted on chocolate liqueur and bust up the place. Sometimes they injure your staff or patrons, who turn around and sue you for failing to provide adequate protection. You want to prevent damage -- but how, without being racist?
You hit on a plan: breath-o-lyze whoever orders a drink, and refuse to serve anyone whose blood-alcohol content exceeds .04.
One night, a certain Vulcan's test shows .09 blood-alcohol content, so you refuse to sell her another drink. She gets obstreperous, grabbing your collar and insisting her blood's alcohol is under .04. When you say, "You lie", are you being racist, because she's Vulcan?
You take a break from tending your bar, and Johnny covers for you. You return to find Ms. .09 Vulcan supine on Table 3 and trying to mind-meld anyone within reach. You ask Johnny why she's doing that. He says, "She's a jackass." Was Johnny being racist, since the guest is a Vulcan?
But just a moment: Johnny is a Vulcan, too. If the comment "She's a jackass" comes from Johnny, can it be racist? Could a disparaging remark Johnny makes about the numerically-dominant, non-Vulcan population be racist?
What if, after what I've said here about Vulcans, you send a letter to this publication and call me a racist? If a trial shows I'm not in fact a racist, could you be liable for libel for calling me a racist?
Hang on: if one day the Congressional Vulcan Caucus were to say America needs to show Vulcans more compassion, to make up for the affect Vulcans biologically lack, would the CVC's statement be racist? If the Congressional Caucasian Caucus were to make that statement, would the statement then be racist?
Could anything disparaging someone said about people in the Congressional Caucasian Caucus ever be racist?
Do these questions make you uncomfortable? Ah-hah: let's say I know the demographics of this publication's readership and understand you're likely to feel a pang of discomfiture here. Let's say I want to manipulate you and get some publicity for my cause. If I play on your ethnic guilt, am I being racist? Even if I'm Vulcan?
I'm not a Vulcan, but I am a member of a minority. I've been looking at the arguments from both sides. I'm kind of scratching my head: isn't the truth the truth, wherever it comes from? Or does precious truth turn to base racism just by changing hands?
You Meant More Than You Said
The incendiary effect of the R-bomb may be to shove the spotlight off other news. But even when it's not distracting, does racist nowadays mean anything more than ‘I don't like what you just said about him/her/them, and I conclude your intention was malicious'? If that is what it means, um, isn't the accused innocent until the accuser proves malice?
OK, back at your tavern, an accuser is getting in your face. "You refused Table 3 a drink," he says, "just because she's Vulcan."
"We go by a rule here," you say, "and it applies the same way to everybody. Anyone who tests over .04 gets no alcohol."
"I don't like what you're doing," says your accuser. "That's racist. Now are you going to apologize, or are we going to have to find a way to close down your tavern?"
The author (StewartPotter2@gmail.com) analyzes language.