Racism Is A Behavior That Needs Some Sort Of Context

Amanda Marcotte has a post up on racism that is actually temperate enough to deserve a response and some thoughtful questions. She says that racism is a system and argues vigorously that the person who behaves in a racist way is a racist, regardless of intent.

It was an ugly conversation, with all sorts of weird implications but the thing I couldn’t get over was people were actually buying into the silly notion that the best measure of racism is what people hold in their hearts. Which would mean that being stupid would give you a “get out of jail free” card when accused of racism.


If intent is the requirement to characterize an action as “racist”, then wouldn’t that pretty much mean no one is racist, since the vast majority of people will never cop to having that sort of intent? Conservatives have been hiding behind this conundrum forever, creating this strange world were young conservatives can actually have “affirmative action bakesales” and say with a straight face that they don’t think they’re racist. Better and more realistic is to look at racism systematically, which means you don’t get weighed down fighting over what someone “meant” when he/she said something racist.

Racism is a system where white people are privileged over black people in millions of different ways. (Well and there’s other kinds of racism, but just on this one subject.) Comments like the one Nubian blogged about aren’t racist because of intent so much, but because they feed off and reinforce the idea that there’s something “alien” about black people, that they are the Other from the Universal White Person.

Well, I don’t think intent is a “get out of jail free card”, as she suggests, but I do think the behavior needs some sort of context. There are behaviors that I would say are objectively racist most of the time. Using the n-word is the most obvious example, though there is a contradiction of sorts in our country where black people use the n-word all the time. I would never think it’s OK for myself and have been conditioned to think that way most of my life.

The context could be how a behavior is received, but that has perils of its own that are at least as bad as intent, for many of the same reasons. It makes the receiver the judge and gives that person a license for perpetual grievance. It would have the effect of defining racism up in much the way that intent might define it down.

This business where Amanda suggests that racism is a system rather than a behavior is a bunch of collectivist clap-trap that doesn’t merit a lot attention. Suffice it to say, this is a definiton only a tyrant or a lawyer (due to the extra income) would love; it would hand the state a license to meddle that would have no end.

As for the behavior and the proper context, I would love to know what readers think.

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Robert Prather
About Robert Prather
Robert Prather contributed over 80 posts to OTB between October 2005 and July 2013. He previously blogged at the now defunct Insults Unpunished. Follow him on Twitter @RobPrather.


  1. RYan says:

    She lost me right when she mentioned the “Affirmative Action Bake Sale” as an example of racism. In her world, apparently, to even oppose Affirmative action is pro – forma evidence of racism. In the real world someone can think that blacks are equal to whites in capacity and don’t need a special extra prop to hold them up and, the same people would argue, hold them BACK. Intent IS the key. If the intent of those in question is to give everyone equal _opportunities_ within the system. .then its not racism, which, by definition. . ”
    1 : a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.”

    Racism is the BELIEF that. Belief requires intent or thought.

  2. McGehee says:

    In the real world someone can think that blacks are equal to whites in capacity and don�t need a special extra prop to hold them up and, the same people would argue, hold them BACK.

    Indeed. And after all, don’t the defenders of affirmative action often insist that the negative unintended consequences of their policies don’t count, because their intentions are good?

    Talk about an intent “get out of jail free card!”

  3. Craig says:

    I think that racism has been given way too wide of a definition in most people’s mind these days. What ever happened to good old “prejudice”?? Guess it just lacked the psychological power of the r-word. Someone makes a statement or assumption about a person, based upon a faulty general opinion of their nationality or race, and we jump right to a word that means that the person believes “that a particular race is superior to others”.

    That’s part of the real definition of racism.

    Doesn’t necessarily apply, does it?

    But now, prejudice, THAT word may cover many situations and opinions much more clearly and honestly. After all, it means, “an adverse judgment or opinion formed beforehand or without knowledge or examination of the facts”.

    Dialouge about this issue may get less heated and more logical if we apply words properly.

  4. Eneils Bailey says:

    I start from the point of view that as soon as we realize “racism” is not an exclusive commodity of the white race in this country, then we can have decent debates.
    Without facing up to that, most discussions just tend to antagonize both sides.

  5. Anderson says:

    I admit there’s something attractive about a pragmatist definition of racism. The trouble is that measuring the *effects* of something can become so open to interpretation as to be merely rhetorical.

    Like Craig, I distinguish between prejudice (pre-judgment, based on perhaps unconscious assumptions) and racism, which I take to be a consciously-held ideology. Not that prejudice doesn’t suck, but there’s a difference in how to deal with otherwise average people who have some mistaken assumptions, vs. the Aryan Brotherhood-types.

  6. Hurling accusations of racism to stifle opponents and avoid serious discussion has become the Angry Left’s “put into jail free card”, and they use it with wild abandon, usually free of the consequences of such slanderous, almost always unwarranted accusations. It’s just another way they have of casually and wrecklessly impugning motives that they seem to believe makes them morally superior.

    It is sad.

  7. just me says:

    I also think we have lost prejiduce in there somewhere. A racist often isn’t going to listen to or be swayed by debate, while somebody who is prejiduced likely can and will be.

    When you toss “racist” out there, and sling it enough, you end up stifling debate-especially with something like affirmative action. One problem dems have, is that they want to label anyone who disagrees with them on a race related issue as a racist, when the reality is that some people just don’t think their positions on the issues are correct. Being opposed to affirmative action doesn’t equal racism, but until the left will admit that, debate on how best to handle issues affirmative action is meant to solve doesn’t go anywhere.

  8. Tom says:

    It seems to me that a better word to describe the actions Nubian was complaining about is “insensitive”. Prejudice doesn’t work because there’s no pre-judging. Racism has the baggage of feelings of racial superiority, which clearly wasn’t the case here. Nubian’s real complaint is that she was offended by her colleague’s stupidity. It’s just that race theorists have people believing that stupidity and rudeness is a form of racism.

  9. Steve Verdon says:

    I think Tom is right. It was an insensitive thing to say and also stupid (i.e. how would a black person know if they “feel hotter” which is a comparative question–after all black people are always black, and white people are always white, never mind that how hot a person feels probably is subjective too in that one white person could be bothered by 90 degree weather while another isn’t). This kind of insensitivity and stupidity doesn’t translate into:

    Black people are lesser than White people.

    If anything, Nubian is also being stupid as well. Trying to pound insensitivity into to definition of racism. Further, couldn’t it be possible that skin color actually does or did have a selective advantage? This site says, yes. Now, I’ve never heard of Palomar College and I don’t know if it is some “Racist School”, but the arguments seem plausible.

    So, is one “Othered” by simply noting the facts?

    So not only some insensitivity, but perhaps also a health dash of hypersensitivity too?

  10. So liberal policies that helped break down Black families and thus causing harm to Blacks should be taken as evidence that the Democratic party is racist? Sounds like an interesting theory to me. Lets try to figure out who isn’t a racist with this sort of logic.