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Why “Racist” is Losing Its Power


Roseanne Barr posing as Hitler.

4,258 words

In college I learned over and over that during a debate of any kind, my Leftist opponents could immediately assess themselves the winner and end the conversation by pointing out my white privilege, and hence, my subconscious racism. If I was making the case that Maya Angelou’s book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was lousy, I would be informed that I could not possibly understand it because I’m white. If I was making the case that Ron Paul would be a good President, I would be informed that I only thought that because I was white and couldn’t possibly understand the fear Dr. Paul inspired in non-whites. If, in a casual conversation about music, I mentioned that I didn’t care for rap, I would be told that I didn’t like it because, as a white guy, I was subconsciously racist, making it impossible for me to appreciate such a black genre. No matter the topic of debate, I could be routed so long as the other guy invoked “racism” or “privilege.”

Calling someone racist or privileged is tactically very useful. Inherent in the concept of white privilege is the fact that it is invisible, or at least invisible to untrained eyes. The original promoter and popularizer of the concept of “white privilege,” Peggy McIntosh, described [2] this privilege as an “invisible knapsack” and spoke of the racism of “invisible systems” that protected this privilege. Similarly, modern definitions of racism are opaque and stress that people can be racist without themselves knowing it.

Its invisibility is what makes it impossible to rebut. When someone accuses you of something that you yourself cannot see, in the eyes of your accuser, you cannot refute it. If I accused you of wearing a shirt that was stained by invisible jam, how could you tell me it wasn’t so? Its invisibility makes it so that you cannot see it, and implicit in my accusation is the assertion that I, for whatever reason, can see it. So it goes with racism and white privilege. When someone would accuse me of either, I would deny it. My opponent would then note that racists with white privilege do not believe they have it, and that not believing you have white privilege is a fundamental part of having white privilege. Said privilege also blinds one to their own racism. The tautological reasoning is airtight.

An important dynamic of the accusation of racism and white privilege is that the accusers view themselves as a kind of priestly class. They are a part of the group of people wise and smart enough to be able to see something the average Joe cannot. It is a self-designation, since there is no formal process to “become a seer of racism and white privilege.” There is no official specialized college degree, certification, or membership that separates those who can see racism and white privilege from those who cannot. The fact that there is no official way of becoming a “seer” cements the tautological nature of their arguments. No one accused of racism and privilege can allege that their accuser is not qualified to so designate them. The accusation itself is the qualification. In an argument about economics or mathematics, the involved parties will invoke how well-educated in these fields everyone is, or is not. There is no such equivalent in arguments about racism and white privilege. By virtue of invoking the concept, you are an expert in it, and your opponent an ignoramus.

The only other place we see a similar kind of logic is when the mentally unstable, or at the very least eccentric, talk about God. For example, several years ago I was smoking a cigarette on a streetcorner and a homeless man walked up to me and told me that the Devil was making me smoke. I asked him how he knew the Devil was behind it, and he looked me dead in the eye and said, “God told me.” I did not respond, because how could I? There was no way for me, or anyone else, to determine whether or not God had spoken to this man. To this day, I maintain that God never spoke to him, and that the Devil has never made me smoke. But there is no way of proving this objectively. There certainly was no way for me to convince this guy, in that exact moment, that God had not spoken to him. If I had argued with him, he would have found my arguments ludicrous. How could I know whether or not God had spoken to him? In his mind, for me to even suggest that I could possibly know whether or not God has spoken to him is absurd. By bringing up his conversation with God, this man was establishing himself as one who can “see” or “know” what others cannot. As one who can “see,” he righteously decided it his job to inform the rest of us, who cannot “see,” about what is good and what is bad.

“Anti-racists” use the same logic. They are self-appointed “seers” of racism and privilege. The difference between the kook in the street telling me about the Devil and egalitarians condemning racism and privilege is not that one uses a sounder logic than the other. The difference is one of power. No one listens to the kook; indeed, society at large considers it important to ignore kooks so we can get on with our daily lives. For anti-racist egalitarians, the situation is exactly the opposite. It is considered important to cling to their every word so the unique evil of racism can finally be eradicated from society once and for all.

What further strengthens the tautology wherein something is racist simply by being accused of being racist is that, as Sam Francis noted, “racist” has never been well-defined [3]. There is no algorithm to detect racism, no legal definition, and no way to measure “racism” the way “wealth,” “speed,” or “toxicity” can be measured. Furthermore, no definition of it has ever gained universal acceptance. In lieu of a precise definition, what is and is not racist is decided by whether or not the accuser can get enough people to agree with him.

Why is blackface racist? Because most people say so. Why is the word “negro” racist? Because people agree that it is. Do either of those things have a measurable negative effect on blacks in any way? If someone could magically snap their fingers and make everyone say “negro” instead of “black,” would blacks (or, dare I say, “negroes”) be worse off? This question is moot, as effects are not what determines the label. “Racist” is assigned on a more democratic basis, and when it comes to blackface and the word “negro,” the people have spoken. All it takes for something to be racist is for one person to say so, and enough people to agree.

This is why when something becomes targeted as “racist,” the media whips up such a frenzy. If the Confederate flag is to be deemed racist [4], a critical mass of people need to know it as “racist” as quickly as possible. Once a certain critical mass is reached, there is no turning back. Nothing has ever been considered racist but then later became “reinstated” as “not-racist.” So to successfully label anything you dislike as “racist” is the ultimate triumph. Not only does successfully invoking racism confer victory, it confers honor. To be a fighter of racism is, after all, a very good thing.

Imagine if the homeless man who claimed I was smoking because of the Devil had a receptive audience. What if people wanted to share in the special feeling that must come with knowing God has elected to speak to you? What if, in a clamor to feel special, more and more people started claiming that God was talking to them, and that God wanted the rest of us to stop giving in to the Devil and smoking? What if several of these people then got on CNN? What if the anchors on CNN agreed with them? What if a few of them got book deals to write about how the Devil causes smokers? What if those books became overwhelmingly popular among academics and they started teaching it to their students? The logic behind the argument would not grow sounder, but the argument itself would suddenly have validity merely because enough people, and enough powerful people, were parroting it.

In our times, the willingness to label something “racist” has increased as the country becomes less and less white. The increasing number of non-whites means that reaching a critical mass of people who agree with you that something is racist is becoming easier and easier. In the 1980s, Bill Clinton as Governor of Arkansas defended [5] his state flag’s allusion to the Confederacy. In 1992, when he was first running for President, he assured white voters he was on their side by publicly condemning black rapper Sister Soulja’s highly-publicized comments about killing whites [6]. With the country still three-quarters white, Republicans like Bob Dole and Jack Kemp, who were pro-immigration and pro-affirmative action, were considered “not racist.” The smear of racism was reserved for more marginal political groups like the Christian Right and paleoconservatives. But after winning re-election in 1996, Mr. Clinton celebrated the forecast that white America was coming to an end [7], and those changes he celebrated would dramatically change how the Left would use the word “racist.”

But by 2008, with whites having diminished to around two-thirds of the population, the smear “racist” could be wielded much more broadly. Senator John McCain, a longstanding supporter of both unfettered immigration and affirmative action, never managed to escape the taint of racism for merely being in the way of a black man’s ascension to the White House. Once Mr. Obama won, the portrayal of the Republican Party as belonging only to dying white racists became ubiquitous throughout the media and the academy. The Tea Party was immediately labelled racist, and once Mr. Obama won reelection, they were labeled powerless racists headed for history’s dustbin. The Republican surge in the 2014 midterms [8] was also racist, but immaterial. Mr. Obama had won, and twice. The rhetorical tool of yelling that the other guy was a racist, buttressed by an increasingly large chorus of non-whites eager to repeat it, seemed to be an invincible tool for Leftist political power. It was working over and over again and nothing could stop it, not the Tea Party, not Rush Limbaugh, not Mitt Romney. You’re with History or you’re with the racists, and History is on the march.

The complete lack of logic behind the word “racist” was never a problem so long as the victories kept rolling in. Who cares if something makes sense, so long as it gets you what you want? But as the Left was rolling in victory after victory, their own ranks began to split. By the now the children of anti-racist activists were entering the world of politics, journalism, and the academy. Their parents had taught them the trump card of labeling the other guy a racist, but the kids took this weapon and ran with it. Suddenly, young Leftists were accusing older Leftists of racism and privilege. Their parents had apparently never taught their kids that when using the word “racist” as a political weapon, an important string came attached: pas d’ennemis à gauche — “no enemies to the Left.” Or perhaps that lesson was taught, but ignored by this new generation in their lust for power and desire for goodness. Either way, during the Obama years, intra-Left conflicts began where different factions of the Left began lobbing the “racist” attack at one another.

These conflicts would start to crack the power of the word “racist” as they highlighted the incoherence of, and the inability to falsify or disprove, the accusation of racism. When two Leftists accuse each other of being racist, who determines the winner of the argument? I imagine Leftists yearn for the simpler days of only ever punching Right, as they now fall into never-ending cycles of one of these two back-and-forths:

A: You’re racist!
B: No, you’re racist!
A: No, you are!

A: X is racist!
B: No, it’s not!
A: Yes, it is, and you are, too!
B: We need to be more civil and fact-based in our arguments.
A: That’s racist!

Example one is best typified by the fall of Cornel West. Once something of a black guru, regularly on TV and at Mr. Obama’s side, Brother West (as he likes to be called) has fallen from grace in recent years, and fallen hard. Brother West’s sin was coming to conclude that Mr. Obama was not the real deal; not a real friend of blacks, or the poor, or the Third World. Though he had been an unofficial adviser to Mr. Obama, once Brother West took his leave, he began attacking the President from the Left, with gusto, over and over again.

As a black identitarian, Brother West slammed not just the President’s policies, but grappled with what those awful policies said about Mr. Obama’s essence as a black man. Brother West has called  [9]him a “Rockefeller Republican in blackface,” and “a brown-faced Clinton [10]. Another opportunist. Another neoliberal opportunist.” He further claimed that Mr. Obama has [11] “a certain fear of free black men.” In other words, Mr. Obama isn’t really black; it’s a mirage, and this can be detected by how little he does for blacks.

In response, black supporters of Mr. Obama dipped their pens in poison. Jonathan Capehart took to The Washington Post to declare [12] that Brother “West is trying to deny him [Mr. Obama] his inherent blackness. By indulging in the ‘Obama-as-other’ narrative, West is no better than a birther.” Prominent black liberals at The Nation [13] and The New Republic [14] were hardly more charitable in their attacks on a man to whom they had all once looked up.

But if Cornel West claims Mr. Obama is a closet racist, and in turn, black supporters of Mr. Obama call Brother West a racist for those remarks, who can declare the winner? Obviously, when any of the three parties in the above dispute call, say, Newt Gingrich a racist, they are the winners. Black Leftists calling a white Republican a racist? No need for overtime, the verdict is in. But accusations of racism within the Left lack a mediator, because no longer can the accuser win ipso facto. If Brother West can claim another black man, the President, doesn’t represent blacks, then why can’t another black man like Michael Eric Dyson claim that it is Brother West who doesn’t represent blacks? Who is to say, especially when Brother West and Mr. Dyson both have large enough followings to keep either from reaching a critical mass of people who agree with them?

The case of Jonathan Chait serves as an example of the second conversation about race within the Left. Mr. Chait, a Jewish, moderate liberal of high-toned tastes, is a very different man from the scrappy Marxian Brother West. No doubt those stark differences led to their very different journeys into the ire of the Left where they were once well-received. Mr. Chait’s sin came in 2015, when he wrote a lengthy essay called “Not a Very P.C. Thing to Say: How the language police are perverting liberalism [15].” In it, he made the simple case that, sometimes, the drive for political correctness overrides the search for truth, dialogue, and understanding.

By and large, he griped that the weapon of political correctness was being wielded against good liberals like himself instead of bad Republicans. Other journalists on the Left immediately dogpiled on him, eviscerating him for his “privilege” and accusing him of just whining about his loss of status as a white man in America. One rebuttal’s title alone (from the popular Huffington Post) says a lot: “A Brief Rundown of Jonathan Chait’s Angsty White Man Opus [16].” From her perch at The Guardian, Jessica Valenti, arguably the most important feminist alive, wrote [17], “Chait’s real problem, it seems, is that he doesn’t understand why his privilege — or anyone else’s — should impact how people perceive what he says.” Amanda Marcotte, now a darling of Salon, but then of Talking Points Memo, noted the obvious in the title of her response as well: “P.C. Policeman Jonathan Chait Can Dish It Out, But He Can’t Take It [18].” Alex Pareene, that longstanding adversary of John Derbyshire [19], opened his rebuttal [20] with the line, “So, here is sad white man Jonathan Chait’s essay about the difficulty of being a white man in the second age of ‘political correctness.’”

For white advocates [21], Mr. Chait strikes an unsympathetic figure: a condescending liberal elite figure who penned a milquetoast critique of political correctness, but regularly attacks [22] Republicans for being politically incorrect. But for outsiders, the perception was different. Here was a well-regarded liberal, a regular in the respected New York magazine, who, after noting the limits of calling things you don’t like “racist” and “sexist,” was eviscerated and condescended to by his fellow Lefties. Noteworthy is that while all his attackers were younger than he is, most attacked him from newer and online-only publications, and quite a few were rising stars within the Left.

What Mr. Chait was hoping for in his moderately anti-PC piece was what the late Lawrence Auster [23] called “an unprincipled exception.” Defined simply [24]: “The unprincipled exception is a non-liberal value or assertion, not explicitly identified as non-liberal, that liberals use to escape the inconvenient, personally harmful, or suicidal consequences of their own liberalism without questioning liberalism itself.” Mr. Chait in no way expressed a desire to do away with the entire program of attacking political opponents for being politically incorrect. He simply wanted himself to be exonerated from such attacks. He aches for the simpler time of a decade or two ago, when only conservatives could be smeared as “racist” or “sexist” and thereafter be ignored. Now that the tactic is being used against him by younger Leftists, he wants to be the unprincipled exception. He wants to get some kind of liberal ID card establishing him as a “good guy” that should never be smeared by other liberals.

Brother West wanted to be an exception of another kind. Blacks and Leftists, and especially black Leftists, regularly denigrate conservative non-whites as “Uncle Toms” or race traitors. The unspoken rule was to never level such an accusation against one of their own. No matter what a black leader like Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson might do (e.g., lie [25] and steal [26]), black Leftists understood that loyalty in the ranks was of the highest priority. That always made critiquing their own beyond the pale. Brother West broke that rule, and suffered the consequences. Before him, all black critics of prominent black figures had been obscure Communists or academics such as Carl Dix [27] or Adolph Reed [28]. Brother West was the first black Leftist commentator to reach the heights of national respectability, and then get yanked offstage by his own side for getting too radical.

The sagas of these two figures, Cornel West and Jonathan Chait, as different as they are, represent the beginning of the end of “racist” as a trump card at the end of the Obama era. On the one hand, you had a clique of black talking heads in a public shouting match over which of them was truly black, and which was truly racist. On the other hand, you had a liberal old guard getting buried in a blizzard of criticism for asking to ease off the gas pedal of political correctness. It became clear that the rules were changing. The world was no longer as simple as it was a mere generation earlier, with President George H. W. Bush denouncing [29] David Duke’s runs and President Bill Clinton announcing a dialogue on race [30] filled with hollow rhetoric and no action. Two decades of critical theory, Tumblr, and the rising tide of color [31], and the political game of attacking racism has become a whole new animal.

What was once a weapon used by the Left against the Right, and occasionally by the Right to save face, is now a free-for-all. The war against racism has morphed from two armies facing off on a traditional battlefield into a state of fourth-generation warfare [32] of Hobbesian proportions. Some Leftists are now openly expressing regret [33] for applying the word “racist” too liberally in the past, and urging that it be used less from now on [34], as its overuse is weakening its desired sting. Meanwhile, centrist commentators have conceded that whatever “detente” American racial politics once held is now gone [35]. Everyone can be a racist now. Black neoliberals in the WaPo can call a black Marxian who used to be pals with our black President a racist. And young Leftists have discovered that old Leftists are racist, and demanding that, as such, editorial positions be handed over — they have only their internships to lose.

This entropy is what fuels the ridiculous headlines [36] of anti-racist action you see today that would have been unfathomable even a few years ago. Everything can now be labelled racist because whatever rules there once were for the accusation are now gone, and there is always an opportunity to show off how virtuous you are just by making the accusation. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches [37]dress shirts [38], and even math itself [39] have all been accused of racism this past year.

Inside the academic world, the incentives for levelling the accusation of racism is highly incentivized. Imagine the popularity and satisfaction that must come to a student who outmaneuvers his anti-racist professor to show that the professor himself is racist, too. Universities are also continually expanding their bureaucracies, which of course must be staffed by the most anti-racist candidates possible. If you were a 22-year-old recent graduate saddled with debt and you wanted to get a job in your alma mater’s Diversity Department, would you be willing to assert that the Department as-is had too much white privilege and that you could fix that in order to secure the job? In a world of “publish or perish,” academics can now carve out a niche for themselves by discovering a new manifestation of racism never mentioned before. Doing so will make you a big hit at the next White Privilege Conference, which could help you land a job. Wherever eliminating racism is held as the highest ideal, word-savvy entrepreneurs will find racism everywhere.

The 2016 election highlighted this well. Remember that Ta-Nehisi Coates, the chic black radical of our day [40], took Bernie Sanders (the socialist and former Civil Rights activist) to task [41] for not doing enough to fight white supremacy. Senator Sanders also had to suffer the indignity of Black Lives Matter activists forcing him off the stage [42] at one of his own rallies so they could speak. Him not letting the activists do so would have represented a latently racist privilege. Even now that the election is over, Clinton supporters and Sanders supporters still trade barbs by accusing the other side of being racist [43].

With definitions blurred and accusations being thrown in every direction, the word “racist” is losing meaning, and the absurd logic it employs is being exposed. A generation ago, regular, apolitical Americans were fearful of the label racist, and repelled by anyone who carried the label. Today they are less wary. While they certainly are not following the career trajectories of Brother West and Mr. Chait, they see the fallout of those fights, and fights just like them. Everyday conservative media outlets like Breitbart and The Daily Caller shine a magnifying glass on the latest thing college professors have deemed irredeemably racist. Simultaneously, those professors have now influenced the political Left enough that national figures like Hillary Clinton pay lip service to theories about “white privilege [44].”

These days, everyone is a racist, even anti-racists. To all of this I say, “Cheers.” The breakdown of the status quo order of racial politics is an absolute victory for us. As Jared Taylor and countless others have pointed out [45], in the last election cycle both the media and the academy threw everything they had at Mr. Trump. He was called a racist, a bigot, a xenophobe, and a sexist just about every day by nearly every mainstream media outlet. Over sixty million people voted for him anyway. It is hard to imagine the America of the 1980s, though much whiter, which was so content to ignore the media’s smear of “racism” on a presidential candidate. Certainly labeling Pat Buchanan a racist in the 1990s did more damage to him than the same label did to Mr. Trump two decades later.

The indifference so many Americans now feel over the label “racist” is certainly due, at least in part, to the ever-oscillating and expanding usage of the word. Over the last decade, the Left has tipped its hand, engaging in too much anti-white rhetoric before demographics made a “whitelash” impossible. Simultaneously, the Left began to drink its own Kool-Aid. The word “racist” proved to be a Pandora’s Box of sorts, a weapon that can overpower its user.

While certainly still powerful, the label “racist” is not what it used to be. The Left is now doing its best to keep from “normalizing” the Trump presidency, by which they mean not reporting and commenting on it objectively, but instead just calling it racist over and over again. Let us hope that they do exactly that. Because if the President can be a racist, anyone can.