Two Definitions of Racism


When liberals and conservatives use the word racism, they tend to mean different things.

A conservative using the term racism is probably meaning something along the lines of people making race-based comments, committing race-based crimes, hiring an employee because they are one race or another, or something like a person’s college admissions status (which usually has a racial component snuck in there somewhere). For them, racism is specific and active. Racism is specific because it happens to specific people; a person can have very racist attitudes but not actually be “a racist” if they never act upon them, because, in their mind, racism is a thing that happens in the particulars of life, like the examples above. It is active because it requires a person to intentionally want it to happen, and anyone who has agency (activity-ness) can do racist things. Racism isn’t something that “just happens,” because someone has to decide to do it.

A liberal tends to use the term racism, not to put too fine a point on it, in the complete opposite way. For a liberal, racism is general and passive. Racism can be general because a single person is no longer the regular focus, in this definition. Instead, entire groups are viewed in aggregates (on average) and work together. “Whites are _____” and “Blacks are _____” can be meaningful, reasonable statements under this definition (whereas before, it could not). Accordingly, racism can be passive because those groups do not have collective agency (cannot act all together). The general setup of society is the way that it is, for various historical reasons, of course, but it means that nobody alive today planned on racial difference being this way.

The difference in these definitions are profound, and understanding the two definitions will cut away most disagreements before they really get started. For example, if a liberal says “you can’t be racist against blacks”, they don’t mean that you cannot say a racist word to a black person. Of course you could do that, and of course it would be morally wrong, but in the liberal’s mind, that is not enough to count as racism. You see, the liberal scheme of racism is that Racism = Hate based on race + Power. But, and this is the inconvenient truth, the conservative scheme of racism is that Racism = Hate based on race. Conservatives either deny that such a power disparity exists, or, more often, they neither agree nor disagree with the idea, as they have not had it explained clearly to them.

In shorter words, the conservative is talking about bigoted racism, and the liberal is talking about systemic racism. The term “racism” has these two parts, and so it is usually irresponsible to argue that something “is racist” or “is not racist.” Instead, it would be much clearer or everyone if we said that certain things “are racially bigoted” or “are not racially bigoted,” and that they “are systemically racist,” or  “are not systemically racist”.

I believe in the value of precise language.

So the next time someone uses the term racism, ask, “well, possibly, but which kind of racism do you mean? Bigotry, or systemic?” and then most of the friction will go away. You are now left with a claim that can be proven right or wrong, given the relevant facts and data, rather than a debate over categories and definitions, which are the worst.

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