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Reading Racism Right to Left: Reflections on a Powerful Word and Its Applications

This is part one of a two-part series on racism on the right and left of the United States' political/ideological spectrum. Part One provides the reader with a working definition of racism, and then explores how racism at both the ideological and institutional levels is connected to and enhanced by American conservatism. Part Two will explore the ways in which American liberal and left ideology, rhetoric and policy prescriptions also manifest or further racism at the ideological and institutional levels.

When I was younger, I was a really good speller. Not like those lovably geeky kids at the National Spelling Bee, but good nonetheless. I always got 100s on my spelling tests, and when it came to in-class competitions, I'd usually win. But then came that awful day in sixth grade--a day that, I'm embarrassed to admit I still recall clearly--when I was eliminated in the first round of the spelling bee in my own homeroom class. 

It wasn't that I couldn't spell the word about which I was being quizzed. Rather, my error was in misunderstanding the word itself, assuming I was being asked one thing, when in fact I was being asked another. So, when the teacher challenged me to spell "aisle," as in, that unobstructed opening between chairs, or pews, or sections of a movie theatre, I thought I was being asked to spell "isle," as in an Island, like the Isle of Wight or the Isle of Man. I was being all Middle English and geographical and shit, when all I needed to do was spell the word for a pathway.

Fortunately, small humiliations such as this often provide fertile soil for the emergence of true wisdom. And this experience did in fact teach me a lesson: namely, that when two people lack agreement on what a word means, communication becomes difficult, and misunderstandings flourish. When conversing about an issue--especially one more controversial than, say, the respective spelling of "aisle" versus "isle"--this is why it is helpful to make sure both parties to the dialogue know how they are using the terms in question.

This is one of the things that cause trouble when discussing--as I do in my writing and speeches--the topic of racism. Although we might be able to spell it, defining it is another matter. Ask ten people the meaning of the term, and you'll get at least five fairly distinct answers, if not one for each person in the room. For some, racism means "hatred" based on race. Others say racism is tantamount to "prejudice," whether or not hateful. For still others, racism requires not just an attitude, but some concrete action--discrimination of some sort--based on the prejudicial attitude. Some suggest it is racist to even think about race, to discuss it, or to notice a person's color. Some speak of racism as only the most blatant acts of aggression based on color, while others will discuss the subtle types of bias that research indicates are so common, even in the modern "post-racial" era.

Needless to say, when so many people understand racism differently, it can complicate the ability to meaningfully converse about the subject, let alone to do something about it. If you think racism means one thing, while I'm convinced it means another, we're not likely to agree as to how we might respond to it, since we aren't seeing the same problem in the first place.

To see how these misunderstandings play out in the real world, consider the current back-and-forth between those who support and those who oppose the Tea Party phenomenon, as to whether or not Party activists are racists.

To those who oppose the group's activities and positions (and I include myself as one of those), it isn't difficult to see racism as one element of their movement. When people come to rallies with overtly racist signs, or send around blatantly racist e-mails to their friends comparing the President to an African witch doctor or the First Lady to a gorilla, or suggesting that the president should "go back to Kenya" (from whence they naturally assume he comes), only the most willfully ignorant could deny that racism is operating (1).

But that's the easy part. What about the majority of Tea Partiers, who don't carry such signs, don't send around those e-mails, and who don't engage in blatantly racist vitriol of any kind? Are they also motivated by racism, in whole or in part? And how would we know? 

To those who admire Tea Party activism, allegations of racism against the followers of this movement are unfair. They are motivated not by racism, say these voices, but by fears and anger about the size of government or what they view as out of control taxation. In response, those of us who are critical of the movement point out how oftentimes opposition to "big government" and taxation is itself connected to beliefs (typically erroneous) that government spending means taking from productive tax-paying whites and giving things (like health care, or jobs) to less productive people of color. If big government and "those people" are linked in the minds of many whites (and the research on this point says overwhelmingly that the linkage exists and has for several decades), it becomes difficult to disentangle the purely philosophical from the racial when it comes to the motivations of conservative activists (2).

But is this racism? Well, not if your definition of the term requires hatred, or overt bigotry, or the use of racial slurs, or Klan membership. Even if conservatives are motivated by racial resentments--the belief that racial others are getting something for nothing and at their expense--their views wouldn't rise to the level of racism if we were relying on as limited a definition of the term as that which might apply to a pack of skinheads.

But is this the proper definition? Honest people can disagree of course, but here let me offer as comprehensive a definition as I can: one that will encompass the blatant, but also allow for a more nuanced understanding of the term. And in this case, I will seek to define it as non-ideologically as possible, by adhering merely to an examination of the basic component parts of the word racism itself, before determining what is meant by it.

Defining and Conceptualizing Racism

As with other words that end in the letters "ism," racism is essentially two things: an ideology and a system. Just as capitalism or communism are ideologies, so too is racism. And just as capitalism and communism (or fascism, totalitarianism etc.) are systems, so too is racism a system. 

Racism as Ideology

At the ideological level, racism can be defined (and is, typically, without controversy) as the belief in the superiority or inferiority of a given group of people, where the source of that superiority or inferiority is deemed to be the "race" of the group: either due to some genetic, biological or perhaps cultural tendency specific to the group in question.

In other words, to believe that one "racial" group is generally better than another or worse, smarter or less intelligent, more moral or less so, is to adhere to a racist philosophy. Are individuals sometimes smarter than other individuals, or more or less moral than others? Of course they are. But ascribing these tendencies of better/worse to entire groups of people is to engage in a form of essentializing--i.e. to suggest that the "essence" of that group is to be smarter or more law-abiding than another--and thus, to engage in racist thinking.

This doesn't mean it's racist to note differences between members of different groups, per se. But if it is believed that those differences are caused by something unique or specific to the group from which a person hails, that is when we can justly say that racism attaches. 

So, for instance, it isn't racist to note that violent crime rates are higher among African Americans than whites. This is a matter of statistical fact. And although we can certainly debate the extent to which our definitions of violence and crime are too limiting (and thus how they fail to criminalize many harmful actions engaged in by whites, especially elite ones, like corporate pollution, or on-the-job safety violations), the fact remains that merely noting what the existing data says is not racist. But to suggest, as many do, that black crime rates are higher because there is something about black folks that makes them more aggressive--say, excess testosterone in black males or some unique cultural depravity--is to cross the line from the merely descriptive to the overtly judgmental. It is to imply a connection between blackness and crime that is not mediated by some third force--say, economic structures, or other things that have been shown to correlate with crime such as population density, extreme poverty and the dilapidated housing conditions that come with it--but rather, is merely the result of blacks being "bad" as a group. 

Likewise, to note that African Americans do worse than whites on various indicia of academic merit (from standard IQ tests to the SAT to classroom grades) is not inherently racist. Although the motivation for bringing up this fact may be suspect, it also may be an issue broached by those who seek to reduce those gaps and believe that closing them is a perfectly achievable goal. But to put forth the proposition that black kids do worse on these tests than whites because there is something about blacks biologically or genetically that causes such a result--or because African Americans are culturally defective relative to whites--is to stigmatize the group with a judgment about the groups' collective worth.

In other words, racism is what explains the difference between saying, "blacks are more likely than whites to be suspended or expelled from school" (which is true), and "black kids have no respect for authority and are more aggressive than white kids" (a statement which is belied by numerous studies, and which involves multiple group-based assumptions about a collective body comprised of millions of people). It's the difference between saying, "Blacks have median grade point averages that are a half point below those of whites" on the one hand, and "Blacks are less intelligent than whites" on the other.

Although theoretically anyone (whether white or of color) can adhere to racist thinking--and thus be a racist in the ideological sense--in the United States, racism has operated in one direction, towards and against people of color. Yes, there have been (and no doubt still are) black and brown folks who believe their group is superior, or that whites are inherently defective in some way. But only white supremacy has ever taken root in the U.S. as a dominant narrative. In other cultures and countries racism operates differently--in Japan against ethnic Koreans for instance, or in Israel against Palestinians--but in the U.S., when we speak of racism as a potent ideological force, we are discussing, essentially, white supremacy and notions of white "betterness."

Racism as System

Now let us turn to the systemic aspect of racism. Just as capitalism and communism are systems for economic and political organization, racism too is a system for organizing society: in this case, a system that organizes that society and its institutions along racially inequitable lines. In short, racism is a system of inequality based on race. That system is perpetuated (and defined, really) by institutional structures in which one race (and in the U.S., whites) have advantages, privileges, head starts or other opportunities that are less available to members of other races. These structures include the labor market, housing market, educational system and justice system among others. Sometimes these structures are maintained by way of formal mechanisms of oppression and terror (as with race-based enslavement, wars of genocidal aggression, segregation, race-based lynching, etc.), and at other times they are maintained by mechanisms that are more informal and indirect.

So, for instance, if segregation is outlawed but the job market is still racially divided due to old boy's networks for hiring, or due to the quality of one's prior schooling (itself often linked to race, since race so often determines the neighborhood where one grows up), or prior credentials (themselves accumulated, or not, because of past opportunity), racism can still be operating in the workforce. If schools are integrated but are still allowed to separate students by so-called ability (determined by tests that are inadequate predictors of talent and which tend to result in the labeling of black and Latino kids as less capable), racism can still be operating. 

In other words, at the structural level, racism can exist and do great damage, with or without racism at the ideological level. Hatred and overt bigotry is not required for the operation of systemic racism. So, for instance, although the antebellum and then Jim Crow south was characterized by often warm personal interactions between whites and blacks--and certainly more personal closeness and warm regard than existed in the North--it was also a region of intensely oppressive structures. This is much like the case with patriarchal oppression of women: a structural force that can operate even when the society is replete with many truly loving and caring interactions between men and women.

Racism and Conservatism -- The Inherent Linkage

Put in these terms, the white racial resentment to which Tea Party activists often give voice--and which is stoked regularly by right-wing commentators--can be viewed as a form of racism, even if lacking in overt bigotry. To believe as many seem to do that "those people" (viewed in largely racialized terms) are lazy, incompetent, or in some other way morally lacking and sponging off of others (those others also being viewed in largely racialized terms), is to construct a hierarchy of value and legitimacy, in which whites are typed as hard-working, industrious and productive, while black and brown others are typed as decidedly less so. Likewise, at the systemic level, if this kind of rhetorical stance furthers systemic inequity (by leading to cuts in the budget for programs designed to provide greater opportunity to low-income persons, who are disproportionately of color), or if it leads to racialized efforts to limit the immigration of persons of color to the country in the first place, the effect would be racist, irrespective of the intent of those putting forward the rhetoric.

Indeed, there appears to be an almost inherent relationship between the rhetoric of the modern American conservative movement and racism. While sometimes this relationship is blatant--as with the conservative embrace of Charles Murray, even after his authorship of The Bell Curve, which argued that blacks are genetically and/or biologically less intelligent and capable than whites and Asians--at other times it is far more subtle (3). But once we subject conservative race theories to scrutiny it becomes hard to deny that the views of most conservatives on such matters are intrinsically racist.

To explain: consider the most common conservative argument made when the subject of racism and racial discrimination is raised. It typically sounds something like this:

"Racism is no longer capable of holding people of color back. Everyone has equal opportunity today. Yes, there are individual racists, but as a social force, racism is essentially dead."

In and of itself there is no racism in this statement, and certainly not in the traditional sense: as overt manifestations of prejudice, contempt, even hatred based on racial difference. Indeed, conservatives would likely insist that if anything, this position is the ultimate non-racist or even antiracist argument, given its implicit confidence in the ability of persons of color to overcome obstacles. By taking a positivist stance, conservatives might claim that they were being far less racist than liberals and leftists, the latter of whom seem to suggest that racism is such an obstacle that even hard working black and brown folks are helpless in the face of it. To the right, it is this left position that reeks of racial condescension and assumptions of racial inferiority.

Putting aside the fact that liberals and leftists don't assume racist obstacles are too big to individually overcome--merely that they make it far more difficult than it should be for persons of color, and that this is a unique injustice--the conservative stance at first glance seems like a strong one. It appears as though their worldview on these matters, though it may be naïve, is not racist. But once we explore the underlying and implicit assumptions embedded in the conservative worldview, it becomes clear how what seems like a non- or even antiracist position actually lends itself to a larger worldview that is racist to the core. 

After all, to deny that people of color face unequal opportunities in America--due either to the legacy of past racism, the persistence of racism today, or some other set of structural barriers--is to leave explanations for racial achievement gaps that are racist by definition. If black folks really do have equal opportunity and yet still don't achieve at levels equal to their white counterparts, then there must be something wrong with them as black people. Either genetically or culturally they must be inferior to whites. There is no other possible explanation. 

And indeed, this is what conservatives say. Whether Murray and Herrnstein in The Bell Curve, who attributed relative black failure and the group's economic condition to biological inadequacy, or Dinesh D'Souza, who one year later in The End of Racism attributed racial accomplishment gaps to cultural defects among blacks (what he called a "civilizational deficit"), the tune remains the same: the problem is them. If blacks were more like whites or Asians, biologically or culturally, they would do better in school and have better financial profiles. The problem isn't a history of unequal opportunity, which gave some head starts and held others back, and it certainly isn't discrimination in the present. It's their genes, or perhaps their pathological community values, end of story. They are the problem. Indeed, recent Gallup polling discovered that roughly half of Tea Party supporters are willing to admit their belief that racial disparities in America are the fault of blacks themselves who just "don't have the motivation or willpower to pull themselves up out of poverty." In other words, their values just aren't strong enough, and they just don't try.

Cultural Racism and the Right

To call this last viewpoint an example of racism, however, would be hotly disputed by those who adhere to it. Although most would agree that ascribing racial differences in well-being to biological causes is racist--after all, we think of racism as rooted in scientific notions of superiority and inferiority--they would just as quickly deny that racism adheres to similar arguments when the causation for the disparity is claimed to be cultural, rather than biological. Because culture is understood to be more fluid, many who point to what they consider cultural pathologies in the black community would insist that these arguments are not racist. They are not disparaging black people, per se, but only the dysfunctional cultural attributes that they believe are commonly found in black communities, by which they normally mean high rates of out-of-wedlock childbirth, higher rates of reliance on government income support, and higher rates of crime.

But to deny that criticisms of black culture are racist is disingenuous. First, to suggest there is one "black culture" itself essentializes 35 million people and ascribes to the group the visible dysfunctions of a statistical handful of these. To begin, most black folks do not commit crime, let alone violent crime; most black women do not have children out-of-wedlock, and most black folks are not recipients of so-called welfare benefits. So to claim these phenomena as cultural norms for blacks as a group is to engage in statistical illiteracy and gross stereotyping. No more than 4 percent of African Americans over the age of 12 (and thus eligible for inclusion in crime data) will commit a violent crime in a given year (4). For every 100 unmarried black women, 93 of them will not have a child this year (not much different than the 97 out of 100 unmarried white women who, likewise, will not give birth this year) (5). Finally, eighty-seven out of 100 blacks receive no cash welfare, 8 in 10 receive no food assistance, and 91 of 100 receive no housing subsidy of any kind (6).

Additionally, if characteristics are attributed to a group whose very boundaries have historically been rooted in notions of color/ancestry and "race" then the fact that the source of those characteristics is claimed to be cultural rather than biological makes little practical difference. Since the group lines of "blackness" (and for that matter whiteness) have long been connected to assumptions of genuine racial divisions, using those group categories as markers of cultural tendencies is every bit as racist as if one were to assert a genetic cause for group attributes. After all, there would be no reason for cultural traits to cluster so clearly along "racial" lines if--as science indicates--those lines are, from a biological perspective, arbitrary. In this sense, those who point to black culture as the cause of racial disparities between whites and African Americans are biologizing culture in a way that is inherently racist, by reifying the very categories that science tells us are specious, and suggesting that these categories really do tell us something about a group's value, character and abilities.

Third, explanations for racial inequities rooted in cultural claims are racist because they selectively attribute causation to behavioral tendencies that can be seen across racial lines. If someone who is black does something that fits within the cultural framing of those who view black culture as pathological, the behavior will be explained with reference to the culture as a cause. But when someone who is white does the very same thing it will be explained as aberrant, or the result of individual pathology, because it doesn't fit a larger cultural frame about whites. To use different explanations for the same behavior in this way is racist, especially when the behaviors in question might be just as prevalent if not more so in white communities. For instance, whites use drugs at rates that are equal to their black counterparts, and actually abuse alcohol at rates that are considerably higher than African Americans (7). So if drug use is to be seen as a cultural pathology in blacks (and it often is), and yet as an individual pathology in whites--even though it is just as prevalent in the white community as the black community--this can only be due to an essentialization of black behavior that assumes, by definition, a group inferiority. 

To see how the culture-based explanations for racial disparity are every bit as racist as biological arguments, consider the case of anti-Jewish bigotry. Although Hitler's campaign of genocide against European Jewry was rooted in his beliefs about Jews being a biologically distinct and destructive force, would his efforts have been any less racist--and would we have failed to call him a racist--had he stuck with older, more traditional forms of anti-Jewish bigotry: such as beliefs that Jews are culturally clannish, greedy, or have religious beliefs that cause them to kill Christian children and use their blood for baking Matzo? Would the murder of millions of Jews, under these auspices deserve to escape the charge of racism, just because Jews were being inferiorized on the basis of cultural assumptions rather than biological ones? Surely not. 

So too, when European settlers came to America and proceeded to slaughter the indigenous of the continent they didn't deploy--at least at first--scientific arguments to justify the slaughter. Rather they appealed to notions of cultural deficiency, civilizational inferiority and spiritual depravity. But by treating Indian folks as an undifferentiated mass, "racialized" if not scientifically "racial," it would seem like a torturing of the language to deny that these actions amounted to a form of racism, simply because they began before biologized concepts of race had been fully developed.

Even those conservatives who argue the cultural tendencies about which they are concerned have structural roots--in other words, people who don't necessarily claim that black culture is inherently pathological, but who suggest that destructive norms grow out of various social causes or forces imposed on blacks--can be charged with espousing a form of racism. For instance, the claim that black culture has been rendered dysfunctional by the modern welfare state (a common conservative argument) is racist in that it presumes African Americans are too weak to remain strong and self-reliant in the face of such programs, whereas whites are strong enough to do so. In European nations that are overwhelmingly white, social safety net programs are far more extensive, and yet, fail to generate the kinds of pathologies conservatives would here attribute to welfare provision. Why? The only possible answer, given the conservative position on the harm done by welfare programs, is that blacks have something uniquely wrong with them, which renders them pathological in the face of efforts that have no such impact on others.

And of course, the practical impact of culture-based assumptions to explain racial disparities is no different than were those assumptions rooted in biological theories. If you believe blacks as a group are less hard-working, less honest and less intelligent--no matter whether you ascribe these traits to genes or cultural values--it is unrealistic to believe that you would likely treat individuals from that group fairly and equitably. The odds are better than you would engage in what social scientists call "statistical discrimination," which means assuming that any given representative of a particular group is likely to manifest the tendencies and talents that you consider the group itself to normally manifest. In this way, individual blacks, for instance, would be provided less opportunity irrespective of their true talents, all because the group assumptions had come to dominate any given evaluation, such as in a job interview. So at the systemic level, adherence to the cultural view of group disparities will prove every bit as racist in terms of impact, as if one believed in embedded biological inferiority.


Although individual conservatives may not be racist in the traditional sense, the ideological viewpoint to which they are wedded leads almost inevitably to racist conclusions. That this may well not be the intention of those who adhere to the philosophy of conservatism--and that this ideology may indeed by endorsed by some persons of color as well--hardly alters this fundamental truth. If racial disparities are not to be explained by unequal opportunity--past, present or a combination of the two--then the only remaining rationales for them would be those that, by definition, blame the persons at the bottom for their condition. Either their genes, their values or their cultures are somehow defective (read: inferior) to the genes, values or cultures of the dominant group. It is highly unlikely that one could believe in this worldview and yet treat persons equitably: faced with individuals who were members of groups believed to be defective for some reason, those who accept the conservative framework would be hard-pressed to really judge those individuals fairly. In this way, racism is maintained, with or without intent, so long as we explain social inequities by way of theories that cast aspersions upon those at the bottom of that society's hierarchy.

Yet it is not only conservatives and those on the right who manifest racism. Although liberal and left ideology may be more instinctively antiracist than conservative ideology, this doesn't mean that liberalism and leftism have operated in an antiracist manner, commensurate with the philosophies their adherents espouse. Indeed, in a number of ways racism at the ideological and systemic level have been furthered by liberal and left theory and practice as well. It is this subject to which I turn my attention in the second part of this essay.


(1) Signs such as this have been ubiquitous at Tea Party events and conservative rallies over the past few years, going back to before the election and since. Several examples of this blatantly racist signage can be found in my book, Colorblind: The Rise of Post-Racial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equity (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2010).

(2) See, for instance, Martin Gilens. Why Americans Hate Welfare, Jill Quadagno's The Color of Welfare, or Joseph Lowndes. From the New Deal to the New Right: Race and the Southern Origins of Modern Conservatism.

(3) Shortly after the Republican Party took over the U.S. Congress in November 1994, the Party's leadership invited Murray to speak to their delegation. In early 1995, less than six months after the publication of the Bell Curve, and while controversy about the book and its racist conclusions was still brewing, Murray delivered a presentation to a group of Congressional Republicans in Washington, D.C.

(4) United States Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Criminal Victimization in the United States 2007 - Statistical Tables, February 2010, Tables 40-48 and additional calculations by the author. In this instance, I examined the number of crimes committed by blacks, in both the single offender and multiple-offender categories, where the race of the offender was either known or knowable from the data. In other words, I excluded from consideration those crimes where the race of the perp was unknown. The next step was to divide this number by the number of African Americans in the population over the age of 12. This data can be found in Table 10 of the Statistical Abstracts of the United States, 2010, The National Data Book, see below.

(5) Bureau of the Census, Statistical Abstracts of the United States, 2010, The National Data Book, Table 85.

(6) Statistical Abstracts of the United States, 2010, Table 531.

(7) See, for instance, data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), as well as the Centers for Disease Control. All data can be found with detailed references in my book, Between Barack and a Hard Place: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2010).

Tim Wise is the author of five books and 250 essays on race and racism. His latest is Colorblind: The Rise of Post-Racial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equity (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2010).    

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Can't Wait!

Great article....I can't wait for part 2!