What Is Racism?

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I got a very nice note from a reader who is engaged in on-going discussions with some folks who have been following the “kinism” debate, and she wrote to inquire if I would offer a definition of “racism.” And so here it is.

In our modern climate, the more undefined and nebulous a “vile” thing like “racism” is, the better it is for the race-mongers and race-baiters. With lack of definition, they can always nail you. Federal bureaucracy got rolling a little slowly after Katrina? Racism. Got your feelings hurt at airport security? Racism. Did Mark Twain write a book a hundred and fifty years ago that had racial epithets in it? Racism. And so on. Of course, racism inflation sets in and pretty soon the coin is completely debased. When everyone is racist, then nobody is.

This is why we need to say that the kinists have something of a point here. The word racism (which used to refer to a phenomenon as readily apparent as anything else requiring a name) has now come to be applied willy-nilly to virtually everything in the Western world. So I would be quite happy in principle to throw the word overboard as being now worthless, and refuse to use it anymore. But when we had done so, we would immediately need another word to describe those folks who really are . . . racist. And so in the meantime, we need a working definition.

I hope it is clear that the word racist should not be routinely or automatically applied to the following: someone to my political right, someone who thinks that anyone named Muhammad should receive extra scrutiny at airports, a medical researcher who believes that one race may be vulnerable to a disease that the others are not, and so on. There are many positions that are related to race that may even in fact be wrong, and yet should not be labeled racist. Nor should we label someone as a racist simply for believing that the races are different. Of course they are different. If they were not different, we wouldn’t be having this discussion because no one could tell what we were talking about.

In my book Black and Tan, I quote the philosopher David Stove who makes a very similar point when arguing against the phrase racial prejudice. When we make prejudice the problem (pre-judging), then the solution is clearly to be found in education. Ignorance is the problem; education for the humanist is always the savior. He argued that we should use the phrase racial animosity instead. Animosity is not something that can be fixed by education — it is an old-fashioned sin.

So I don’t believe the Bible identifies a particular sin called the sin of “racism.” Rather, I believe the Bible identifies two sins in particular that always arise in the sinful heart whenever we have interaction between cultures, races, castes, sexes, fifth and third graders, nations, or two Texas football rivals that shall remain unnamed lest violence break out. Those two sins are malice and vainglory respectively. Malice is hatred that is not grounded in the Scriptures. There is of course obedient hatred (which we would never think to call malicious). In this sense, it is all right to hate child abuse, genocide, and the way fundamentalist Muslims treat women. But it is not all right to hate someone simply because he is from South Dakota (or Saudi Arabia), or because his mother is French, or because his skin is darker than yours. In other words, when hatred and malice are thrown out at the world on arbitrary and autonomous grounds, not found in Scripture, then the real problem is the hatred, not the bogus reasons for it. Now people bond to the strangest things, and sometimes they bond to different kinds of antipathies. One man hates the Jews, another the blacks, another the French, and so on. The problem is the hatred — the despised race is simply the raw material they need to have in order to sin this way. They must have an enemy, they must have a cause. An edifying book to read in this regard is The True Believer by Eric Hoffer. Some of his applications are screwy, but his central point is dead on. There are people who need to have an enemy, and racial markers provide them with a handy-dandy uniform for the other side that won’t wash off.

Vainglory is simply a form of pride, and pride is the root and mother of all sins. It may not be malicious, but it is still sinful — supercilious, patronizing, or boastful, and so on. But what do you have, St. Paul says, that you did not receive as a gift? And if as a gift, then why do you boast as though you did not? Let him who boasts, Paul says, boast in the Lord.

So then, here is my working definition of racism, as long as we continue to use the word. A malicious racist is someone who directs malice, spite, or hatred toward another human being of another race because that person belongs to that other race. A patronizing racist is someone who takes personal ego credit for any superiority he may have (whether real or imagined, usually imagined) over someone who belongs to another race. Often arguments for innate genetic superiority of one race over another are not the racism itself, but are a nearly universal way of buttressing that kind of racism. But the issue is always the “personal ego credit.”

A racist, then, is someone who takes the scripturally insufficient grounds of racial differences to justify his own malice or petty pride. And those who do such things need to repent. To return to my posts about Little Geneva, I cannot imagine any basic arguments of certain whites against blacks (moral, cultural, historical, etc.) that could not have been advanced (with equal justification and force) by first-century Jews with regard to Gentiles. But Scripture rejects all such carnal “wisdom.” And despite this great and very real barrier between Jew and Gentile, the bulk of the New Testament is about their reconciliation. In this sense, racial, ethnic, and tribal reconciliation is one of the central aspects of the gospel. Those who miss it are not just missing a detail.

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