Several years ago I noticed a blip of articles circulating in my social circle claiming that “we are all racist.” Since racism is systemic, the theory goes, we have all internalized it to one degree or another. With this way of thinking, it makes no sense to denounce “racists,” because to do so would falsely elevate yourself to an impossible “non-racist” position. Racism is an attribute of our social world more than individuals, so the focus should be on mitigating systemic inequities rather than fighting some imaginary war against a racist “Other.” The theory resonated with me, but in the last few years the public discourse has degenerated to the point where I usually can’t figure out what people even mean when they talk about “racism” and “racists”.
This Vox article (link below) takes a stab at defining cognitive differences between “conservatives” and “liberals” in how they define and respond to racism. The article is about a kid who said a bunch of nasty racist epithets a few years ago, resulting in Harvard rescinding his admission this year. But that context doesn’t matter so much for the present question:
The conservative view of racism treats it as a personal failing, a set of explicitly held ideas and attitudes that reflect outright animus toward a group of people. You can get over your racism by repudiating it and embracing a “colorblind” view of the world, striving not to let race affect the way you speak and act.
In this view, the real threat isn’t the racist comments themselves — which can be overcome — but the impulse to punish people for them. If you penalize people for every past politically incorrect comment, the logic goes, then people will have no room to grow. You might even punish the innocent.
Liberals and leftists, meanwhile, see racism as a structural problem, reflected in both social institutions and deeply ingrained, arguably unshakable biases that can lead even people who firmly believe in ideals of equal treatment to act or speak in prejudiced ways. Addressing the consequences of racism requires work, effort, and vigilance.
When you approach the situation through that lens, Kashuv looks less like a kid who made youthful mistakes and more like a young man who’s trying to escape responsibility for his actions, and his attempt to minimize his comment by saying they were designed for shock value is part of the problem. “Ironic” racism is still real racism; the fact that the comments are roughly two years old isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card.
This article bugs me because it seems to describe two liberal
views of racism that are not mutually exclusive. The alleged conservative and liberal distinctions are both aspects of the “everyone is racist” viewpoint that I described at the outset of this post. A truly conservative view of racism would be somewhere between indifference and endorsement of racial inequities. What is alleged to be a conservative vs liberal clash sounds to me like a viewpoint at war against itself.
The real divide is not “conservative racists” vs “liberal anti-racists,” rather it’s a clash over whether we’re fighting “racism” or “racists,” not realizing that latter includes ourselves. Conservative Parkland survivor Kyle Kashuv’s fight with Harvard, explained
A teen conservative activist got in trouble for past racist comments. Then he lost his Harvard admission over it — and ignited a national controversy.