'Racism' can be defined in two ways. The more common understanding of the term among white people is that a racist is someone who has a demeaning or hateful attitude toward someone of another race. This is called personal racism. The problem with this definition is that it doesn't capture attitudes, policies, or practices that don't stem from personal racism but do have a negative impact on a racial group, particularly one that's been historically demeaned, hated, or harmed. So 'racism' is then used more broadly to include what's called institutional racism, which is any attitude, policy, or practice that does in fact have such negative effects, even if not intended. Now I don't agree with Howard Dean that this kind of racism is the only kind of racism worth talking about (in fact, I think it's less important for racial issues today than some other issues that don't get their fair share of time). However, I do think these are an issue, and I think we need to spend more time thinking outside the Democratic box about which attitudes, policies, and practices do this. Here's a good example of what I'm talking about (from Matthew Stinson):
Apparently the idea is the Condoleeza Rice is an Uncle Tom. Maybe there's more going on here than just that, but that's at least part of the idea. It strikes me as odd that anyone could even think this, given two facts: A. She is incredibly smart. Her thoughts on many issues of foreign policy have been widely cited as innovative, unusual, and not just towing a conservative party line. In fact, her arrival at conservative views was a later-in-life move. She was convinced of it by arguments. B. She has voiced her disagreement with President Bush or other Republicans on a number of issues. One is on affirmative action. I think she takes the wrong view on the issue, though I'm not sure Bush has the right reasons for the right view, but the fact that she voiced her disagreement signals something about her thought that is independent of the Bush Administration (even if it's dependent on so-called black leaders' rhetoric). Additionally, she was one of the key figures to chime in calling for Trent Lott's resignation. She's certainly not a "defend the Republicans in spite of my own convictions" type. Now why all the introductory comments on racism? This ad is racist. It's not racist in having a negative attitude toward black people per se. The negative attitude is toward one black person who serves in a Republican administration. What seems racist about this is that it's in a long line of such actions. I've had students tell me in a philosophy class that Colin Powell isn't black. Clarence Thomas, J.C. Watts, Thomas Sowell, Shelby Steele, John McWhorter, and other prominent black thinkers who have sided with conservatives on key race issues all face this sort of name-calling. Why is this racist? I have numerous reasons for this. 1. Steele and McWhorter, among others, have given some very good reasons for thinking affirmative action is very harmful to black people. The Supreme Court conservatives on this issue say that it's unconstitutional because it's unfair to white and Asian students. These guys have more sophisticated (and I think better) reasons to oppose it, and those reasons come right out of the desire to see black students do well in school. If affirmative action holds black students back, then of course it's not being an Uncle Tom to suggest that it should be gotten rid of. Thomas Sowell has also argued for more general points about cultural issues behind the disparity between blacks and whites in the U.S. and directs people to focus on those to move toward progress. The attitude that these people are Uncle Toms prevents looking at whether these arguments are good and therefore will continue to harm black people if it turns out that their conclusions are correct (as I think they are). 2. The assumption behind this ad is that black people can be Democrats if they care about black people. If they side with the Republicans, then they're Uncle Toms. This assumes that black people can't think for themselves and decide whether the Democrats' policies are helping black people or holding them back. Saying that someone is only truly black or only truly seeking black concerns if they toe some party line is more like an encouragement to Uncle Tommish behavior, except it's Uncle Tomming the Democrats and not the Republicans. 3. One assumption of this sort of labeling is that there's some "white culture" that black people need to be separate from. The idea is that anything true of mainstream culture is non-black. This fails to recognize the significant impact black people's achievements have had on mainstream culture. It is not therefore a white culture but a culture that's been influenced by many cultural backgrounds, including those of black people (and I do mean the plural here). This robs black people of the credit for the hand they've played in American culture. 4. Perhaps even worse is the effect that this has on black people's attitude toward that society that they are very much a part of. There's a tendency that I have observed first-hand to blame this fictional white culture on any slight or harm, since after all it is not a mainstream culture that black people are part of. It's then seen as white people against black people. This turns into a negative attitude toward the fictional white culture and therefore toward the average white person. When the average white person then has to interact with someone who is antagonistic and separatist for what seems like no good reason, it often leads to negative consequences. When people then make hiring decisions based on how well they got along with those they interviewed, this antagonism is often noticed, and it's often blamed on white racist hiring policies or attitudes, when it's just as easily explained by an illegitimate bad attitude on the part of the job candidate. 5. The idea that anything true of mainstream culture is non-black has led to a separatism has in turn led to the desire not to achieve in school, since that is a "white" thing. Therefore it has led to anti-intellectualism among black people, as much an Uncle Tom feature as anything else. The peer pressure that results continues the low achievement in school among black people, and it even leads to silliness among those who do reach graduate school and can't bring themselves to do serious work that might be viewed as mainstream out of the perception that it would be doing white Uncle Tom work. This holds back black intellectuals from doing good work and having their hands in elements of society important to us all simply because they don't see how it will help black culture in terms of its relation to what they think of as white culture. 6. The particular wording of the ad is worth noting. "I'm fighting for Whitey! He trusts me to take charge on the front lines!" Aside from the racist assumptions of white culture I noted above, this seems completely counter-productive. President Bush has the most diverse cabinet in history. What's especially interesting about this cabinet is not just its ethnic diversity but that some of the people who aren't ethnically like Bush are also not necessarily like him in their views. It's true that Elaine Chao and Spencer Abraham, both minorities, are more traditional conservatives, at least on the issues their departments deal with. Rod Paige is more complicated than that, though he does tend to be more Bushlike. His differences with traditional conservatives are one of the main differences between old-style Republican policies and the new compassionate conservatism. I've already noted Rice's differences, and Powell's aren't that different on race issues, though both emphasize personal responsibility and drive to achieve on the part of blacks, which most Democrats won't bother to include as legitimate issues. Powell also has been the odd man out when his realist foreign policies have lost out to Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld's more neoconservative ideas (though the extent to which this has happened has, I believe, been overstated). Mel Martinez is apparently worrisome to many conservatives, who seem to prefer Katherine Harris as a senate candidate. Then we get to Norm Mineta, who of course is a Democrat and served as Secretary of Commerce under President Clinton. Given the diversity of this cabinet, both ethnically and in some important ways ideologically, I think President Bush should be commended for doing exactly what Howard Dean says is the only thing we need to do. Dean thinks the main problems with race in this country have to do with insitutional racism, which in his mind includes the serious problems black people have in getting into positions of power and influence. President Bush has made far more efforts in that area than any of his predecessors, including President Clinton. The tactic of belittling Condoleeza Rice for being part of a Republican administration is putting Republicans in a catch-22. If they don't appoint minorities to these positions, then they're contributing to institutional racism. If they pick thoughtful, intelligent minorities who are somewhat like-minded but even have significantly independent views, then these people get labeled as Uncle Toms. The fact that President Bush picked these people shows that he does in fact trust them, and isn't that a sign that racial problems are diminishing? To reframe this in the opposite direction is moving race relations backward. For these reasons and probably a number of others that aren't immediately coming to mind, I see the attitudes behind this poster as a serious harm to black people in the United States today. Therefore, according to the definition of 'racist' that liberal intellectuals like to use so frequently, the ad is quite racist.