Avery Tooley has some good thoughts on racism, or perhaps it would be better to say racisms. I agree with a lot of what he says (but not about the N-word; he's right that whether the word is bad depends on context, but I don't think anyone in this country is in a context where it's robbed of its demeaning implications). What struck me especially was his suggestion that our language is just impoverished. We don't have a fine-grained enough sense of the different sorts of things that people will call racism so that we can easily distinguish them. He gives various examples, and I could give lots more. I think people have tried to remedy this by coming up with terms like 'institutional racism'. Mainstream academics who work on this issue insist on calling something racism when they know full well that no malice is meant and no lower view of anyone is involved, but then when they have to clarify they say it's institutional rather than atittudinal racism.
So the vocabulary is there. They just don't make such distinctions when saying things in the moment, and many of the people seen as civil rights leaders by the black community make the same mistake. They call structures in society racist. They call innocent but racially harmful practices racist. They just don't usually clarify what they mean, and the way it's usually heard seems obviously false to most white people listening to them. But what's striking to me is that you can use the same sort of linguistic practice to declare racist what Avery describes as the assumption "that Black people should be some monolithic entity and all hold identical ideological positions, or be in the same political party". This assumption is common enough within the black community and especially fundamental for many liberal whites, at least in my experience.
But there's this standard linguistic practice in calling the hiring of one's friends racist, on the grounds that if whites have fewer black friends they'll hire fewer blacks, which is a negative effect even if it's innocently done. Why, then, do so many people who take more liberal views on race issues get so upset when conservatives say that it's racist to call black conservatives House Negroes or to say that Clarence Thomas isn't really black? [Hat tip: Sam] It seems to me that a good argument can be made that it involves the same sorts of institutional and social assumptions that involve racially harmful consequences, and if that's what it takes to be institutionally racist then these things are institutional racist. If it's ok to abbreviate that as racism, then it's racism. You can't have it both ways. I understand Avery's point. He thinks we should stop calling both things racism and come up with a new term (or perhaps just insist on using the modifier 'institutional'). That would be fine. Given that it doesn't take place, I'll happily say that the suggestion that my wife is a House Negro a racist suggestion, even if it's held from a heartfelt conviction that she's harming her own people by voting Republican.