By Adam Johnson
What is racism? The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as the “belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to other races.” Under this definition, white people can be racist, black people can be racist – anyone can be racist, regardless of skin color.
Yet beginning in the 1960s, this definition was increasingly rejected; scores of professors in ethnic studies departments and law schools across the nation have instead put forth a new definition. For these scholars, what the dictionaries define as “racism” is considered “prejudice,” and racism is equated to prejudice plus power. This notion of “racism = prejudice + power” surely has its advantages – its ability to explain broader societal trajectories, for instance. Yet some prominent thinkers who begin with this definition of racism ultimately conclude, “only whites can be racist.”
Reading a scholarly paper that begins with the definition that “racism = prejudice + power” and concludes that “only whites can be racist” is, to say the least, an interesting intellectual exercise. After reading many of these papers, it seems as if these scholars commit the flaw of circular reasoning: they assume what they need to prove – that only whites can be racist – and tailor the definition of power accordingly. While there is not enough room here to extensively cover the derivation, at the core of the argument is the claim that only whites have power. Thus, for these scholars, an Arab state that degrades black people is not an abuse of power, as such a state falls under the broader influence of white, Western hegemony. And minorities, even the wealthiest and/or most politically connected, still remain powerless as white people established the system within which they operate.
Not only do such notions of power conflict with intuition, but this linkage of “power” and “white” is fundamentally flawed. While the history and current state of white supremacy and white privilege should not be ignored, we should not dismiss inter-minority relations as either being powerless or emanating from the white power structure. This is especially true with foreign nations. Although our world is now linked in many complex ways, there was a time when white people did not exert influence over other societies; non-white groups were at the helms of power in such societies, and it stands to reason that remnants of these power structures remain in place today.
Furthermore, while in the United States whites may have more power than minorities, it is obvious that whites do not control all levers of power. A black man is in the Oval Office, two minorities are serving on the Supreme Court, and roughly one fifth of Fortune 500 CEOs are members of racial minority groups. If we approach racism as something to be avoided, we should ask which is worse: a poor white man in Wisconsin who detests Asians, or a black president who wishes to stop Asian immigration because he perceives Asians as, say, unfit to be Americans. If we subscribe to the position that only white people can be racist, it necessarily follows that the Wisconsinite has more power than the black president. This, however, is absurd – the black president has power and is fully capable of being racist.
Besides these logical flaws, holding that only white people can be racist is detrimental to all races. It is inherently divisive, framing the struggle to attain power as whites versus everyone else. It is also disempowering to minorities. By arguing that minorities have no power with which to be racist, we forget instances in which minorities clearly do have power. My colleague Annie Graham was guilty of this in a recent op-ed. She began a column on abortion with “so these nine white guys walk into a room,” in reference to the Roe v. Wade justices. Neglected in her statement was the fact that one of the nine justices, Thurgood Marshall, was black.
While I can only hypothesize Annie’s ultimate thoughts on race relations, she has in all likelihood been exposed to the leftist communities at Stanford who advance the ideology that “only whites can be racist.” I myself was introduced to that phrase at Stanford, and in my time here I have heard it mentioned many times. Its corollary – that every decision of consequence is brought about “white guys in a room” – is also quite common. My hope is that professors in the humanities and social sciences are not propagating this ideology, yet my suspicion is that many are, or at the very least are sympathetic to it.
By giving weight to the belief that only whites can be racist, that only white people have power, we are not only being intellectually dishonest and generating racial tension, but beginning to forget the influence that minorities have exercised in guiding this and other nations. Though by all means we should not forget the struggles minorities have faced, we should also refuse to accept flawed and divisive ideology that comes at the expense of reason and equality.
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