Racism Is As Racism Does

My new column at TPMCafe offers a more considered take of the issues raised by Jonathan Chait in his long discussion of racial politics at New York magazine on Monday. My main concern was to separate subjective racist feelings from objectively racist policies and political messages, and deny those promoting the latter from some blanket immunity based on their asserted (and often quite genuine) innocence of racially-charged motives.

Like a lot of bad ideas and bad behaviors, “racism” is not a purely subjective phenomenon. There are arguably racist political strategies, racist messages, and racist policies that can be advanced by non-racists. Determining what is objectively racist is a matter of judgment, empirical evidence, and ultimately opinion.

So no, we can’t just stop talking about race and racism out of fear of offending conservatives. And furthermore, we need to recognize that all the passion and anger characterizing contemporary political discourse is not primarily caused by overheated rhetoric or careless use of epithets like “racist,” but by genuine and important differences of opinion. That’s true of racial issues like everything else.

UPDATE: My TPMCafe piece mentioned National Review‘s Kevin Williamson as making a historical argument that reinforced the “plantation” meme for the welfare state. Turns out Williamson wrote a later column specifically criticizing the “plantation” metaphor. I regret the error of omission.

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.