A little less than a year ago, I pleaded with African Americans to stop using the word “racism” as a kneejerk response to any sort of problematic situation or behavior. As a way of demonstrating how possible it is, I vowed to abstain from using “the r-word” for at least a year, as a way of doing my part to tone down the rhetorical flame wars that have come to dominate contemporary political conversation.
My point in doing so was not to deny that racism exists, but rather, by temporarily banishing it, to allow the term “racism” to be reserved only for situations that truly call for it. The truth is that while racism still exists in various forms today, trying to call it out without subscribing to a commonly held and understood definition becomes problematic as racial dynamics in the United States of America continue to evolve. In other words, what racism is and looks like to me may be different from what it is and how it looks to you … if we can’t get that ironed out, how can we solve the race problem as it currently exists?
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Today, I’ve broken my vow.
I’m sorry that I couldn’t go the whole year. I wanted to. Really, I did.
I probably would’ve been in the clear had I not read about the senseless vehicular homicide of James Craig Anderson in Jackson, Mississippi. According to eyewitness accounts and video footage, Anderson had been beaten severely by at least two young White males (whose names I will not dignify by referencing here), who had set out with the intent of bringing harm to the first Black person they ran across. And after one of them had left the scene, the other one literally ran over the victim with his truck … then bragged about it later at a local McDonald’s.
Let me say this slowly, so as not to be misunderstood.
THAT. WAS. RACIST.
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That’s not all it is, of course. It’s also the work of a sociopath, whose behavior shocked his friends enough to cause one of them to lie when asked if she knew the assailant, and who, according to a local pastor,
But make no mistake; this crime was mostly about racism.
The most sociologically accepted definition of racism is that it consists of race prejudice plus power.
The reason why the “plus power” part is added in there is because charges of racism are usually too easily dismissed by people who claim immunity because no one can see inside the heart. People in the public eye accused of racism, according to Jay Smooth of ill doctrine, usually try to turn public attention away from what they did and tend to frame the issue around who they are (“I’m not a racist! That’s not who I am!”).
Focusing on what a person did is usually a better way to resolve minor incidents, because the alternative is combing through the racial history of everyone who ever makes a racially insensitive comment or forwards a racist email, and nobody has that kind of time.
But in this particular crime, context matters. And you don’t have to be a regular on CSI to know that these crimes were, well … racist as hell.
If it had taken place in rural Oregon or Montana, I might’ve been willing to view this crime only as a momentary lapse in judgment. But the troubled racial history of Mississippi, too numerous to even attempt to recount here, casts an ominous light on this whole affair. The rest of the details just fill in the blanks.
Fundamentally, the beating and subsequent homicide of James Craig Anderson was the result of two White males, accompanied by friends, using their locus of power to inflict pain and suffering on, quite literallythe first Black person they saw. It was about them feeling entitled to inflict such pain by virtue of their racial identity, and expecting to get away with it for the same reason.
And whether or not it should be considered a hate crime, or whether or not hate crimes are a necessary classification in our criminal justice system… all of that is beside the point.
The point is this:
If THAT isn’t racist, then just forget it … the word no longer exists.
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Now that I’ve spent hundreds of words stating the obvious, it’s worth reiterating my previous stance.
If we as Black people can tamp down on our use of the word “racism” as a catch-all equivalent to “wrongdoing by White people,” it will help to promote more effective communication from people across various ideological and racial boundaries.
But it’s also necessary for an entirely different reason.
The blight of institutional racism is a tragic stain on American history, and it is cheapened every time we apply that word to conflicts and incidents of a vastly inferior magnitude.
Especially when we do it over the Internet.
The repeated rhetorical equivalency of heinous crimes with comical misunderstandings has produced such a climate of jaded skepticism on the internet that the very phrase, “that’s racist” has morphed into a caricatured catchphrase meme, complete with its own alternative spelling (“thassraycess!”).
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If the latest horrific crime in Jackson has taught us anything, it’s that THIS is the real legacy of racism in America.
So like I said, I’m sorry I couldn’t go the full year.
But I’m sorry to say, some of us Black folks couldn’t go a whole month, or even a whole week, without complaining about racism. And if those complaints are about something trivial, like whether or not Chris Brown gets the same kind of media coverage as Charlie Sheen, we ought to keep our mouths shut.