В других новостях: Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s discriminatory interview policy was not racist. [им можно: local copy]Mayor Lori Lightfoot may have been politically tone deaf when she announced last week that she would grant one-on-one interviews on her second anniversary in office only to journalists of color. It struck many as unnecessarily polarizing at a time when she needs the city to come together.
Or she may have been politically savvy. By bluntly highlighting the lack of diversity in the City Hall press corps, she got a lot of favorable attention from the left, where voters have been unhappy with the slow pace of meaningful change in her administration.
But was it worse than that?
Fox News host Will Cain called Lightfoot’s pronouncement a “racist impersonation of Bull Connor,” and his colleague Leo Terrell called her “an overt racist” for what she’d said. A headline in the Washington Times branded her ”a raging racist” and former Democratic presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard tweeted that Lightfoot’s “blatant anti-white racism is abhorrent.”
We hear the words “racist” and “racism” a lot these days, often in contexts that tend to dilute them by rendering them equivalent to less malignant forms of discrimination.
There are other words for those offenses — bias, prejudice, bigotry, intolerance, ignorance, stereotyping — but those words fall short of sweeping moral condemnation.
It’s human nature to make assumptions about others based on superficial characteristics. For instance, you may have already rolled your eyes at the very idea of a white guy presuming to write about racism. We’re all susceptible to narrow-minded suppositions, and we always need to guard against the sorts of unfairness that they can engender.
But to apply the strongest possible word to all such acts of unfairness blurs a more useful understanding of racism: discrimination turbocharged by the power and privilege of those in the culturally dominant race. Bias with a bludgeon. Prejudice with the weight of history behind it.
It’s this definition that makes racism a grave and intolerable wrong. And one that, it’s long been argued, Black Americans, like Lightfoot, can’t logically be guilty of.
Stories describing the debate over this assertion go back more than 30 years in our news archives to accounts of the firestorm kicked up in 1990 by African American Chicago-area U.S. Rep. Gus Savage when he said, “Racism is white. There ain’t no black racism.”
In 2009, South African politician Andile Mngxitama published a book titled “Blacks Can’t Be Racist,” and his basic argument was summarized in the 2014 movie, “Dear White People,” in which an African American character says, “Prejudiced, yes, but not racist. Racism describes a system of disadvantage based on race. Black people can’t be racists since we don’t stand to benefit from such a system.”
These arguments all acknowledge that, of course, Black people and members of other groups that have been marginalized and disadvantaged in a particular society can harbor unfair preconceptions of people of other races, and they can act on related hatreds. Or they can simply favor their own choice of company in ways large and small, public and private.
But no matter how much political power or wealth certain Black individuals in America may have, their prejudicial or discriminatory acts aren’t backed by the muscle of centuries of laws and norms that have advantaged whiteness.
One counterargument to this claim relies on the primary dictionary definition of racism: “A belief that race is a fundamental determinant of human traits and capacities, and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race, as Merriam-Webster has it, adding “behavior or attitudes that reflect and foster this belief.”
Therefore, that definition suggests, since every race and ethnicity is susceptible to such beliefs, behaviors and attitudes, every race is capable of racism.
Another counterargument, advanced by Ibram X. Kendi, author of the influential book, “How to be an Antiracist,” says that the claim itself reinforces a notion of Black powerlessness and denies Black people agency in resisting racism.
New York University linguist John McWhorter worried in 2009 that dilution of the term will leave us “where we don’t have a word that we use to call people racist who actually are.” But he added hopefully that “in 100 years, when people chronicle how America got past race, the uptick in white people calling Blacks racist is going to be seen as a symptom of the end.”
Maybe so. But it’s hard to claim today that Lightfoot was leveraging the inherent power of her race when she granted one-time special access to journalists of color. Because her high office and considerable achievements notwithstanding, her race still disadvantaged her in our society.
If racism is to remain a meaningfully distinct term near the top of the hierarchy of damning accusations, it has to be more than a synonym for the less inflammatory words we already have to describe discrimination, tribalism and unjust assumptions based on skin tone.
“Racism is an institution,” actor-director Spike Lee has said.
And racists are those who actively perpetuate it.
Lightfoot’s effort last week to call attention to the need for more minority journalists in Chicago was targeted at challenging that institution, not perpetuating it.
Like what she did or not, it wasn’t racist.