Labels, or, Why It is Not Helpful to Call Someone a Racist

In both the media and public discourse, the question of whether a particular public figure “is a racist” is an extremely common one. Is Justin Bieber a racist? Is Donald Sterling a racist? Is George W. Bush a racist? Is Barack Obama a racist? Is Paula Deen a racist? Is Cliven Bundy a racist? Is George Zimmerman a racist? Is Miley Cyrus a racist?

For several reasons, I do not think this is a helpful question.

One reason is that — in at least one sense of the term — pretty much everyone is a racist. By this I mean that, inadvertently or otherwise, people often treat other people differently because of race. Consider a few examples of research from the past few months. One study found that law firm partners who were asked to evaluate a writing sample gave it significantly higher ratings when they thought the author was white than when they thought the author was black, even though the resume attached to the writing sample was identical in both instances. Another study of 6500 professors at 259 different colleges and universities found that professors respond more frequently and more positively to requests for mentorship from male students with white-sounding names than they do to identically-phrased requests from female students and students with non-white-identified names. Still another study found that twice as many drivers failed to yield for black pedestrians at crosswalks versus white pedestrians, and that black pedestrians waited on average 1/3 longer to cross the street at crosswalks.

Again, these are just a few examples from the past few months. I could list literally thousands more, but I won’t because this is a blog post. And while some people might devote effort to poking holes in any individual study, at some point the most straightforward explanation — Occam’s razor, if you will — is simply that implicit racial bias exists and that it affects most, and perhaps all, people in at least some situations.

I think it’s beyond fine — even valuable — for people to admit that they are susceptible to the same cognitive biases that most people share. Indeed, it’s much better than the alternative, which is to claim that “I don’t see race” or “I don’t care about race.” Rather than insisting that they aren’t prey to the implicit biases that a huge quantity of expert-designed studies have demonstrated, people should simply acknowledge that everyone experiences such biases in some situations and think about constructive measures one could take to counteract or correct for those biases.

Another reason it’s not helpful to argue over whether someone is a racist is that it focuses attention on the person rather than on particular instances of behavior. It’s far more productive to ask “is this a racist comment?” or “is this a racist grooming policy?” or “is this a racist lending practice?” than it is to ask whether the person who made the comment or developed the grooming policy or implemented the lending practice is a racist. Discussing whether the person who engaged in the behavior “is a racist” opens the door to a wide-ranging debate over that person’s character and makes it more likely that irrelevant issues will distract from the specific behavior in question. For instance, asking whether someone is racist often prompts them to invoke the “non-white friend” defense or to claim that they “didn’t mean to” offend anyone or hurt anyone. Whether someone has friends of other races, or whether they intentionally engaged in racially discriminatory behavior, is beside the point for social purposes even if not necessarily for legal ones.

Yet another reason the question of whether someone is a racist is unhelpful is that the word “racist” brings with it connotations of white hoods, burning crosses, lynchings, internment camps, and hate crimes. This is not to say that no one in America is an apologist for these atrocities. Indeed, an unfortunate number of people are, as I learned firsthand from the emails I received when this blog attracted the attention of a white supremacist website.

But many of the people who are accused of being racist are not bad people. They are genuinely appalled by these shameful chapters in our history, and horrified at the idea of association with them. Saying that these people are racists is a distraction. It precludes more productive conversations about implicit bias and structural racial inequality. Arguing over whether to label someone a racist often means that far more consequential grievances about race discrimination will get less attention, and, perhaps, won’t be addressed at all.

To be clear, my point is not that we should cater to the feelings of people who say or do racist things. My point is that there is very little to be gained by labeling a person a racist. Focusing on more nuanced aspects of racial inequality will do far more to produce the changes that our society needs.

Finally, I think that labeling people as “racist” is unhelpful because it implies that people can’t change. It’s more helpful to talk about race discrimination as the product of conscious or subconscious decisions and/or behaviors, because to do so simultaneously suggests productive solutions. Make better decisions. Change the problematic behavior.

The distinction I am drawing may seem slight, but I think that there are real consequences for the way we think and talk about race. Race remains of the most difficult topics of conversation in our society, and seemingly small changes create significant opportunities for improved discourse.