Racism, Racialism, Racial Essentialism: Does Race By Any Other Name Smell Just As Sour?

In my last post, “‘Diversity’ Rests on Racialist Assumptions,” I linked an essay of mine that had just appeared on Minding The Campus.

In the process of writing and revising that piece I had an interesting (at least to me) debate of sorts with good friends who share my interest in word usage (but not my rather formalist, some would say schoolmarmish, attitude), and so I’ve decided to share its highlights (or lowlights) here. I am well aware, however, that this interest is far from universal, and so you should feel free to stop reading now. I realized a long time ago that not everyone reads the oracular Chicago Manual of Style for fun. (If you too are interested in that sort of thing, you’ll enjoy a recent article in The Weekly Standard, “The Dictionary and Us.”)

I’m not sure where my interest in style and usage came from, but wherever it was it was long ago. I made sure that daughter Jessie learned the importance of the serial comma right after she started reading (at 3½), which was not long before she solved Fermat’s Theorem. (OK, that was an exaggeration, but not by very much.)

Once I even managed to find a job based on this interest. As I wrote here,

I once had an odd job (in several respects) working on a revision of the Thesaurus of ERIC Descriptors, a companion to the Education Resources Information Center (a part of the National Institute of Education) database of educational literature. This was back when political correctness was just getting launched in a big way, and indeed one of the reasons for that particular revision of the Thesaurus was to dump newly politically incorrect terms such as “handicapped” for their politically correct replacements, such as “disabled.”
I had, and still have, serious problems with this effort to police the language, and, in fact, the transition from “handicapped” to “disabled” nicely reveals one of them, the ignoring of plain meaning.
If you were lost, driving alone in an old car on an isolated mountain road late at night, would you rather be in a car that was handicapped or disabled? (The Oxford American Dictionary that’s built into my Powerbook’s operating system says of handicapped that it means “having a condition that markedly restricts one’s ability to function.” The verb “disable,” by contrast, means “put out of action,” and its thesaurus entry refers to “incapacitated,” “paralyzed,” “immobilized,” etc.)

My current disagreement with my friendly critics is similar to the handicapped v. disabled issue. My preferred term for the argument I made in my Minding The Campus essay is racialist, but my critics replied with some force that “no one uses racialist anymore,” that it has been subsumed under and replaced by racist, so that “the reader would automatically assume racist [since racialist] is simply not in use anymore.”

Well, aside from the fact that I used it (What am I? A potted plant?), it is simply not true that “no one” uses it anymore. And one of the main reasons it is still in use is that, while often it is used as a synonym for racist, many times it has a different meaning, a meaning captured by respected dictionaries:

  • Merriam Webster Online
    • Racialism: “a theory that race determines human traits and capacities.”
    • Racism: “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.” (Emphasis added)
  •  American Heritage Dictionary
    • Racialism:
      a. An emphasis on race or racial considerations, as in determining policy or interpreting events.
      b. Policy or practice based on racial considerations.
      c. Chiefly British Variant of racism
    • Racism:
      1. The belief that race accounts for differences in human character or ability and that a particular race is superior to others.
      2. Discrimination or prejudice based on race.

Springer, publisher of “more than 2,900 journals and 290,000 books,” also recognizes the difference between the two words, one of its authors noting in “Was the British Empire racialist or racist?” that “Racialism was thus a term used to describe differences between races. Racism, by contrast, is a belief that some races are inherently superior, and that others are inferior and those races therefore require different treatment.”

No less an authority than former Harvard professor and U.S. Senator Daniel Moynihan (who knew something about race) was also fond of the distinction. Writing on “The New Racialism” in The Atlantic in 1968, he noted that “The liberals have been confusing their vocabulary, talking of ‘racism’ when they mean ‘racialism.’”

The danger is that we shall see the emergence of a new racialism. Not racism … that has as its indispensable central intent ‘the assumption that psychocultural traits and capacities are determined by biological race and that races differ decisively from one another’ (Webster’s Third New International Dictionary)…. Yet there is a strong, and persisting, phenomenon of racialism…. Writing in a 1935 issue of Race, E. Franklin Frazier, for example, referred to W. E. B. DuBois’s then current proposal that the Negro build a cooperative industrial system in America as “racialism.” There is nothing mystical about racialism; it is simply a matter of one group not liking another group of evidently antagonistic interests. It is a profoundly different position from that of racism, with its logic of genocide and subordination. And it does no service whatever to this polity to identify as racist attitudes that are merely racialist and which will usually, on examination, be found to have essentially a social class basis.

True, that was written 50 years ago, but I doubt that Senator Moynihan would have written that passage any differently if he were alive today. In fact, because of the explosive growth of the racialism he lamented since 1968 I suspect he would have doubled down on the distinction. Consider this eerily prescient passage from that same article:

That which was specifically forbidden by the Civil Rights Act is now explicitly (albeit covertly) required by the federal government. Employers are given quotas of the black employees they will hire, records of minority-group employment are diligently maintained, and censuses repeatedly taken. In universities in particular the cry has arisen for racial quotas roughly representative of population proportions, in both university faculties and student bodies, and the proposal is most ardently supported by those who would have themselves considered most advanced in their social thinking. It would seem altogether to be expected that this process will continue, and come to be applied to all the most visible institutions of the land, starting, of course, with those most sympathetic to social change, and therefore most vulnerable to such pressure, and gradually, grown more legitimate, extended to the more resistant centers.

The point — or at least my point — is precisely not that proponents of racial preferences are racists, that they believe blacks and Hispanics are inferior. Harvard does not restrict the number of Asians it admits (by assigning them lower personal qualities than others) because it regards them as inferior but the opposite: on all objective measures — grades, test scores, extracurricular activities — their credentials are stronger than those from other groups (assuming with the racialists  for a moment that Asians and whites and blacks and Hispanics really are members of distinct groups). It simply doesn’t want too many of them, which would make it difficult to have “enough” blacks or Hispanics. Preferentialists, however, are definitely racialists, believing as they do that race is central to identity, that a sufficient number of racial minorities must be admitted to selective institutions so that others can have the benefit of being exposed to the difference they are believed to embody.

Still, my critics do have an unfortunately valid point. Racialist as a term is now widely thought to be nothing more than a fancy way of saying racist, especially by the British as noted above by the American Heritage Dictionary. Consider this from the BBC:

Merged Meaning
So do racialism and racism mean the same thing? Yes, says John Simpson, editor of the Oxford English Dictionary Online. They didn’t start out that way, but they are now considered one in the same.
Racialism and racialist are older terms, dating from the early 20th Century. When the words were first used in the early 1900s, they loosely referred to semi-anthropological theories about biological differences among races.
It was a way that people tried to legitimise racist beliefs and practices, but over the years scientists rejected such theories.

Note, however, the not so subtle strain of political correctness that has now crept into — and perhaps become a dominant strain — of what may have become the new lexicographical orthodoxy as pronounced by Oxford. That becomes even clearer in similar conclusions offered by, say, the “Lingua Franca” column in the Chronicle of Higher Education (“Racists and Racialists — and What’s the Difference”) and various internet sages such as the better editor:

You might still be ready to treat racism and racialism as different things. You probably shouldn’t.
The idea of applying racial distinctions to human beings is anachronistic, if not outright offensive. The concept of “race” has long been discredited scientifically.
Whether or not “the concept of race” has been discredited as thoroughly as our lexicographical sages insist, there is a perfectly coherent and even necessary meaning of racialist that is lost when the term is subsumed under racism. Indeed, one of the most damaging effects of allowing political correctness to police the language is that when you can’t say some things, some important things don’t get said.
In this case, to say that racialism is indistinguishable from racism is to lose sight of the way it is a synonym for the entirely different concept of racial essentialism. From the American Psychological Association:
Essentialism is the view that certain categories (e.g., women, racial groups, dinosaurs, original Picasso artwork) have an underlying reality or true nature that one cannot observe directly. Furthermore, this underlying reality (or “essence”) is thought to give objects their identity, and to be responsible for similarities that category members share.
Applied to race, essentialism is the essence of racialism … and it is quite often not racist at all.
Consider, for example, the beginning of Rick Moody’s recent review of a new book on James Brown in the New York Times:

You know what? It’s an undeniable truth that when African-American writers write about African-American musicians, there are penetrating insights and varieties of context that are otherwise lost to the nonblack music aficionados of the world, no matter how broad the appeal of the musician under scrutiny. For example, I never feel that I am learning as much about the mood and meaning of jazz than when I am reading Stanley Crouch, notwithstanding the excellence of Gary Giddins. Another of my own formative music writers was Nelson George, whose columns in The Village Voice in the late 1980s ruminated on and elevated black music — funk, soul and hip-hop — in ways that were inaccessible to white writers, no matter how much those writers appreciated the tunes. This contemporary tendency in which black writers lay claim to the discourse of black music — this increasing tendency — is a much needed development for anyone who cares about modern music.

George Packer has a long, utterly persuasive critique of Moody’s argument in the New Yorker, under the revealing title “Race, Art, and Essentialism.” But he does not claim Moody’s argument is racist, and my point is that it is a good example of racialism, assuming as it does that race is central both to the creation and the deepest comprehension of music and art.

Now, to bring this back to where I began, my Minding The Campus essay was highly critical of the extreme emphasis and effort the University of New England devoted to producing minority heal professionals because, it claimed,  “minority populations have better health outcomes when they are cared for by health professionals with similar backgrounds.” Aside from the fact that Maine’s population is less than 2% black, two of the black health professionals were from Cameroon and one, who is brown, not black, is from India. Thus claiming they have “similar backgrounds” to Maine’s blacks is, as I argued, both preposterous and quintessentially racialist.

But it is not racist, and anyone insisting that I use the term racist instead of racialist would have me making an accusation I do not believe and did not intend. Similarly, when soon to be Justice Sonia Sotomayor said she thought that “a wise Latina woman” would reach “a better conclusion” that “a white male,” she was being a fatuous racialist, not an offensive racist.

In short, as a form of essentialism racialism is rather like national character: one does not have to believe that the French are superior or inferior to Americans or Germans to believe they are different. And like nationalism it can be offensive, or not, but it is just as wrong to equate it with white nationalism, as some progressives insist, as it is to equate racialism with racism.


Say What?