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January 21, 2020 / Congau

The Meaning of Racism

Public discourse notoriously suffers from lack of clarity about the words and terms that are tossed around. A term that has an inherently bad connotation is turned into a word of abuse and used to discredit opponents without defining exactly what the accusation refers to and so making it impossible for the targets to defend themselves.

“Racist” is such a word. Who are the racists? Does it only refer to extremists who actually think that one race is biologically superior to another or is it alluding to subtle attitudes that subconsciously penetrate into people so that we are all basically racists? Or is it something in between?

When attempting to answer that question, I can’t just pick my favorite definition and claim that that is what it should mean. A word only has the meaning that the consensus among the speakers of the language gives to it. But in this case, is there such a consensus?

Dictionaries are supposed to reflect this consensus in their definitions, but a quick look in one of them suggests that such is not the case for this term. Dictionary.com says that “racism” is:

1“a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human racial groups determine cultural or individual achievement” 2“a policy, system of government, etc., based upon or fostering such a doctrine; discrimination” 3“hatred or intolerance of another race or other races”

However, if those were really the definitions accepted by most people the significant race related problems that exist in Western societies would not be called racism. After all, rather few people are believers in racial doctrines and most governments other than Nazi Germany and a few others don’t foster such a doctrine. Moreover, blatant hatred of other races is probably not so common as “hatred” is a very strong word.

Still, some phenomenon exists that has to do with negative attitudes against other races and causes social problems and we need a word for it. We may very well call it racism but then we must not at the same time confuse it with other latent definitions, including the ones in the dictionary just cited, that only emphasize the most extreme forms of racism. If someone is guilty of the kind of subconscious attitudes that probably all of us slip into occasionally, it is very unfair to make it sound like he is a hardcore Nazi.

Name calling doesn’t solve problems and unclear meanings don’t create awareness.

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