Racist Is a Tough Little Word

The definition has grown and shifted over time.

Carlos Barria / Reuters

“They dated.” What does that mean? Date is one of the more ambiguous words in American English. It can refer to anything from two people going to a movie one time to two people having a years-long sexual relationship and everything in between. Its meaning is so multifarious as to challenge any attempt to tell a foreigner what it actually refers to.

Racist has become a similarly protean term. Many of us think its meaning is obvious, but it has evolved quite a bit from its original signification over the past several decades. That’s why our punditocracy is engaged in a drawn-out battle to explain why President Donald Trump’s latest animadversions against certain congresswomen of color are racist, against his and his pals’ claims that they are not—and even why Democrats are entertaining an intraparty controversy over whether House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, of all progressive figures, is herself a racist.

When racist became common parlance, rapidly replacing prejudiced starting around 1970, it was understood mainly in its dictionary-style definition: “Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.” What sat in the memory is “It's wrong to think people are inferior because of something like their skin color, or to be mean to them because of that."

To many, it would seem to fall transparently under this definition of racist when President Trump, irritated with the leftist critiques of America from four Democratic congresswomen of color, suggests that they return to their native countries. Three, for the record, were born in the United States, and the other is a longtime citizen. Many of us hear this attack as saying that the four embody a fundamental otherness, and their true membership as “one of us” is fragile and even cancelable. But Republicans have taken umbrage at being called racist for supporting such rhetoric.

One response is that these Republicans are more offended at being called racist than at being racist. But this is oversimplified in view of how the word racist has come to figure in our language—Republican Trump supporters’ state of mind is, in its way, more layered than that. They are operating upon the unusual complexities that the word racist has accreted, in a way that allows them to at least pretend they are not racist, and possibly genuinely believe that they are not.

Make no mistake—all evidence, listed elsewhere too exhaustively to bear my repeating it here, confirms that the president is a bigot. The question is whether Trump in his recent statements is expressing that bigotry as baldly as many suppose. People claiming that Trump said nothing racist may not be exactly the sharpest knives in the drawer on questions of sociology, and Trump himself is, on that score, a plastic spoon. But the realities of the word racist lend Trump and people like him two strategic, and maybe even cognitive, outs.

One is that racist carries baggage beyond its dictionary meaning. To be a racist is considered not just a matter of bland categorization but of evil, a charge only somewhat less damning than being called a pedophile, as chilling a prospect in modern American life as being tarred as a communist was in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

As such, Trump’s refusal to apologize simply because so many of his supporters agree with him, callow as it seems, has a certain coherence. If the power of the word racist is as much in its moral sanction as in its definition, then if a critical mass of people sees no moral sanction in one’s statements, then one may conclude one is not being a racist at all.

Surely, though, what is moral is not that which is popular. According to that logic, slavery was correct in the days of yore because few questioned it. Can’t Trump see that to tell people of color to “go home” is a manifestation of exactly the disparagement of people on the basis of race that the definition entails?

However, here we run into a problem larger than Trump and his pals—that racist has morphed to refer to animus beyond the conscious and deliberate. A great deal of the race debate since the 1960s has revolved around a quest to teach Mr. and Mrs. America that racism can be covert, and can be as harmful as the old-school kind. The black criminal, lent less empathy and sympathy by whites, gets a longer sentence than a white one does for the same crime. The black couple, less familiar and seemingly less trustworthy to a nonblack dealer, gets a lesser car loan than a white couple with the same income and credit record.

Along those lines, Trump’s call for the “Squad” to “go home” reveals itself as subconsciously racialized—there is all reason to suspect he would say no such thing to a Squad composed of people of recent Danish or German ancestry. There is no evidence of Trump “othering” whites the way he does everyone else, even suggesting that Colin Kaepernick consider leaving the country. However, there exists no such Scandi-Squad, or professional sports team composed of white men refusing to stand for the national anthem, etc., whom Trump has let pass—which allows Trump and his supporters to insist that the matter is simply the Squad’s supposed lack of patriotism, and that to bring race into it is merely “playing the race card.”

Many of us are familiar with racism as a matter of bias as well as outright contempt. Trump, however, is taking advantage of the fact that this message has proved, for 50 years, distinctly difficult to make the general public fully understand.

We can’t get into Trump’s head here. He may be feigning numbness to the nuances of racist as a power ploy. Or he may genuinely not perceive the racism in his current rhetoric. I suspect he may not, for the simple reason that to imagine how he would feel about a straight-talking Finn in Congress would require a thought experiment, and nothing the man has ever said or done suggests the remotest inclination or ability to process layers, hypotheticals, or subtlety. A man clueless enough to accidentally give away to a national television reporter that he fired James Comey to detract from the investigation of his ties to Russia doesn’t do intersectionality.

Many will object that the mere utterance “Go back where you came from” has a traditional status as a racist statement, and that thus Trump “must” know the implications of what he’s saying. But Trump may well have heard people told to go back where they came from all his life without thinking it was racist at all, and that they in fact deserved it, without a thought that he wouldn’t approve of such a thing said to an Irish or German person. None will disagree that such naïveté is possible—for what reason would we assume that Trump would not exhibit it here?

Racist is a word of our times, indicative that social history does include intellectual progress. It has evolved into a word that asks of us a degree of psychological, anthropological, and sociohistorical sophistication. The absence of such sophistication is Trump’s very essence, and his comprehension of the term racist will thus ever be reluctant, flickering, and dim. Hence his standing in joyous reception of his fans shouting to send Representative Ilhan Omar home.

Democrats have run aground on another aspect of how words tend to evolve—from objective to subjective, from “That is a house” to “This is how I feel about the house.” Take hopefully: It used to only mean “with hope,” as in someone descending a staircase with the hope that the prince would fit the slipper onto her foot. But now we more commonly say “Hopefully, he will find his way,” not as in “He will find his way in hopeful spirit” but “I hope he will find his way.”

Racist has followed that path. Today, racist means not only burning a cross on someone’s lawn or even telling someone to go home, but also what feels unpleasant to someone of a race—as in what I as a person of that race don’t like. It has gone from being mean to someone to, also, what feels mean to me.

The two may seem the same, but it gets tricky. A white woman admires a black woman’s locks and asks her how she washes them; the black woman gets tired of answering such questions and feels they are intrusive, harmful. Many would instinctively extend the term racist to this interaction, despite the fact that the white woman sincerely admired the black woman’s hair and feels odd being called a racist.

Or here’s another, more extreme example: Recently, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called out Pelosi for her criticisms of the Squad as unduly demanding in their political positions. Ocasio-Cortez appended that Pelosi’s critique is of people “of color,” which is code for Pelosi being, here, racist on some level, although I presume Ocasio-Cortez thinks the racism is unintended or subconscious.

But let’s unpack the idea here that it’s inappropriate—perhaps racist in a sense—for Pelosi to single out the Squad. Do we think that if the Squad were, again, four white ladies of Scandinavian heritage with the same social-media presence that Pelosi would stay mum? Here, I suggest not—Pelosi is about party unity, not colorism.

So Ocasio-Cortez gets in that the Squad is composed of women of color. But if Pelosi would likely respond the same way to four Jill Steins, then what is the meaning of the reference to race? Is the idea that Pelosi should hold her tongue simply because the Squad members aren’t white? Ocasio-Cortez is here appealing to another 2.0 meaning of racist—that which is offensive, for any reason, to people of a race. The Squad doesn’t like Pelosi’s critique, understandably. But the question is: Is that critique “racist” because four “racial” women don’t agree with it? Here, Ocasio-Cortez and the Squad allude to the subjectified meaning of racist, which can be hard to square with the core meaning of the word (believing that people of a category are inferior).

When the Squad members feel discriminated against for being told to go home, their feelings are rooted in being genuinely discriminated against, unless Trump would tell Tiger Woods’s children, if they criticized his reign, to go “home” to their mother’s native Sweden. But Ocasio-Cortez’s coded charge against Pelosi is rooted in an idea that the racist must accept the charge simply because she has offended a person of a race. And that definition of racist goes beyond what many even many level-headed people will feel is appropriate.

Racist is a tough little word. Republicans hide behind pretending that it can mean only what it did 50 years ago, neglecting communal intellectual growth. But even Democrats can use it in a way that many will question. Just two weeks have taught us that dictionary definitions can help us little in real life.