When Using Racist, Define Your Terms

Some reject the notion that they should apply the word consistently, without regard to whether the usage will upset their audience.

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

A long-running debate about when to use the word racist resurfaced this month, prompted by mass grappling with how to cover Donald Trump’s recent attacks on four House Democrats. Trump’s short political career includes denying that Barack Obama was born in the United States, calling for a ban on Muslim travel here, characterizing masses of Mexican immigrants as rapists, and asserting that a judge was unfit to hear a case because of his Mexican heritage.

Then he told four congresswomen of color that they should “go back” to where they’re from even though three of them were born in the United States and all four were chosen by their fellow Americans to represent them in the legislature.

Are some or all of those comments racist?

That inquiry often generates more heat than light in part because there is no broadly agreed-upon definition of racist, even if we narrow the pool from Americans generally to New York Times subscribers or NPR listeners or CBS viewers. On the subject of racism, Merriam-Webster warns, “Quoting from a dictionary is unlikely to either mollify or persuade the person with whom one is arguing.”

Absent any consensus, journalists ought to clarify which meaning they’re using in a particular article. But even when explicitly grappling with the appropriateness of using racist in coverage, journalists often make no attempt to do so.

Among the definitions that may come to mind for readers when they see the term:

  • A belief in the innate inferiority of a racial group.

  • Animus directed at someone because of the person’s racial identity.

  • Denying equal treatment to a racial group.

  • Any action, law, policy, or institution that disproportionately harms a racial group.

  • Prejudging members of a racial group or failing to treat them as individuals.

  • Any of the above applied to ethnic, religious, or national-origin groups too.

  • Any of the above, plus power over members of the target group.

This free-for-all makes it difficult, if not impossible, for everyone to be on the same page. And the lack of clarity is vexing for those of us who believe that rigor ought to be the lodestar in determining whether to use racist in a given instance.

At Vox, Matthew Yglesias recently distinguished himself by articulating exactly why he believes that Trump’s birtherism and his attacks on those members of Congress were racist. “Trump sees nonwhite Americans as not genuinely American,” he explained, “as possessing a kind of inherent foreignness regardless of where they were born and a second-class claim on citizenship.”

As he put it, “That’s the racism.”

I happen to agree with his assessment. But even if I disagreed, I would praise Yglesias’s approach. Every reader can see exactly what he meant by racist––the unequal treatment of white Americans and nonwhite Americans––and why he concluded that deploying it was fair and accurate. Dissenters can challenge his premises or his conclusion. And those following along will be clear on any disagreements rather than wondering how other people are defining their terms.

What prevents clarity? Some pundits reject the notion that they should apply the word consistently, only when appropriate, without regard to whether the usage will upset their audience (or to whether not using the word will upset their audience).

They use racist as a proxy in a larger culture war, underusing it in some situations and overusing it in others. Politically motivated obfuscators on the right issue niggling objections almost any time a Republican is labeled racist, even as they fall back on broad notions of what racism is when the term is applied to Democrats. (On talk radio, I often hear folks who object to alleged anti-Semitism only on the left, label proponents of any non-color-blind effort to remedy the legacy of Jim Crow as “the real racists,” refer to the Democratic Party as a “plantation” for black voters, and cite actions taken by Democrats decades ago as though they prove that today’s party is racist, even while rejecting the argument that Jim Crow–era policy justifies calling America a racist country today.)

Obfuscators on the left, meanwhile, adopt ever more expansive notions of what is racist; they exploit and marshal the strong stigma that racism carries to effect change or discredit adversaries. There are sometimes legitimate reasons to contest and expand the definition of racist, but members of this faction seek power, not understanding, so they stretch concepts far beyond what reason can justify.

In part because politically motivated pundits add to the confusion around an already fraught, complicated subject, earnest commentators may wish to avoid the word—instead of applying it consistently, dispassionately, when appropriate. Keith Woods, the vice president of newsroom diversity and training at NPR, wrote a column dissenting from NPR’s use of the word racist in its recent Trump coverage:

I understand the moral outrage behind wanting to slap this particular label on this particular president and his many incendiary utterances, but I disagree. Journalism may not have come honorably to the conclusion that dispassionate distance is a virtue. But that’s the fragile line that separates the profession from the rancid, institution-debasing cesspool that is today’s politics.

It is precisely because journalism is given to warm-spit phrases like “racially insensitive” and “racially charged” that we should not be in the business of moral labeling in the first place. Who decides where the line is that the president crossed? The headline writer working today who thinks it’s “insensitive” or the one tomorrow who thinks it’s “racist?” Were we to use my moral standards, the line for calling people and words racist in this country would have been crossed decades ago. But that’s not what journalists do.

We report and interview and attribute.

Woods is confusing the moral judgment that racism is bad, a matter of opinion that he and I are perfectly happy to see informing news coverage, with the analytic, amoral judgment that something is racist—that is to say, that it meets whatever definition of racism is operative in a given analysis. His position would be more coherent if he asserted that journalists should not render amoral, analytic judgments when they concern labels that are deeply contested because of their associated social stigma.

But that standard is in tension with the basic journalistic responsibility to seek and tell the truth. When journalists shy away from that responsibility, they can drift into propaganda, as when some news organizations stopped characterizing waterboarding as torture after the United States started using the tactic.

Clarity and truth-telling require the avoidance of both euphemism and concept creep—they require both using racist when warranted and resisting pressure to use the word when it is not. It can be perfectly reasonable to use bigoted, nativist, xenophobic, anti-Muslim, or anti-Mexican, or even racially charged. Terms may confer less social stigma and still be more accurate in a given case.

Americans, again, don’t all use the word racist in the same way. For some, motives are paramount. For others, beliefs are key. Still others focus on the real-world effects that words or actions have on others. The psychiatrist and blogger Scott Alexander underscored the difficulty of deciding what should or shouldn’t be labeled “racist” by crafting six short scenarios of possibly racist behavior. Coherent arguments can be marshaled for and against the designation “racist” in each scenario, but they involve fundamentally distinct phenomena.

That’s why I’m most invested in clarity, not how narrowly or broadly, how traditionally or trendily a publication or author defines racism. It is enough if articles that use racist apply a coherent, easily discernible definition. There will never be a consensus understanding of the word. So there is no better defense against obfuscators, no better safeguard against drifting into euphemism or succumbing to concept creep, than carefully defining one’s terms. And there is no better way to win back public trust than applying them rigorously.