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.)
Peter Beinart: By Republican standards, almost nothing is racist
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.