When Is It Right to Call Someone 'Racist'?

And when is it used as a label to discredit opponents?

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Over at The Wall Street Journal, a conversation about Rand Paul has morphed into a multi-person hashing out of the meaning of "racism." Is the word "racist" best reserved for describing true white supremacists, or is it useful to have on hand for labeling more subtle prejudices, as many people do now? If the latter, how do we keep the word from being abused, employed as a tool to dismiss individuals and shut down debate? Here's the disagreement as it unfolded:

  • The Wall Street Journal's James Taranto: Kicking off the debate, Taranto takes issue with Joan Walsh's position on Rand Paul at Salon. "It's possible," writes Taranto, "... that Paul's eccentric views on civil rights will harm the Republican Party by feeding the left's claims that America is a racist country and the GOP is a racist party. Certainly that's what Salon's Joan Walsh is hoping."
  • Salon's Joan Walsh, responding: Reacting partly to Taranto, partly to others, Walsh writes that she is "coming to regret using the term 'racist' about the Tea Party." The problem with "racism" is that it's a "personal insult, and it's almost as impossible to prove it as to disprove it. It's not a terribly illuminating term, either: If you call me a racist, you haven't really described anything I've done that's objectionable. You've just somehow designated me, and my so-far unchallenged arguments, outside the pale, so to speak."
  • Taranto, refining the debate, referring to liberal uses of term: "It seems to us," says Taranto, "that the term racism is both unobjectionable and useful when limited to its original definition: racial supremacy or invidious racial prejudice." What he objects to is "the pernicious practice of falsely imputing racism to one's opponents in order to discredit them--a practice so common among liberals that entire academic subspecialties are devoted to it."
  • Ann Althouse, pointing to some problems with Taranto's definition: The law professor and blogger isn't wild about Taranto "resort[ing] to the dictionary ... to tell us what 'racism' means. It's a restrictive definition that preserves the strong pejorative. This is like restricting 'sin' to the truly terrible things that other people do, which allows you to maintain a pious sense that of course you are one of the good people." It removes the feeling of racism as "a much more pervasive phenomenon that we should all contemplate in an honest and self-critical way." On the other hand, she acknowledges that the term is often used "to assault ... political opponents," rather than for self-examination. Here are the questions, she says: "What is useful? What is helpful?"
  • Taranto on racism as original sin: Taranto reemphasizes that "in [his] experience, whites who embrace the notion of white guilt almost never do so in the self-critical spirit of which Althouse approves. Rather, they affirm their own virtue by pointing an accusatory finger at others." He's also intrigued by Althouse's summary of his position by equating "racism" with "sin." In his view, white guilt comes very close to the concept of original sin by positing that "we're all racist." The problem with that, he argues, lies in two areas: "First, it encourages those who see the chief purpose of government policy in this area as changing the way people think," which can end up being used for intolerant purposes as well. Second, "it makes it harder to understand our history ...if 'racism' is just a universal human shortcoming, then what was the point of condemning Jim Crow?"
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.