Over the years, I’ve heard well-meaning people argue that events including the LAPD’s beating of Rodney King, the questioning of Barack Obama’s birth certificate, and the slaying of Trayvon Martin have nothing to do with race or racism. The impulse to deny or minimize racism, to contrive any other explanation (Occam’s razor be damned) for even the most racially charged incidents, is an ongoing, pernicious feature of American life. And it provokes a necessary backlash from folks who want fellow citizens to see what is in front of their noses.

Anti-racism has its own excesses at the opposite extreme—that Oberlin’s dining hall serves inauthentic sushi, for instance, is not an example of racism in American life, and such claims only make it more difficult to win hearts and minds.

But those excesses do nothing to alter more important realities: that police culture in cities like Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland, has disproportionately harmed and brutalized African Americans for decades; that Joe Arpaio spent years violating the civil rights of Hispanics in Maricopa, County, Arizona; that innocent Muslims are routinely targeted in hate crimes, especially after terrorist attacks; that most Jewish journalists I know are taunted with anti-Semitism on Twitter; that white supremacists have recently slaughtered people at a Sikh temple and an African American church; that many African Americans continue to feel the burdens of decades of racist housing policies that plundered their wealth; that the president of the United States lashed out at Mexicans, Mexican Americans, and Muslims in a campaign where he deliberately stoked ethnic tensions.

Little wonder that many have a hair-trigger reaction whenever they perceive that a commentator is blind to prejudice or going to absurd lengths to minimize its existence. Yet as sympathetic as I am to the corrective impulse, I fear one of its manifestations is preventing people from grasping insights crucial to the anti-racist project.

* * *

Earlier this week, Charlie Sykes, host of the WNYC show Indivisible, interviewed me about the role that conservatives play as Donald Trump and his coalition take power. We discussed the work of Karen Stenner, a leading scholar of authoritarianism, who warned in her 2005 book that academic and political elites too often fail to recognize the difference between conservatives and authoritarians.

In her taxonomy, authoritarians have a perhaps innate discomfort with difference that causes them to prefer sameness even if coercive measures are needed to enforce it. Conservatives, in contrast, are averse to change or to intervention in the economy.

Under the right circumstances, in this model, conservatives can act as a bulwark against authoritarianism, as when George W. Bush stressed that Muslim are not the enemy of the United States, or when National Review’s Ian Tuttle laments “the alt-right president.”

But conflating these “largely distinct predispositions” creates “needless skepticism and resistance” among conservatives who are “quite reasonably reluctant to accept that distaste for change implies distaste for other races,” Stenner writes, “or that commitment to economic freedom somehow suggests an interest in moral regulation and political repression.” In fact, this can drive some conservatives “who are merely averse to change” into “unnatural and unnecessary political alliances with the hateful and intolerant,” she warns, when they “could be rallied behind tolerance and respect for difference under the right conditions.”

This thesis rubbed a WNYC listener the wrong way.

Noel, whose call was taken toward the end of the program, read Stenner’s book in college. And she disagreed with the notion that it is wrongheaded to call conservatives racist when they are unwilling to accept progress and change flawed institutions, regardless of whether they are motivated by an aversion to racial difference. “So often we say that racism is personal prejudices that we let color our behavior and actions,” she declared, “but in fact,” she continued, “racism is the perpetuation of institutions and systems that are used to exclude people from power.”

That might justify a long inquiry into the “correct” definition of racism at this confusing moment when parts of the left are determined to use the word differently than the Merriam-Webster dictionary and most of the American public. But that debate can be sidestepped by granting that it’s worth having words that distinguish among all the varied phenomena that different people label “racism.”

A person might support policies that materially disadvantage African Americans, thereby perpetuating an unjust system of laws—and yet, the pernicious effect itself does not tell us whether the person was motivated by animus toward African Americans, or a misguided belief that the harmful policies would help African Americans (think of the black leaders who favored the law that created the disparity between sentences for possession of crack versus powder cocaine), or an unrelated motivation, like a desire to keep taxes low, or to keep the federal government out of state and local affairs, or to make it very difficult to fire school teachers.  

How people use the term “racist” is ultimately less important than being able to clearly make and distinguish claims about institutional effects from claims about personal prejudice or motivations—it is useful and necessary to communicate clearly on both fronts. And efforts to speak with precision, rigor, and clarity are made more difficult when they are erroneously seen as coy attempts to deny or minimize racism (as if that is why a scholar of authoritarianism and moral psychology like Stenner would caution against attributing racist motivations to status quo conservatives).

This is a tick I’ve noticed a lot lately. After Charles Murray was shouted down at Middlebury, for example, I was trying to figure out, via engagement on Twitter, how those who dub him a “white nationalist” define that label, not because I have any desire to be an apologist for his most controversial views, but because precision is important, and I wasn’t myself sure whether he has views I’d not heard about or if his critics were using “nationalism” in manner unfamiliar to me. Rather than offer answers, one cohort presumed that any inquiry into that label and its appropriateness must be motivated by a desire to minimize or deny racism.  

Reactions of that sort don’t put me off. But they do raise the costs of seeking clarity.

To more fully see the indispensability of probing motivations, not just effects, and to see the cost of trying to shut down dialogue that aims at adding precision as if to conserve stigma, consider the refugees fleeing violence in Syria. The effect of an outright ban on their entry to the United States is clear enough: it is very likely to result in grave harms, including deaths that could have been prevented.

That is so regardless of what motivates one’s support for a ban.

Proponents of admitting some Syrian refugees, like myself, needn’t minimize or dismiss the gravity of those harms to wonder what motivates ban proponents, or to believe that probing their thinking is vital. Here are some possible motivations:

  • an innate aversion to difference.
  • an erroneous belief that the white race is supreme, that Syrians do not belong to it, and that admitting them to the U.S. will therefore diminish this country. (Notice that this motivation can be accurately characterized as racist even by those who simultaneously note that “Syrian” isn’t actually a racial group.)
  • a fear of Muslims grounded in the mistaken notion that they are incapable of living in a democracy because of the dictates of their scripture.
  • a calculation that a tiny percentage of Syrians claiming refugee status are likely to be ISIS fighters, and that any risk of a future attack on U.S. soil justifies group discrimination, even if it imposes significant costs almost entirely on innocents.
  • a belief that the costs to social cohesion that accompany refugee resettlement, or the reactionary political backlash to their admittance, outweighs the benefits.
  • a belief that the question of refugees should be settled in a democracy by the will of the people, paired with polls showing a majority of Americans oppose admitting Syrian refugees.
  • a belief that our vetting procedures are ineffective.
  • a belief that Syrian refugees will impose heavy costs on the social welfare system.
  • a speculative fear that Syrian refugees or their children will have trouble assimilating.

Notice that even among the subset of motivations grounded in prejudice, individual beliefs can still be distinguished from one another. Notice, too, how important it is for would-be persuaders to distinguish among the full range of motivations, and to know their audiences. A successful exchange with a cohort that has an innate aversion to difference is going to look very different than a successful conversation with a cohort that is fine with admitting Syrian refugees as long as it doesn’t cost too much.

A fear of Muslims grounded in theology suggests a different rebuttal than a fear of Muslims grounded in a statistical analysis of how likely an ISIS terrorist is to slip through.

Whether one is trying to alleviate the concerns of authoritarians or conservatives might shape anything from congressional horse trading to the contents of a documentary film.

The frequency of each belief within the coalition matters, too.  If you wanted to peel away the largest faction, or the largest faction vulnerable to defecting, what would that be? What’s more, for the subset of motivations that many would label “racist,” it is useful to distinguish whether that is the most accurate label, or if it would more precise to say “bigotry” or “prejudice” or “xenophobia” or “cruelty” or “Islamophobia.” Sometimes, “that isn’t racist” is a useful and accurate indicator that something is every bit as objectionable but rooted in a different belief system or impulse.

While drafting this article, I posted a tweet as a proof of concept to see what it would elicit:

Many answered in a spirit of inquiry. For example:

  • “It's possible to construct a situation in which it wouldn't be, but generally speaking, I do.”
  • “I know that Syrian isn't a ‘race,’ but it's rooted in fear of ‘others’ which has lots of racist baggage.”
  • “Not at all. We owe them nothing.”
  • “There are theoretical non-racist grounds to oppose, but in practice it is pure dog whistling.”
  • “I'd go with ‘bigoted’ or ‘cruel’”
  • “Much more likely willfully ignorant than cruel imo.”
  • “Cruel is risking the life of your fellow American to placate your irrational need for political correctness. Is Syria a race? Is Islam? Clearly not.”
  • “Is it possible to avoid charges of bigotry and think Islam just might not be compatible with the West?”
  • “Irresponsible? Yes. Counterproductive? Yes. Racist? No.”
  • “Misguided, evil, wrongheaded. Possibly racist. But you'll need to predicate racism of a person, not a system, to make that argument. 'm torn on defining racism. Persons are racist, as well as systems. Many debates about racism seem to want the latter.”
  • “The only way it could be regarded as racism is if one infers a motivation.”

I find these sorts of social-media interactions useful when I am trying to think through a subject or to understand how others are thinking, even given the limitation that the responses are not be representative of the general population. But the mere act of trying to rigorously think through fraught subjects often elicits suspicion and antagonism from interlocutors like the one in this exchange I had with a Twitter user identifying as J.D. McGregor :

Conor Friedersdorf: Question. How many of you regard it as racist to oppose the admittance of Syrian refugees to the United States?

J.D. McGregor: Conor can you even imagine an origin story where YOU get to be the kind of person who can decide what's racist or isn't?

Friedersdorf: I don't understand what this means?

McGregor: You consistently treat racism as something liberals invent and arbitrate on a whim.

Friedersdorf: How did my original question do that? It merely sought the opinion of others, right?

McGregor: So what, you're a freelance polling shop now? Why did you ask? Other people can conduct the analysis of context.

Friedersdorf: I have a hypothesis that efforts to rigorously probe subjects like this are often mistaken for attempts to deny racism exists. Any thoughts on that? Or any example of me treating racism as something liberals invent?

McGregor: That it's your rigorous probing of subjects like what liberals call racist is exactly what I was talking about

Friedersdorf: So to clarify, you think it is objectionable to probe what liberals call racist?

McGregor: I think it betrays a perspective on the issue. You would answer your question in the negative, right?

Friedersdorf: I think different factors explain the position; that xenophobia looms large among them; that racists are highly likely to oppose refugee admittance; that there are non-racists who oppose too; that some of this depends on how one defines racism; and that all this and more is best fleshed out, but that you seem eager to stigmatize questioning these matters. Why?

McGregor: I'm not "eager to stigmatize", I'm just telling you that this objective logic boy act is not difficult to see through. If you don't think it's racist, say so, don't couch it in this passive aggressive attempt to prove libs wrong by their own logic

Friedersdorf: But I do think racism is the root for some; and my attempts at rigor are not an act. Why do they make you suspect bad faith?

I never received a reply to that last question, but would very much like to understand the phenomenon, because I observe it frequently, and I believe that raising the costs of inquiries like mine inevitably results in fewer attempts at them—even if they are vital for effective opposition to policies that harm refugees, or religious minorities, or ethnic groups, or foreigners, or any other vulnerable group.

That isn’t to say that all attempts to probe fraught subjects are earnest; that every coyly tendentious overture must be met with forbearance; or that dishonest efforts to minimize social ills never cloak their nature behind questions. But the cost of stigmatizing earnest inquiry are high: diminished understanding and imprecision that does more to undermine anti-racism than erring in the other direction.