The Problems With Identifying Racism
Sep 6, 2010

The Problems With Identifying Racism

One of the problems with racism and bigotry in our society - quite apart from the fact that they still occur with such prevalence - is that they are often difficult to identify and label appropriately. I look at three reasons why this is so and then investigate a small sample of current bigotry such as surrounding the so called "ground zero mosque". The difficulties in labeling racism and bigotry allow it to perpetuate unchecked, and so it is important to see why this is the case.

The first reason it is so difficult to label bigotry and racism is simply that these words are very much pejoratives. It is a grave insult to call someone a racist to their face to the point where the word is almost a taboo. Part of this stems from the fact that when we think of racism, worst case scenarios of slavery, racial genocide and sectarian strife comes to mind all of which is far more extreme and serious than, say, overemphasizing violence within Islam as our media so loves to do. Because there are these such horrific extreme connotations attached to these words, they have developed into grave insults when used to describe less extreme acts. On the opposite end, one can trivialize claims of alleged racism by dismissing this as just being politically correct and that claims are empty in substance. So pegging a specific comment or action as racist means having to clarify the words are not referencing either ends of the spectrum.

Secondly, because everyone knows that racism and bigotry are and knows that it is bad, if you ever press them on a point they will tacitly retract their generalizations with things like "I know not ALL Muslims are violent" before continuing on talking about how Islam is an intrinsically violent religion. This ability to superficially evade blatant racism or bigotry and to have just enough qualifications when pressed about a gross generalization at hand to avoid clear cut bigotry makes pinning someone down as being a bigot difficult. One has to look at, say, the pattern of repetition and focus to determine, more subjectively, the level of bigotry opposed to the clear cut statements of racism prevalent in generations past such as "interracial marriages are bad".

Thirdly, and probably most importantly, when racism becomes very much ingrained in our society and when it is engaged in extensively by many people it becomes both difficult to identify for members of that society and moreover difficult to label because the people engaging in racist views or actions are not acting out of the ordinary. For example the view that "islam is a violent religion" is a common enough perspective (hopefully I need not explain why this is patently false, a poorly defined concept and intrinsically bigoted). This perspective is heavily reinforced by the mainstream media especially post 9/11 (the usage of the word "terrorist" in the media skyrocketed, for example), is obviously easily motivated by the isolated incidents of 9/11 and the two current wars in the middle east, and motivated by a sense of religious superiority. The result is that when people are bombarded by this opinion and indications of it, and when it is shared by so many, it is hard for people to even identify it as a systemically bigoted viewpoint and harder still to label one of the many who share it as bigots. Other issues such as the gross socioeconomic divide between blacks and white in the US from everything from poverty to incarceration rates is one where any individual person is not likely involved directly in active racism yet a legitimate structural racism exists within our society required to explain these differences. Yet the status quo is so innately accepted and the problems so easily ignored that it makes this systemic racism hard to identify and label.

Now I should qualify, just because I believe someone to be a bigot or a racist does not mean I necessarily think poorly of them. In many cases, perhaps an overwhelming majority, people are simply the products of our culture and should not be blamed unduly for their beliefs. There are certainly natural motivations for such beliefs and they are heavily reinforced by society which when combined with apathy or general ignorance can make a powerful combination. That said, I don't minimize the role of personal responsibility and think that it is through individual action that we can combat these deep set opinions in our culture.

As such, I advocate a more direct attempt to identify, label and change the opinions of people engaged in racist or bigoted actions or opinions. Of course, simply yelling bigot at people isn't going to help anything, but actively trying to challenge and identify the basic assumptions that lead to ones opinions may. We should try not to insult people, but we also should not be afraid to try and combat racism and bigotry directly. The simple reality is that they are alive and well in our society and need combating.

As a concluding and timely example, consider the so called ground zero mosque. For those who are not aware, this concerns a large uproar that a Muslim community center is being planned some two blocks away from ground zero (with churches, synagogues and strip clubs equal distances away). That there will be a 9/11 memorial, interfaith components to the multifaceted community center, that the imam is a leader in the interfaith community, hired by Bush and Obama alike, and that they practice Sufism, a particularly tolerant branch of Islam very different from that of Osama bin laden are all usually ignored. If my bias isn't clear enough, obviously the mosque should be allowed if not for the basic 1st amendment rights to freedom of religion but also as it promotes interfaith tolerance and acceptance that glorifies not denigrates the memory of 9/11. However, what is interesting for the purposes of this discussion is the systemic bigotry that motivates the opposition to the mosque. Firstly, let us be clear there is extensive opposition, 68% of Americans in one poll as well as some extreme cases of knifing a Muslim taxi driver for affirming he was indeed Muslim in NYC, to the burning of the mosque site in Tennessee, to the Florida mosque bombing or the proposed "burn a quran day" that while obviously not indicative of the general population show how bad it can get. I have read and debated many people opposed to the mosque and with nearly zero exceptions the arguments all focus on the premise that there is a relation between the 18 terrorists and the mosque, or perhaps "Islam in general". This assertion is of course devoid of meaning at all but the most superficial level that yes they are both technically Muslims as 1.6 billion people around the world are of innumerable sects and cultures. The only way it can be offensive is if one draws this connection and says it is meaningful. So the result is a perfect example where a wide spread and fundamentally bigoted sentiment exists and is being propagated by the media that would directly violate expression of religious freedom. Again, in don't think the best approach is to simply call people against the mosque bigots - they may not even be able, through no direct fault of their own, to identify why we might think this - but to really challenge the basic assumptions that lead to the conclusion that it is offensive or inappropriate and to introduce the narrative of acceptance and tolerance I expressed above.

Thoughts on this post? Comment below!

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