Monday, March 12, 2012

The Joy of Invented Language: What the Hell is "Racialism?"

What Kennedy wrote of Matsuda was equally true of Bell: By claiming that being a member of a minority group automatically connotes a certain and superior worldview, he argued, she “stereotypes scholars.” The CLS racialism simply inverted pernicious white stereotypes about black people: Instead of being inherently inferior, they were inherently superior.
Language changes over time. It is an act of invention that reflects social norms, generational change, technological developments and new ways of understanding mediated reality. For example, before 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq words such as "IED," "UAVs," "counter-insurgency," "Predator" and "Reaper" were not in common use.

American political culture has reflected a similar evolution/devolution in language. The phrase "political correctness" has been radically transformed from its original meaning by the Right. The post-civil rights era has also brought such Orwellian newspeak as "reverse racism" and "the race card." These are empty phrases that are easily deconstructed and revealed for the conservative, neoliberal, political work which they do--"reverse racism" is a paradox and non sequitur; "race card" involves the assumption that white supremacy and racism are shared sins across the colorline, and that identifying social inequality rooted in racial bias is somehow a greater sin than racism itself.

One of the newest words in the contemporary public discourse is the word "racialist." It has old roots in the race science eugenics movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In the last two to three decades, "racialism" (or its cousin "racialist" or "race realism") has been adopted by "polite" white supremacists such as David Duke, the Christian White Nationalist identity movement, and the human biodiversity crowd. In the recent Breitbart inspired muckraking about Derrick Bell and President Obama, "racialist" has circulated throughout the Right-wing blogosphere and media. Most of the conservative public which is using this language has not thought critically about its deployment--they are simply parroting the talking points of the day as offered by the Right-wing media and blogosphere.

However, I was surprised to see this vague and ill defined word, one which I suggest is an onerous and subversive way of calling black and brown people racists, used by Salon's Gary Kamiya:
As befit his racialist ideology, Bell was also a consummate race-card player. His academic career consisted of a long series of racial confrontations with the institutions he worked for. After being hired as an avowed racial token at Harvard, Bell left for Oregon, where he became the first black dean of a non-black school. But he resigned his deanship when the faculty voted against giving tenure to an Asian woman. He then went to Stanford, where a bizarre incident unfolded. Many of the students in his constitutional law course complained about his teaching, saying it was disorganized and excessively politicized.
I am a fan of Kamiya. He is usually a very careful and considerate writer. There is a real danger here: once such language circulates, it becomes part of the public discourse, and opinion leaders use such phrases in the context of a given type of commonsense, where "racialist" is just one more addition to an already muddy vocabulary that already fails to adequately capture the complex nature of race and white supremacy in the decades which followed the 1960s. Kamiya's use of such language is also problematic because once a centrist adopts the language of the fringe, it gives words such as "racialist" and "racialism" both currency and legitimacy.

He continues:
At the same time, Obama was not a racial bomb-thrower. As Sugrue notes, Obama’s racial views were not yet fully formed, but Obama never subscribed to Bell’s crude racial essentialism and guilt-card playing. If he had been forced to openly state whether he agreed with Bell’s racialist theories, he would have been caught in a bind, trapped between the racial solidarity that was expected of him and the universalism he was inwardly inclined toward. But he was not forced to.
So what exactly is a "racialist?" What is "racialist" thinking or behavior? Is racialist just another way of conflating those who understand the empirical reality that "race matters," it over-determines life chances, and that American society is one structured in many different types of inequality (race, class, gender, and sexuality) with white bigotry and hate?

Teach me something. Please help me understand what all this "racialist" mess is all about.


Werner Herzog's Bear said...

As a historian of Wilhelmine Germany I can say that the term "racialist" is used in my field to describe a certain brand of nationalists who defined German-ness racially and whose racism defined their worldview. The current use of the word in the political discourse seems to label anyone who "sees" race in American society, thereby not accepting the color blind orthodoxy, as "racialist," which is what you seem to be saying. Considering all the talk of "real America" in the political sphere, I find the charges of "racialism" to be as silly as they are infuriating.

chaunceydevega said...

@Mr. Bear. So Dr. King was a "racialist?" My we do live in absurd and twisted times.

Anonymous said...

What troubles me is that Black pundits will go after a pc bigot like Kamiya and not white jewish and white liberals pundits like Chait, Cohen,Perez, Pollack and others who clearly have a racial disdain for Black America..

Apparently it is easier to go after an asian-american like Kamiya ( BTW he should be slammed) than directly confront the racist themes of white jewish and white liberal pundits..

I am disappointed that far to many Black pundits and intellectuals refuse to be as assertive and aggressive towards white jews and white liberals as they are towards the usual rednecks..

Perhaps we fear the power and clout of white jews...I hope this is not true but It appears so

ellemarie said...

I’ll have to dig out the books to double-check and make sure, but the two works that stick out in my mind as having used the term “racialist” were K. Anthony Appiah’s In My Father’s House and Paul Gilroy’s seminal, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack. In both instances, if I’m remembering correctly, the term was on a racism continuum, if you will, with a “racist” being the most extreme and a “racialist” being someone who isn’t quite as invested as a racist in the notion of immutable race qualities. (Someone please correct this if I’m off the mark.) It isn’t my understanding at all that the term is used for anything but to describe actions/ideas rooted in a belief in essential racial difference .

It’s important to note that both Appiah and Gilroy are of the British academy, although Appiah is quite established in the U.S. now. The term “racialist” seems completely out of context in the U.S. to me because I’ve only seen it used by non-US academics. This isn’t to discount the term at all, but to say that it seems to come from spaces where race and racism have played out differently than they have in the U.S. (even though there are many cross-currents). I’m in agreement with you that “racialist” is being deployed uncritically as a cudgel against black folks and other POC who engage issues of race and racism, no doubt because some equally uncritical fool saw it and thought its use would be indicative of some higher-level thinking about matters of race in the U.S. What is it they say about a little bit of knowledge in the wrong hands?

Ken S said...

""However, I was surprised to see this vague and ill defined word, one which I suggest is an onerous and subversive way of calling black and brown people racists""

""Kamiya's use of such language is also problematic because once a centrist adopts the language of the fringe, it gives words such as "racialist" and "racialism" both currency and legitimacy.""

I agree that centrists need to be vigilant about giving the fringe claims to legitimacy, and Kamiya's sarcastic remarks towards Breitbart seem adequate to diffuse that possibility in this case. However, I do tentatively support the ability of *responsible* centrists to use the sort of language that Kamiya used, in certain contexts. This is due to the fact that some black and brown people can indeed be racists/racialists, and if someone is compelled to call them out on that I would not always hold it against them.

Today 'racialist' could mean more or less any views on race that one finds distasteful, and 'racist' means views on race that one finds dangerous/ignorant.

Your mention of human biodiversity made me think back to the James Watson controversy and I tracked down an article that uses the terminology roughly in this manner:

I suppose Gates might want to reserve 'racialism' for a particular explanation of some racial differences (Watson's, not Bell's), but there is no compelling linguistic reason for doing so... extra terminology on top of the 'racialist' concept makes the most sense if we want to distinguish that sort of thing. Wikipedia seems to support this usage too, going back to W.E.B Du Bois.

Both Gates and another commenter here disparages the so-called 'color blind orthodoxy', but frankly it's the best we have right now. Whether or not it's enough depends on how much we can actually teach and successfully argue for individualistic values.


I don't know the specifics enough to say it was fair to call Bell a racialist in this particular case, it looks like Critical Race Theory at least offers some insights into things that really do happen. The problem with it is how well can it really explain outcomes? It's one thing to skewer society using these ideas in the form of media (and Space Traders did it well, anyone hostile to it probably needs to get a life), but I hold academia to a higher standard of truth.

chaunceydevega said...

@Anon. Jews earned their whiteness decades ago, why the fixation?

@elle. I will have to check those cites. I learned something and had not considered the UK context. You are right,a little knowledge in the wrong hands can be mighty dangerous.

@ken. CRT and CLS are pretty broad and well worth digging into to see if they offer you something pedagogically and for your theory building. You mentioned black and brown "racism." As you have likely guessed I am a bit of a stickler for language, can you give some examples of "racism" by black and brown folks?

Anonymous said...


I was not around decades ago of course you have same fixation on the other white meat as well..

At least TNC has the integrity to blog about it in detail and of course he agrees with me

What troubles me is why you give them( Jews) a pass ...WHY??

chaunceydevega said...

@Anon. Give a pass? What do you mean? There are some white folks who happen to be Jewish. They are not distinct from white people in so far as they made the bargain that comes with earning whiteness in the 1950s. I don't fixate on Poles, Scots-Irish, Italians, or other varieties of people who call themselves "white." Why would I reserve some special interest for Jews? I just don't get the fascination.

Is there some international Jewish conspiracy to keep black people down that I should be aware of? If so, I didn't get the memo.

Anonymous said...

There are Black folks who happen to be jewish so your point is??

I have a hugh interest in this issue in part because of the winds of war insanity being created by Israel and backed by our country( America never invaded South Africa nor supported any nation's williness to bomb them for aparthied but I digress) of course Black soliders will die and Black families will suffer when this next war begins..My interest is personal because my kids are in the military

Your denial is revealing on so many levels.. The bulk of your posts go after whites yet when a poster mentions white jews as part of this equation you become anal and defensive and then of course as with most people who are caught in the protrait of guilt you try to pivot and attack the messenger..

I just don't get your fascination with deflecting and avoidance and making some special excuse for white jews ...Now you have inserted some nonsense about international jewish conspiracy...Sorry but try harder to deflect

For example in your blog about Hannity his guest Pollack (a white jew) clearly has an agenda based upon his belief that Obama is a muslim yet as usual you punted on this factor and as usual you chased down the usual other white meat suspects..

Many white jewish pundits have no reservations about demonizing Black folks after they attack the usual suspects Jesse, Al, Louis.

Even in 2012 ADL still publisheds a McCarthyism List of Black professors who dare to lecture, publish and have critical discourse about the racism present in far to many white jewish venues towards Black Americans..Yet I have yet to read that story nor really many of any targeted narratives about jewish racism..

In fact you have (correctly so )indicted Cain more that racist white jewish pundits etc..Which is fascinating to me..I had this bet with my peer to count on one hand how many narratives you have pen on WARN about the evil that white jewish men do...

I think you know the answer.. I offer no apology for having the courage in 2012 to discuss white jewish racism I am sorry you don't share the same courage..

chaunceydevega said...

@Anon. I appreciate the response. I never punt or deflect. This is the internet, no reason to do so. I am very aware of the issues with the ADL, and especially their obsession, along with conservatives of having black folks disown "uncomfortable" and unapologetic figures such as Farrakhan. The double standard is absurd.

I am from the East Coast and have many personal experiences with what went down in Crown Heights for example. I see this behavior as an extension of white ethnocentrism and in many cases bigotry. I just don't see how "Jewish" racism or intolerance is any different from that of Whiteness as a whole.

On political Zionism and the Israeli lobby I am very sympathetic to your concerns. But, those are separate issues from the more general claim that there is something uniquely aberrant about racist behavior by those who happen to be white and Jewish.

Ken S said...


I support such sticklerism on these matters, and I did just say 'can indeed be', meaning that I simply recognize some potential for these labels to apply. My reasons behind this are not from carefully collecting examples of such behavior, but from a view of racism/racialism as not something strictly involving institutions or power, but as a grouping of 'ingrained' attitudes and tendencies that almost anyone is at risk of having. How these tendencies manifest are certainly dependent on circumstances, and perhaps this is a source of the confusion over what these words actually mean. Admittedly, my viewpoint is even more difficult to substantiate than by just giving examples of behavior and labelling it racist, and I won't try to substantiate it here.

That said, I do not wish to deny Kamiya the use of such language right from the beginning... the context and intent is important in deciding whether or not his use of language was judicious. I think I can agree with you that these are absurd and twisted times, and words like 'racialist' that once made meaningful distinctions are now just confusing and irrelevant.

Anonymous said...

I never opined that white jewish racism was uniquely aberrant those are your words and reactionary prose..

I have opine that your indictment of white racism always allows for immunity and a free pass when it's orgins come from white jewish circles..

I offer no reservations about my interpetation of white jewish racism.I don't have the blind spot you have and that is fine by me. Whenever I observe you provide this free pass for white jewish racism I will proceed accordingly because like you I don't punt either

Abstentus said...

I'll skip the sidebar about our Jewish brothers. Back to the core issue. Racialist as a term is just another trick up the sleeve of those redneck right wingers in their quest to marginalize, if not eliminate the very idea of race as an issue in the USA (until they really become the minority. Then watch out!)

I have been noticing something lately, beyond the seemingly conscious, deliberate attempt to water down the word racist, and disparage anyone who dares point out the fact that the only kind of allged racism that is still institutional to any great extent in the USA is white on not white. And I can sum that up in one word.


Or to tinker with a term already in use, let's call it Race Awareness Fatigue. Lots of white folk, mostly but not exclusively wing nuts, are sick and tired of having to give a shit about non whites. That's part of the anti PC movement. They feel excessively put upon and burdened to have to pretend to give a shit. They really don't want to pretend any more. Them who have only been pretending, so far. And they are legion.

Z said...

In the 20th century in Brazil, it was considered racist to see race or to point out racist behavior. These ideas of course had reactionary roots. It is interesting to see these same arguments trotted out in the 21st century US.

chaunceydevega said...

@Ken. old Chinese curse?

@Abstentus. Had to borrow "racism fatigue." Funny though, white folks had racism fatigue when blacks were in the fields too.

@Z. That is a great connection to the myth of Brazilian racial democracy. Any cites or examples to share, I would like to be solid with that claim?

Z said...

Hi again - Brazil, well, It's Complicated. But during the Estado Novo and then the 1964-85 dictatorship, it was racist, unpatriotic, and un Brazilian to notice race. There's a whole lot more to talk about than Gilberto Freyre and democracia racial, although that is already a lot. I'm trying to figure out how to discuss this in a succinct way.

Anonymous said...

in my understanding of the term, 'racialism' refers to accepting the biological categories of race as real but— unlike racism—not ranking them hierarchically. so you subscribe to the fallacy of biological racial difference, albeit without hierarchy. if i remember correctly, this definition comes from fredrickson's book 'racism.'

nomad said...

I see that the term is seen as interchangeable with racism. That's a pity. It is difficult to use it in a neutral way. It's kinda like Negro. You have to use it on occasion, but you almost feel like you have to apologize for using it. Or use it tongue in cheek (Respectable Negroes). I would suggest a second meaning for "racialist". Someone who studies the issue of race.(Scholars who work on the race issue, to be politically correct). The same as any other " -ist". An Africanist, for example, studies Africa.

PS: I am a robot. can you make these code words easier?