L to R: Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA)
The recent racist gauntlet thrown down by President Donald Trump against four United States Congresswomen of color has been met with an interesting menagerie of justifications by the Right. But I think we can identify one congruity that most share. It’s the unasked question which should be important to anyone for whom moral considerations run deep: How can we—tribal, divided, and angry at each other as we are—agree on a definition of what racism is?
It should also be an important question for Orthodox Christians and Christians in general. Both have a sketchy human rights record in history, but more recently the Christian Right has exhibited head-splitting silence regarding the plain immorality of kenneling men, women, toddlers, and infants at the US-Mexico border.
The inevitable outrage among those same Christians (I’m thinking of Vice-President Mike Pence) if those human beings suffering in dog kennels were white is worth advisement.
Brit Hume, a senior political analyst for the Fox News Channel, wants to explain to us that Trump’s outrageous attack is super bad, but not all that bad.
“The standard definition of racist.” Because, after all, words mean things, right? If we aren’t careful with our definitions, we’ll just go around willy-nilly labeling presidents “racist.” Mr. Hume has the answer, though:
Here’s Merriam-Webster’s “standard definition” of racism (edited for brevity):
1: a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race
2a: a doctrine or political program based on the assumption of racism and designed to execute its principles
2b: a political or social system founded on racism
3: racial prejudice or discrimination
(Of course, Mr. Hume doesn’t seem to want to discuss definition #2. Perhaps because what’s controversial about #2 is that it’s more difficult to call Trump’s actions “doctrines” “programs,” or “systems” than it is to call them racist.)
I hope to bring some philosophical clarity to the subject. I’ll look at what we mean by “standard definitions,” then note how definition #1 suffers from not accounting for obvious examples of racism—of the kind on which we surely share agreement.
It’s helpful to note first that dictionaries don’t provide standard definitions, but rather describe the building blocks of ways of talking. Ludwig Wittgenstein called these ways of talking “language-games.” The reason dictionaries have limited use for making sense of language-games is because they don’t provide standards at all. Imagine saying, “Well, she says she loves me. But I don’t think her words meet the standard definition of love.”
Mr. Hume uses “standard” to denote a “measure” of the words we use, in the same way we might measure length: “Oh, that doesn’t meet the standard five feet….”
But that’s not how our language works. The meanings of words are held together by the lives which surround them. We use dictionaries to elucidate words we already use with each other, not like they were bibles trying to prove some doctrine. Mr. Hume’s mistake in assuming that dictionaries provide us with definitions we can all agree upon can be plainly seen in the following example of racism:
Go back to Africa, N-word!
If Mr. Hume were to point out the truism that the sentence above doesn’t meet the “standard definition of racism” of #1, then he wouldn’t be acting in good-faith conversation. Not because he was seeking the right definition of the word racism, but because he was seeking a definition at all! For if we actually heard a white person say such a thing to a black person, the idea of wondering if “that racism” met “this dictionary definition of racism” would be absurd.
The problem with looking for standard definitions of moral concepts like racism is that racism isn’t one kind of thing. Not every racist wants to lynch blacks. Not every racist hates the same ethnicity. Not every racist uses the N-word.
But if we are to find something to agree on, it should be at least this: Because racism is after all, a moral concept—that is, it has victims and it has perpetrators—the victims of racism get to say what counts as racism.
This is an important philosophical point. As mentioned earlier, the idea of meaning in language is connected with our lived experience and everything that experience entails. Language gets its meaning from the place it holds in our activities, in how we interact with each other, from our very lives, and from the ways we abuse people based on race. We shouldn’t expect black people to consult the dictionary to define racism any more than we’d expect racists to consult a dictionary to define hate. Like pornography or love, we know it when we see it.
By refusing to give the victims of racism the moral authority to define what racism is, we do not take from them only equality. We dismiss them from any consideration that equality or inequality have any bearing for them at all. It is the worst kind of “I don’t care, do you?” as Melania Trump’s jacket one famously trolled. One could almost call it the definition of privilege.
The idea that the victims of racism have the moral authority to tell the perpetrators what counts as racism is itself a moral idea. It can be illustrated in the following way. Imagine a wife screaming at her husband who is beating their son terribly, “Stop beating Timmy!” To which the husband replies, “I’m not beating him, I’m disciplining him!” Would it make sense to wonder if their disagreement could be resolved by offering child-rearing advice? One would simply be horrified that a child was being beaten.
Contrary to Mr. Hume, we must insist that it is not the overuse of the word racist that robs it of conceptual impact—that which makes it evil. It is rather Mr. Hume who robs it of meaning by pointing away from obvious examples of it.
I would call that the definition of complicity.
See the extensive White Supremacy and Racism section in our Archives by Author & Subject.
Steven McMeans is a writer, philosopher, and church critic. He owes his particular philosophical attention to his graduate school mentor, the late D.Z. Phillips, a prolific philosopher in the intellectual tradition of Ludwig Wittgenstein. He is also co-founder and former co-host of The Illumined Heart podcast on Ancient Faith Ministries.