What’s Wrong with Racism?


A question with taken-for-granted answers.


I am becoming increasingly convinced that people around the country are not talking about racism in the right ways. People often talk about it as if its meaning were agreed upon when, in fact, most people have different ideas of what racism means.

Take, for example, the accusations of racism against Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Sessions has a long history of racially-charged controversy. In 1986, Sessions’ nomination to a federal judgeship was denied after some incidences of racially charged comments came to light. In one incident, he reportedly warned a black assistant U.S. attorney to be careful with what he said to “white folks” and called him “boy.” In another incident that occurred while investigating a lynching of a black man by Ku Klu Klan members, Sessions reportedly joked that he thought the Klan was “OK” until he learned that they smoked marijuana.

One Justice Department attorney present for the joke stated that from what he saw “[Sessions] couldn’t have been more supportive of making sure we got convicted the murderers of the last black man who was lynched by the Klan.” However, another Justice Department attorney who filed multiple complaints against Sessions for racially charged comments couldn’t help but think “what a racist guy this is.”

These issues were brought up again during his confirmation hearings in January. Sen. Lindsey Graham asked Sessions about these accusations of racism and he responded that they were “very painful.”

German Lopez of Vox took Sessions’ response to Sen. Graham’s question as an example of how conversations about race typically go in the country: “Instead of considering what could drive someone to call another person racist, the issue quickly turns to just how unfair it feels to be called racist.” To an extent, Lopez sees this as part of a phenomenon called “white fragility,” or the tendency of white people to become defensive or hostile when they are called racist, “even if it’s justified.”

I take issue with how Lopez frames the controversy over Sessions. For one, anyone would become defensive or hostile if they were called a racist, including racial minorities that are accused of racism.

More importantly, what Lopez (along with many others, as I see it) fails to consider is that understanding accusations of racism is hard. It’s easy to see this just by asking one question: What’s wrong with racism?

There are at least two ways to think about racism. One way to think about racism is that it has to do with what’s in one’s heart, which involves not simply one’s beliefs and reason but also one’s wants, intentions, likes, dislikes, and virtues. And to be a racist means that one has an intrinsic disregard or hatred for people of certain races. In this sense, members of white supremacist groups are racist in their disregard for and hatred of racial minorities.

This view of racism is what I believe is at the root of Sessions saying that accusations of racism are painful, further adding that “I did not harbor the kind of animosities and race-based discrimination ideas that I was accused of.” For Sessions, it’s hard to see how another person can be certain of the hatred in one’s own heart and mind.

For Lopez “the issue is not about what’s in Sessions’ heart; it’s about what he’s done.” Being a racist for him, then, is about acting unjustly toward people of certain races.  The implication is that Sessions is racist in that his record shows support for policies that disproportionately affect minorities.

It’s true that the Klan acted racist in their terrorizing and murdering of minorities. But it’s far different from those Southern lawmakers that merely supported Jim Crow laws, regardless of what was in their hearts. Their racism is of a different kind that’s related more to the wrongs of unjust social systems than the wrongs of murder or animosity.

These multiple meanings of racism are why we have such a tough time talking about race. More often than not, when two people talk about racism they are actually saying different things. And in such a vacuum of mutual understanding, people take racism to mean whatever they want, leading to offense on the part of those accused of racism and contempt on the part of those accusing racism. This is exactly what happened when Sessions took racism to be about virtue and others like Lopez took racism to be about actions and policy.

Getting to a common understanding of what racism means is not the path forward, however. Understanding what we mean when we call people like Sessions racist is frivolous when we already have language to describe their actions. I think most people can generally agree that hatred is not virtuous, that killing and enslaving others us wrong, and that disproportionate burdens caused by social systems are unfair. Yet these basics of right and wrong are still difficult to apply in light of the facts.

From what we know, Sessions’ comments and policies make him out to be insensitive, at best. Accusing him of being racist or morally wrong in such a case is harsh considering the numerous insensitivities that anyone can be guilty of. At worst, Sessions willfully disregards the well being of certain groups of people. Now that would just be plain wrong.

Dan Valenzuela (dvalenzuela@college.harvard.edu) hopes to be at best insightful and at worst misguided.