The 2008 Definition of Racism

I was not going to talk about this stuff anymore, but Louis Gray’s post on the “racist underbelly” of the web struck a deep chord. He describes how two black bloggers, Wayne Sutton and Corvida, had a live Yahoo video chat to discuss Loren Feldman and the Tech Nigga incident, and the anonymous overtly racist chatter in the video’s text chat room. It was painful to read, but I realized it provided me an opportunity to talk about what I think is a really big important issue.

Unlike in 1964, the year I was born, today few people are comfortable being labeled as racist. The successful tactics of protesting, boycotting, and social and pressure have been incredibly effective in applying shame to the label.

Unfortunately, in demonizing, racism, we have done two things. First we have driven the unrepentant racists underground, and into anonymity. And second, we have sanded down the meaning of the term so substantially that almost no acts committed by those outside the underground anonymous can be categorized as such.

The difficulty in fighting an anonymous invisible enemy is obvious. But what I really want to discuss is the issue of how we have defined racism and how, in the future, we should define it.

Today, racism’s definition is so circumscribed, that for many it is almost impossible to find a valid use case. For many, it would require calling a black man a nigger or saying, I hate black people, or doing something equivalently overt. Of course, for some, even the use of the word nigger does not warrant the racism label, since black people use it amongst themselves. It’s not fair, defenders say, to give a word to black people that white people can’t use.

Interestingly, for many, it’s also not valid to label language as racist if it not in the form of a statement. It’s a bit like Jeopardy. Any potentially racist language is not racist if you change the form to a question, or in Loren Feldman’s case, a joke. Then you can, apparently, say absolutely anything.

And so by these measures, there are many who feel that Loren Feldman’s Tech Nigga was not racist. And while it is true that the majority of people are not supportive, there are many people who are, some aggressively so.

Within this supportive group, first there are, of course, the folks that are openly though anonymously racist. I don’t have statistics but my sense is that, when hiding behind anonymity, this is not a small group. I say this based on purely anecdotal evidence such as exit polling in democratic primaries in Apalachia, support on discussion forums for Michael Richards, and, indeed, response to the Corvida/Wayne Sutton chat.

But the most troubling group to me, as I discussed on Monday, are the ones that just don’t think this kind of material is a big deal. They believe blacks are too “thin skinned” about this stuff. “What’s the big deal, it’s all in fun.” Or to protest is violating Feldman’s right to free speech. This group fascinates me, and as far as I can tell, it a not inconsequential percentage of the tech blogosphere.

Then, there is another part of the tech blogosphere that is either afraid to speak up, or feels the discussion is beneath them. I have several prominent and/or powerful friends who are bloggers who have said this. Or they have said, “I don’t want to get involved.” I have to say hearing this hurts.

And so, given how hurtful and damaging all of this stuff is, at least to us black folks, I thought I would explain why.

For many of you who are in your twenties of early thirties, there is no context for the civil rights movement. For example I have been having a discussion with Tom from TomsTechBlog, and yesterday he actually stated, in defense of the argument that protesting Loren Feldman was immoral, that threatening boycotts was actually illegal. I really don’t mean to pick on Tom because despite the fact that I think he is really ignorant of the facts and the social context of these issues, I truly believe he is a decent person.

But the fact that he holds such views, and many of you do, means there is still more that needs to be said. And so, a little context.

As background, I was born in Harlem, in the midst of the civil rights movement. My father was an active participant in that movement. His best friend was Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, to whom he served as counselor. Adam (as he was affectionately known to everyone in Harlem) is, to this day, the most productive legislator in the history of congress as well as the most powerful black legislator in congressional history. He is revered in Harlem, the community I grew up in, and to which I have returned to live.

As a child I was present as amazing things were happening. I observed as great people planned and fought so that I would have opportunities that they did not. Despite having a master’s degree in education and before getting his law degree, the best job my father could get was as a sorter in the post office. The civil rights movement mattered on so many levels. Not that I fully understood what was going on, but it was happening all around me, and I could not miss its import. They fought the evil ideas, and the evil people. And they won. And in so doing they helped to change the country.

Admittedly and thankfully, this country is far, far better today. And the reason my father was able to go from being a mail sorter to practicing law and later to become a judge, and the reason that I can write this blog, and do the work I do, is because of the many great people, white and black, leaders and followers who protested, boycotted, and resisted. I view peaceful resistance and dissent, as not only a right, but a responsibility for those of us who value decency, and indeed democracy.

To suggest that the right thing to do is to be silent in the face of racist words, or worse, to suggest that not being silent, or that protesting or boycotting or threatening boycotts is wrong, is to wipe away and invalidate what, for me, is the part of American history that has made my life possible, that is, peaceful protest. And what is apparent to me is that there is a current, younger generation that has in many cases never known about things that are recent enough for me to actually remember.

And so the point is, context is important. Damaging words can and do lead people to bad places, and to do bad things and to feel bad thoughts. Adam Powell’s instituting a prohibition on members of congress from using the word nigger on the floor of the house was important because words really do matter. And bad words and ideas cannot just lay unaddressed.

Coming back to Tech Nigga, there are those that say that its all just words, and that words are just, well, words. It’s just jokes, and so how harmful could it be.

To those who would diminish the significance of the hurt caused by such words, I would ask that you trust me when I say that you are mistaken.

Words matter.

Words influence minds. Minds influence mouths. And hearts. And fists. And paychecks. And guns.

Words matter. In fact almost nothing matters more than words, simple though they are.

And so if words matter, and words can hurt and do damage, how do we define that damage. And how do we define when we are participating in that damage. In short, the definition of racism needs a refresh.

What is racism in 2008?

It is more than just calling someone a nigger, or a nigga. It is more than shooting someone 51 times. It is more than just skipping a resume because someone has a “black sounding” name. And it is indeed more than having hate in your heart.

In 2008, racism is appeasing the evildoers. It is making jokes that no one finds funny, or even that a few misguided ones do. It is categorizing large swaths of people with words and language that hurt them, even if you have no idea why. It is questioning the morals of people when they stand up to defend themselves against language that seeks to further diminish an already weak social standing. In 2008, racism does not require a white hood, or a lynch mob. It does not require that you hate. Yes, the lack of such obvious indicia does not mean there is no racism. Indeed,  I know racism when I see it, and I hope you do too.

Post Author: Ruby H. Rosenbaum

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