For starters, it doesn’t define “racist,” even though there is hardly a more abused, misused and overused word in the English language than the R-word.
Two major misunderstandings make a mess of today’s race debates. One, our racial attitudes are based on our personal experiences and all of our experiences are very different. Two, everybody carries different definitions in their heads of what racism is.
Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary lists two definitions. One is “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.” The other is simply “racial prejudice or discrimination.”
But there’s at least one other definition, widely believed among black folks, that touched off an uproar after Spike Lee expressed it in a July 1991 Playboy magazine interview: “Black people can’t be racist, he said. “Racism is an institution.”
Although “black people can be prejudiced,” Lee allowed, we “don’t have the power” to enforce the sweeping institutional racism that perpetuates social, economic and political inequality. Maybe not, I say, but we’re moving up.
Lee’s argument was easier to make before African-Americans gained as much institutional power and influence as some of us are beginning to achieve, all the way up to the White House.
As we aspire to full equality, I believe that we need to hold ourselves as accountable as we hold Paula Deen, Don Imus, Michael “Kramer” Richards and every other racial gaffe maker.
But that’s not always easy. What we say can be quite culturally different from what other people want to hear.
Remember, for example, the blowback last year after President Barack Obama framed the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin in personal terms by saying, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”
“Disgraceful,” fumed Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich. “We should all be horrified no matter what the ethnic background.” Of course. Obviously the president didn’t mean to say otherwise.
But, when even President Obama gets slammed for an innocent tribute after all of his years of diligently playing by the rules of today’s racial etiquette, it is no wonder that so many people think black folks are racist.
Yet, as the poll results hint, it is no secret that the black community has to contend with its own internal racism, too. I recall, for example, how one of my son’s black high school classmates responded when I asked whether he detected any racism in today’s youths. Yes, he said, “The blacks girls get mad when they see you dancing with a white girl.” Ah, yes. Race, like sex, is complicated, children.
Considering today’s tragic shortage of marriageable black males, I can’t help but sympathize with those girls. They didn’t create this world. They’re probably just imitating us, their elders.