Hopes for a post-racial America following the election of Barak Obama are fading fast.
Barak Obama and czar appointee Van Jones who was
forced to resign over his racist comments
At least one reason for the failing dream is that the very idea of racism has some intrinsic flaws in terms of its moral dimensions.
Barak Obama and friend Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates
whose behavior prompted questions about racism across the nation
The increasingly dysfunctional use of “racism” as charge and counter-charge often has more to do with the character of racism as an idea than it has to do with the character of alleged racists.
“It gets to the point where we don’t have a word that
we use to call people racist who actually are.”
JOHN MCWHORTER, who studies race and language at
the Manhattan Institute, on charges led by former
President Jimmy Carter that opponents of President
Obama’s political agenda are motivated by racism.
Copyright 2009 WORLD Magazine
Oct 10, 2009, Vol. 24, No. 20
Although McWhorter makes a major point, the problem is not just about the overuse or misuse of words. Rather it is the inherent limitations of racism as a concept for weighing vice against virtue.
Rush Limbaugh and his accusers
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Decompose racism into traditional categories of hate, malice, favoritism, fear, slander, intolerance, pride, and so forth, and the only thing it offers beyond those categories is an overriding emphasis on race (an emphasis that explains why, for example, the concept of racism as a vice has engendered no general agreement on a countervailing virtue.)
Barak Obama and long-time pastor Jeremiah Wright
whom Obama eventually disowned due to the Wright’s racist rhetoric
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In other words, the racist judges malice as either more or less odious depending upon the ethnicity of its target– and that prejudice is just as necessary for those who exhibit racism as for those who oppose it. This doesn’t just mean that opposition to alleged racism on the part of some will likely function as a cover for real racism on the part of others but that such an outcome is probably unavoidable, being inherent to the concept from the beginning.
In the absence of greater evils, such contradictions and defects do not produce moral progress– they foster regress.
Thus the present use of racism as a lens for discerning good and evil does not raise moral horizons– it lowers them. It does not broaden the scope of moral concerns– it narrows them. It does not elevate the quality of moral discourse– it debases it.
Race activists Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton
Sharpton photo copyrighted by David Shankbone and
used under the GNU Free Documentation License
Jackson photo by Eric Guo used by permission
And so we have the present situation, the great irony of which is that no one can preach against racism without wittingly or unwittingly engaging in it– hence the ultimate disutility of racism as a concept for dealing with evil.
None of this is to say that nothing good ever came from opposition to racism. That is simply not true.
What is true though is that lesser evils can only function (or appear) as good things when even greater evils exist. But when the greater evils are overcome (or other evils make their appearance), then the lesser evils becomes manifest (or downright counterproductive).
What is also true is that the effectiveness of racism as a construct for addressing social problems has been in its grounding in classic vices and virtues. Over time though, the very concept of vice and virtue have been so leached out of the culture by a relentless pluralism that about the only thing left in the notion of “racism” is the sense of unequal entitlement to exaggerated race consciousness.
Members of the New Blank Pather Party
intimidating white voters in Philadelphia
during election day 2008.
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That is where America is in the matter of racism. To see all the recent racial incidents as lack of progress on race is to misread root causes. So doubling down on racial problems under the rubric of racism will not solve problems– it will make matters worse.
All of this may subtle, but recent evidence of how preoccupation with racism seems to beget the very thing its antagonists claim to oppose should be reason enough to doubt the premise that modern humanity has discovered vices and virtues the ancients overlooked.
The immediate solution is to repudiate hypocrisy wherever it appears.
The larger solution is to raise our moral horizons, broaden the scope of our moral concerns, and elevate the quality of our moral discourse by recognizing the limitations of racism as a moral dimension and returning to classic understandings of vice and virtue.
In the meantime, racism as a moral category will continue to be a dysfunctional way of conceptualizing a dysfunctional thing.
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