What’s In a Name?

The topic of the State of the Academy was present in almost every single conversation this past Friday — issues of The Phillipian scattered around Paresky Commons tables serving as prompts for the inevitable moment in which someone would mention “it.” While numerous criticisms of the presentation and statistics immediately arose, no fact or figure brought about more discussion amongst the Andover student body than a little pie chart on the second page — unassumingly stating that roughly 37 percent of the school believes that reverse racism exists. For me, the topic surfaced in the form of a lunchtime discussion with a group of my friends, to which there was an instant eruption of considerable controversy. With a majority of Andover’s campus ascribing to a liberal ideology, it is no surprise that my compatriots took the side that deems reverse racism a myth. However, to me, there seemed something slightly off about the logic behind their argument, and eventually, after much lively debate, we distilled our disagreement down to a central divide between the two sides — one side accepted the definition of racism as “prejudice plus systemic power,” while the other did not.

These inconsistent definitions are at the heart of every discussion of reverse racism. Neither side will accept that there are currently two different, conflicting definitions for the term “racism.” To ensure we are actually able to have constructive discussions on the racial issues that plague our society, we must first resolve this debate.

The conflict that led to our lunchtime debate is grounded in a lexical conflict between this stipulative definition — the original terms upon which racism was defined, the notion of racially driven prejudice — and the assertion of a precising definition: racism is prejudice plus power. Racism as a term came into the general lexicon in the 1930s, when scholars needed a term to define the ideology upon which the Nazis persecuted the Jews. The original definition — and indeed, the “prejudice plus power” notion as well — carries with it two claims: firstly, that people may be subdivided into racial categories, and second, that members of one race are often seen as inherently superior to another race or set of races. As race has no true biological reference point, there is no consensus between groups of people as to the exact breakup of races. Regardless, the first assertion has been ratified by almost all cultures on the Earth. Within this context and definition, members of disenfranchised minorities and majorities are able to hold racist beliefs.

From purely a logical perspective, the other precising definition seems to make no sense. The definition of prejudice plus systemic power reduces the concept of racism to an unnecessary level of abstraction, eschewing individual nuance. It forgives an entire section of the populace for their racially-bigoted views, deeming them simply as prejudiced instead. Pit a naked, homeless, white man on the streets of San Francisco against Oprah Winfrey. Perhaps in some some obscure tangent, it could be argued that removed from their current status and situation, the white man has some leverage over Oprah. But most would agree that Oprah wields more power. Accordingly, if we accepted this definition of racism, this homeless man would simply be exhibiting prejudice rather than racism if he spat on Oprah’s shoes and screamed racial epithets as she walked past. While it is true that on the whole in America, whites enjoy a level of systemic power that African-Americans do not have, the definition of prejudice plus power removes the ability for individuals that do not fit the societal trend to be racist. Power outside of absolutist dictatorships is not consolidated in a single group — America is not a zero-sum game when it comes to societal leverage, a, for lack of a better word, black and white situation.

On the other hand, there are merits to the precising definition. Prejudice plus power correctly elucidates a concept missing from the stipulative, that there are deeply rooted historical connotations to the word “racism” that cannot be fully explored with the initial definition. The idea of people subscribing to the idea of race and establishing a hierarchy off of that idea does not hint whatsoever at the political racism that disadvantaged minorities, e.g. African-Americans, Asians, Native Americans, etc. face. Therefore, I would distinguish between two types of racism— the original belief racism and the modern concept of political racism, to which we fit the two definitions of racial prejudice and prejudice plus power respectively.

And so we have two definitions. One might look at these and the differences between them and see an obvious distinction, but this is evidently not the case in the real world. Semantic confusion over racism is extremely common, and eventually becomes detrimental to our overarching society. When people attempt to call for or institute reparatory policies towards historically disadvantaged minorities for both past and present transgressions against them, many dissidents lay charges of racism against the people calling for compensation. These opponents are using the definition of belief racism in a context in which political racism is the more appropriate choice, because the use of the former definition ignores the deeply-rooted inequalities that pervade our systems to this day. In this situation, the prejudice plus power definition is fitting, because it allows our society to remedy the contemporary consequences of its past mistakes without erasing its history of inequality and oppression.

In a similar vein, however, when someone calls for action against an action of individual racism, you will only encourage unnecessary disagreement and further misunderstanding if you exclusively bring the definition of political racism to the table. Both definitions are right and wrong—they each go against some notions present in the real world. Language is always an abstraction of reality. The problem, then, is when our pedagogy suggests that one definition is exclusively the right one, at all times. I would call upon institutions like the Bluebook — which includes only the prejudice plus power definition — and the “Oxford English Dictionary” — which acknowledges only the belief racism definition — to recognize both rather than espouse a single one. They should both realize that there are separate contexts to which each is better suited. And to The Phillipian (and by proxy, “the State of the Academy”), I would recommend the acknowledgement of the dichotomy present, and specify what is looked for in these surveys:  Is it the percentage of the student body that believes in each definition of racism? Then ask that. Or are you looking for the number of students that believe that white people can be systematically oppressed? In this case, you must also state this. Only by acknowledging the societal conflict on the definition of race will you receive the statistics you are truly looking for.