What's in a Word?

By Sherry F. Colb

In my Justia Verdict column for this week, I discuss Mississippi Initiative 26, which invites voters on election day to amend the state's constitution to define a "person" as existing from the moment of conception.  My column discusses the different ways of understanding the statement "an embryo is/is not a person" and analyzes why proponents and opponents might choose to make their arguments using the word "person."  I conclude that the word itself does not add much substance to the debate but that it may nonetheless effectively shape people's reactions to abortion at various stages of pregnancy.

In this post, I want to discuss a different word that can have multiple meanings, both empirical and normative:  "racism."  In the news earlier this week, we learned that Governor Rick Perry's family used a West Texas hunting camp with an offensive name (which included the n-word) painted in block letters on a large rock at its gate.  According to the stories, Perry hosted fellow lawmakers and others at the camp while the name was still painted on the rock.  Some have inferred from this revelation that either that Perry himself is a racist (or comes from a racist family) or that he is excessively tolerant of racism.  Others have responded that regardless of what was painted on the rock, Perry is not a racist.

I am not interested in entering the debate over whether Perry is or is not a racist.  I was not a supporter of Perry's candidacy before, and nothing about his hosting people at a hunting camp with an offensive name has altered that fact.  What interests me is people's use of the word "racist" in attacking or defending Perry, as though the meaning of the word is clear and uncontroversial, and we need only uncover facts about Perry to determine whether he is or not .  The reality is otherwise in ways that go well beyond Rick Perry.

The words "racist" and "racism" are not simply factual words but normative words as well.  They refer to people, attitudes, and practices that wrongfully place others in advantageous or disadvantageous or distinct circumstances by virtue of the others' race.  The word "wrongfully" is crucial here, because people have widely divergent views on when it is or might be racist to treat a person differently because of his or her race.

A liberal who supports affirmative action, for example, would not view as "racist" an employer's decision to consider the fact that a job candidate is African American as a reason to prefer him to an equally qualified white competitor for the position.  A policy of affirmative action, on this approach, recognizes that the history of race in this country and the interactions and expectations to which that history has given rise continue to place obstacles in the paths of African Americans seeking an equal place in our society.  As a result, an African American candidate who appears "equally qualified"' for a job has almost certainly had to contend with impediments that his white counterpart never faced, and this suggests that the African American candidate brings greater skills to the table, evidenced by his equal performance.

An opponent of affirmative action, by contrast, might say, as Chief Justice Roberts said in Parents Involved, that "[t]he way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race."  To be free of racism, on this approach, one might cultivate indifference to an applicant's race.  Yet another opponent of affirmative action might say that racial preferences for minorities in fact stigmatize members of minority groups by implying that the only way for African Americans to achieve coveted positions is by receiving special favors, thus supporting a narrative of inferiority and relative incompetence.

The fact that there are disputes over its content does not mean, of course, that the word "racism" is completely empty.  There is a consensus that a person who calls another person by a racial slur or inflicts violence on another person because of the latter's race has exhibited racism.  If, for example, Rick Perry had himself painted the offensive name on the rock at the hunting camp, then we would likely be hearing a very different debate (for example, over whether Perry was in some way incapacitated by alcohol at the time of the painting and therefore was not "himself"), because virtually everyone would agree that the act itself was racist.  Expressions of animus or hatred toward a group or individual on the basis of race will accordingly be characterized as "racist" without garnering much controversy.

The uncontroversial part of the "racism" definition thus includes consciously and deliberately inflicting harm on a victim because of that victim's race.  But there is certainly more to the definition than that.  A person can, for example, be a racist because he hates members of a minority group, even though he has not committed any acts that consciously mistreat someone on the basis of race.  When others come to know about the person's racist feelings, they will likely consider him a racist, notwithstanding his conscientiously neutral behavior.  A "racist" thus refers not only to conduct but to cognitions and emotions as well, some not entirely conscious.  One can accordingly be a racist without doing anything to anyone.  When someone is accused of being racist, on the basis of ambiguous action or inaction (as may be true in Rick Perry's case), it is therefore predictable that some may come to the person's defense and say "I know that person's heart, and he is not a racist."

Once we acknowledge, however, that racism consists of more than just conscious, deliberate adverse decision-making, it follows that seemingly "neutral" or "color-blind" actions and inactions can nonetheless be racist.  More important than the label, however, is the fact that the challenges facing members of minority groups are not limited to consciously planned mistreatment on the basis of race.  I am currently reading a book called Whistling Vivaldi, by Claude Steele, in which Steele discusses a phenomenon he calls "stereotype threat" or "identity threat."  This occurs when a member of a group that carries a negative stereotype regarding ability in a particular area is asked to perform a task in that very area in circumstances that make the negative stereotype salient to the person doing the performance.  Under this circumstance, the person predictably performs less well than he otherwise would and less well than comparably prepared members of the non-stereotyped (or positively stereotyped) group.  Most people belong to a group that is negatively stereotyped in some way (though not all stereotypes are equally pernicious), so Steele was able to test many different groups relative to their particular stereotyped Achilles' Heels.  Older people, for example, would perform more poorly on a memory test if visual cues made their age salient.  One of Steele's most important discoveries, moreover, was that "ordinary" or "neutral" settings in fact generated stereotype threat (e.g., the presence of very few members of the minority group relative to the non-minority group in the room where a test is taken) and diminished performance.  The mechanism is anxiety for the person who suddenly feels afraid that if she performs badly, she will confirm conventional beliefs about her group. Unsurprisingly, such anxiety consistently interferes with performance. By simply altering seemingly innocuous aspects of the situation, in other words, we can significantly reduce or even eliminate stereotype threat and thereby reduce or eliminate corresponding gaps in performance.

How are these findings connected to the meaning of racism?  They are related in that presumably, everyone would agree that if a set of exam instructions or other simple features of an exam setting could calm the anxiety experienced by members of racial and other groups taking the exam (relative to others in the room), it would be good to use those instructions or adopt those features.  Even a staunch opponent of affirmative action who believes that giving conventional instructions does not qualify as "racist" would likely be enthusiastic about an inexpensive and neutral innovation that elevated minority performance by reducing stereotype threat (and simultaneously did nothing to interfere with non-minority performance).  In such a context, it would be most constructive to avoid using the word "racism" and instead join hands in promoting a measure that would likely bother no one.  If we can manage to move away from normatively freighted and highly contested words, we can have a real conversation about eliminating inequities in our society.