“Racism” and its derivative, “racist,” are oft-used words, and so we ought to know what they mean. But often we don’t, and we just fling them at each other, hoping they will wound, if not kill, the offensive person.
One of my dictionaries (Standard College Dictionary, 1963) defines racism this way: ” 1. An excessive or irrational belief in or advocacy of the superiority of a given group, people, or nation, usually one’s own, on the basis of racial differences having no scientific validity. 2. Social action or government policy based upon such assumed differences.” Another (Webster’s College Dictionary, 1991) defines it this way: “LA belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human races determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior. 2. A policy, system of government, etc., based on such a doctrine. 3. Hatred or intolerance of another race or other races.” Look how the definition of racism has changed between 1963 and 1991. Gone from the 1991 definition is any notion of rationality or scientific validity, which are virtually the same thing.
By the 1991 definition (please note carefully its use of the word usually; it doesn’t say always), if I note in speech or writing that sickle-cell anemia is likely to emerge in the black population but is virtually absent from the white population, then I will be guilty of racism; if I observe that about 80 percent of the NBA’s players are black, then I am a racist; similarly, if I remark that none of the finalists in the Olympic 100-meter dash are ever East Asians, or that out of the top hundred 100-meter runners in the United States only one (or is it two or none?) is white, that the vast majority of the running backs and wide receivers in the NFL are black, that whites dominate the throwing events in track and field, etc., then I am a racist. If I say that almost all serial killers, mass murderers, and political assassins (e.g., Bundy, Darhman, Oswald, Son of Sam) are white, then I am also a racist. The guy who told me when I was an undergraduate that all the professors in the mathematics department were either Jewish or Japanese was a racist. And when Martin Peretz wrote in the New Republic, as he did on February 10, 1992, “that the number of American Ph.D.’s in mathematics . . . fell from 619 in 1978 to 341 ten years later . . . [and] of these only one was black,” he was a racist.
Note that all of the above are based on observation and hard numbers, that they are therefore “scientific” by any definition of the term, that they do not imply the superiority or inferiority of any race, but that they would still be labeled racist by the 1991 definition of racism given above. So, in effect, our usage (as revealed in the definition in Webster’s College Dictionary, which reflects current usage pretty well) of the word “racism” is directly opposed to the mission of the university, which is to make scientific statements about any phenomenon under the sun (and even beyond). So what do we do?
In the early 1980’s, historian William McNeil wrote as follows:
Polyethnic lamination—clustering different groups in particular occupations and arranging them in a more or less formal hierarchy of dignity and wealth—is again asserting itself in the Soviet Union as much as in France, Germany, Great Britain, and the United States.
This constitutes a reversion to the civilized pattern of the deeper past when the world’s great empires comprised a small ruling group—itself often recruited from a multiplicity of ethnic backgrounds—presiding over a hierarchy of specialized occupations, each of which tended to be dominated by a particular ethnic group. Such social arrangements do not accord well with liberal theory. When such differences do in fact exist, theory gets into difficulty.
Surely, the gap between theory and practice is growing among us with respect to migration and the status of ethnically diverse immigrants. It is high time we thought about it carefully.
McNeil’s obvious argument is that very little careful thought has been given to the racial and ethnic question in the West, but most particularly to the fact that all the races and ethnic groups of the world are well represented in the United States—uniquely so among the major countries of the world, as far as I know. Our current usage of the words “racism” and “racist” is clearly taking us away from this objective.
When Bush nominated Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court to replace Thurgood Marshall, he said that Thomas was the best legal mind in the country, or something to that effect, which we knew to be untrue. And, more recently, Clinton spoke at least in an obfuscating way when he appointed various women and minorities to his Cabinet. Why do our leaders mislead us? Why can’t they say, with McNeil, that a small ruling group should be recruited from the different nationalities and groups that comprise this country? This country is multiracial, and eventually we’ll have to accept McNeil’s words.
Now turn to the legal aspects of race and racism; hate speech, speech codes on college campuses, crimes of various sorts that are racially motivated, etc. The legal situation with respect to freedom of speech can be fairly summarized as follows. Although the Western-type democracies share basic values, they differ in the order of importance attributed to these values. Each society determines the position of freedom of expression according to its own history, institutions, sense of security, and tolerance of dissent. Although in the United States the reach of freedom of expression has not been static, the contemporary Supreme Court speaks of this freedom in almost absolute terms and attributes to it a commanding priority over other competing liberties.
The First Amendment, with which all laws in the country have to be consistent, is straightforward and simple: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” (italics mine).
Given the current state of First Amendment law, it is unlikely that the United States Senate will ratify the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (adopted in 1963 by the General Assembly of the U.N.). Although the United States signed the convention, it did so with the following caveat:
The Constitution of the United States contains provisions for the protection of individual rights, such as the right of free speech, and nothing in the Convention shall be deemed to require or to authorize legislation or other action by the United States of America incompatible with the provisions of the Constitution of the United States of America.
Congress never ratified the convention because of Article Four. This article would require the United States to declare “all dissemination of ideas based on racial superiority or hatred” an offense punishable by law.
On the other hand, Great Britain did ratify it. In 1965, Parliament (whose acts are the law of the land—the United Kingdom has no written constitution, though the Parliament there does try to pass laws within certain unwritten constraints, e.g., it tries to preserve freedom of speech) passed section six of the Race Relations Act, 1965 (RRA 1965). Under this section, a person is guilty of incitement to racial hatred if
with intent to stir up hatred against any section of the public in Great Britain distinguished by colour, race, or ethnic or national origins: (a) he publishes or distributes written matter which is threatening, abusive or insulting; or (b) he uses in any public place or at any public meeting words which are threatening, abusive or insulting, being matter or words likely to stir up hatred against that section on grounds of colour, race, or ethnic or national origin.
This section is notable in several respects: first, it reverts back to the seditious libel standard (in fact, the First Amendment of the United States Constitution was created in direct response to the British sedition laws that make criticism of the government illegal) in that it requires the speaker to have “intent” to stir up hatred; second, it punishes only the cruder forms of speech; third, it targets only public racist commentary; and, finally, the use of the law to combat racist speech requires the consent of the Attorney General (the law requires that no prosecution be brought without the consent of Britain’s Attorney General). The intent requirement made it very difficult for the Crown to win convictions under the RRA 1965. For example, it proved impossible to convict the publishers of a newspaper who declared as their goal the “return of people of other races from this ‘overcrowded island’ to ‘their own countries.'” The defendants argued that their newspaper had educational value as a means of addressing important social issues, and the prosecutors were unable to prove that the defendants intended to instill in the populace any hatred of immigrants. So, in an effort to make prosecutions for incitement easier, section 70 of the Race Relations Act, 1976 (RRA 1976), discarded the intent requirement. Convictions could henceforth be based upon the mere proof that the speech or publication of “threatening, abusive or insulting” words was likely to stir up hatred against “any racial group in Great Britain.” Even with the relaxation of the government’s burden, there were few prosecutions considering the rise in racial strife and violence during the period 1976-1981. In a further effort to strengthen the incitement laws. Parliament passed Part III of the Public Order Act, 1986 (POA 1986). Under Section 18, the “use of threatening, abusive, or insulting words” is an offense if: a) the speaker intends thereby to stir up racial hatred, or b) having regard to all the circumstances racial hatred is likely to be stirred up. Now a person can be punished for either intending to stir up racial hatred or for using words likely to stir up hatred. John Tyndall, the editor of Spearhead, which is published by the far-right British National Party, was convicted under this act and served six months in prison.
There is nothing like the First Amendment of the United States Constitution in any other country; in those European countries having formal, written constitutions—e.g., Germany, Italy, and France—there is no equivalent clause. Therefore, in other Western democracies, certain kinds of speech are illegal. In Israel, a kind of Western, democratic insertion into the Middle East, the far-right Kach party, founded by the late Rabbi Meir Kahane and espousing the removal of all non-Jews from Israel, has been outlawed. In Germany, likewise, certain far-right parties have been outlawed. In addition, certain insignia, like the swastika, and gestures of the National Socialist (Nazi) party are illegal. Mein Kampf cannot be bought, sold, or owned. Holocaust-denial is also illegal. In France, a person can go to jail and face fines for denying the holocaust or certain aspects of it, like the use of gas chambers. In Canada, certain types of speech involving the holocaust are also outlawed.
This is not the case in the United States. Unless the speech incites imminent violence, it is protected by the First Amendment. Thus, we have the American Nazi Party. The swastika is freely shown. Mein Kampf is openly available, and you won’t get arrested for selling it or for buying and reading it. Holocaustdenial, in its many forms—some involving the gas chambers, others involving the number of deaths of Jews in Europe between 1933 and 1945—is not an indictable offense. In fact, the United States has become a major source of hate material for Europe and Canada.
What kinds of speech and press are proscribed in America? Speech that incites imminent violence, pornography that involves minors, harassing speech in the workplace, and “fighting” words (like yelling “nigger” at a black or “kike” at a Jew). That’s it in the United States. For this reason, speech codes at universities have proved impossible to maintain. Speech codes at the large public universities, like the University of Michigan and the University of Wisconsin, that ban certain kinds of racially offensive speech have been found unconstitutional. As a consequence, these speech codes have been thrown out, and private universities, like the University of Pennsylvania, have followed suit. For this reason also, it has proved impossible to regulate the speech of Professor Jeffries, Louis Farrakhan, and his aide Khallid Muhammad, as well as countless white supremacists, though their speech contains many willful errors and deliberate distortions regarding race and ethnicity and definitely incites racial and ethnic hatred.
But our usage of the word “racist” is definitely on a different course from the attitude reflected in law, and one wonders how long this will last. The legal situation in Europe and Canada regarding speech inciting racial hatred is clearly a warning shot across our bow.