Am I a racist? No. I’m not.
There. That takes care of the substance of the matter. I have blasphemed in public and I will be chastened by a lot of people whose social and political views are very like mine. We part company on some other issues. It might be the question of what language is for. It might be the question of what sin is like and what to do about it. I’m really not sure, but in the process of writing this post, I am hoping that I will find out.
Let’s take the language question first. What should a word like “racist” mean? It certainly ought to mean that race is a highly salient category. So a racist would look at a woman who is a Democrat, an entrepreneur, a Baptist, a mother, a Ph. D, a gifted poet and the product of Yoruba parents and say that she is “black.” That category is more important, more immediate, than all the others. That doesn’t make this person a racist.
The second would be that it is race itself, rather than attributes that might be associated with race, that is the focus. Someone is going to point out that nothing I have said so far screens out black nationalists and that is true, but the next one will. If a population is black and poor and malnourished and used to living on a very short timeline of rewards and punishments, a racist would want to talk about inheritable traits rather than cultural ones. He would begin with a logic like “you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear” and make race, itself, the sow’s ear. That means that the population in question could become orderly, middle class, well-fed, and characterized by long-term incentives, and the racist would still predict disaster because the population is still black. You do inherit the Negritude after all. The new successful orderly middle class black population would be very confusing to the racist.
Race, already salient and genetic, must also be negative. It must be bad for people to be black. That screens out the black nationalists who work to form positive and effective “black identities” and to read and write histories centered on the achievements of black people.
Finally, a “racist” must hold these views much more than his or her contemporaries. “Racism” is the name of the left end of the scale of racial views, as below. It is not the name of the whole scale, as above. Whatever social value you might hope for by labeling everyone a racist, it has no linguistic value at all. I don’t think it has much social value either, but that is a matter for another time.
So there is the language question. Now let’s take “sin.” Am I sinful? Sure. Of course. People are sinful, according to the theology I hold, so I am sinful. Not much of a linguist triumph is it? But if you are going to posit two entities—as Christian theology routinely does—God, on the one hand, and humankind, on the other, then there is still a language value in saying that God is not sinful but we humans, are. And God, who is sinless and omniscient as well, knows that I am sinful, and, where necessary, just how sinful. It goes with being God, I guess.
You, on the other hand, know that I am sinful only by the linguistic and logical route and you don’t know just how sinful I am at all. But what would you do if you really needed to know? If I were in your place, I would look for acts of impiety. Failing that, I would look for words of impiety. Failing that, I would look for acts or deeds that I thought might betray an inner attitude of impiety. Failing that, I would look for any associates you might have who are impious. Failing that, I would look at statuses you occupy—lord, serf, capitalist, rabble-rouser—to see if any impiety might be transferred from the category to you personally. And if even that failed, I might go so far as to say that you have not protested the impiety of others with the vigor you should have shown. I’d get you, one way or the other, I am pretty sure.
Seems like a lot of effort to expend, doesn’t it? But I think it is exactly what you would have to do to find me to be a racist. No effort is necessary, of course, to find me to be a racist on the scale labelled “racism.” For all the positions on that scale, there are only matters of degree. Just how racist I am, is the language game that can be played in that arena. But if you use the other scale, the one where “racist” applies only to the pejorative end of the scale, you will have to exercise due diligence to see whether my deeds and words and attitudes, etc. merit your placing me that far down.
Not that it can’t be done. You could look for acts or racism, then words of racism, then attitudes of racism, then racism by social category, then “tolerance of racism” on the part of others. Since I have reproduced the impiety series exactly, I am hoping that will sound familiar. It is, as I said, a lot of work to have to go to.
And who benefits so much from that finding that I am “racist” in the meaningful, not in the presupposed, sense? The immediate maleficiaries of racism, certainly. People who, because of the racism of others, are denied graduate assistantships or promotions or lodging or dining to which they would otherwise be entitled. It doesn’t help them very much, though. If I am the person who has refused to serve them in the way I would serve any other customers and they have established that I am a racist, they have made a significant causal attribution. It is my racism, according to this attribution, that is the reason for what I have done. But then, if I am chastened for my racism and move over to refusing to serve them because they are poor, they are only marginally better off.
There is no reason to deny that Asians are the victims of racial attitudes held by black people. The videos of Korean-owned convenience stores in Los Angeles that were a good deal too convenient to crowds of black people bent on revenge, make that point clear. There is a demonstrable prejudice in New York City against black people who were raised here and in favor of black people who were born in Africa. Continental prejudice? And the competition that Hispanics and blacks are forced into for some kinds of work has produced a lot of anti-black rhetoric by the Hispanics and a lot of anti-Hispanic rhetoric by the blacks.
These are serious issues. I would like to see progress made on solving them. Controlling the official attributions, so that the people who are doing things I don’t like are “racists” does not seem like much progress to me.
So I admit to being a sinner, as I define the term. Just how bad my sin is, God knows—and that’s good because He really needs to know. I don’t admit to being a racist as I define the term, although I admit that anyone who wanted to go through the steps I outlined above would find reason to call me that.
And that would be worth doing because…?
 One of the many useful things I learned in the course of completing an undistinguished history major at Wheaton College is that PERSIA—the political, economic, religious, social, intellectual, and aesthetic elements of society—is an amazingly useful acronym. I used it in the example of “the black woman” as you can now see.
 The word is such an oddity. You have to keep the capital N- because Negro is capitalized (as is Caucasian), while black is not (nor is white). Negritude refers to the physical racial inheritance, whereas black is much more often a word that takes in cultural phenomena as well.
 I invented that for a public policy class. I got tired of talking about the beneficiaries of a given policy and the…people who were disadvantaged by it. It’s not an acceptable word, so far as I know, but it does feel good.
 Unless, of course, it offends the religious scruples of the corporation who has hired the manager who refused to serve you.