We have heard the word “racist” used often this summer, especially in light of the tragedies in Baton Rouge and Dallas. It is a powerful word that can ruin peoples’ lives, careers and reputations. That is why it’s regrettable that so many people don’t know what they’re talking about when they use the word. It is one of the most misunderstood, misused and therefore most dangerous words in the English language. If words were weapons, “racist” would be an AK-47.
Used correctly, “racist” refers to a person who believes that one race is inherently superior to another. Merriam-Webster defines the word accordingly: “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities, and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.”
Anyone who believes that is ill advised and wrong-headed, but it isn’t a belief shared by many people. We agree with President Obama who, during his speech in Dallas, said, “we are not so divided as we seem.”
There are many people, however, who make decisions for reasons based on race, who are not racist themselves. If during an election a black person votes for a candidate of his race rather than one who is white, that isn’t necessarily racist if he’s doing so because he believes the black candidate will better understand his needs and situation. That is normal politics.
Supporting a leader perceived to be one of your own has forever been common to cultures and countries. In some places it isn’t skin color that’s a determining factor, but religion or geography. Over time, and this is currently happening in the United Sates, race will become less of a reason to favor one person over another and will be replaced by some other reason, such as social class. Barack Obama was first elected with the strong support of younger white voters who were excited with his youth and the spirit of change that he represented. Change is a strong catalyst.
Race, though, remains as the most inflammatory of social divisions, and people cower at its use. They are afraid to use the words “black,” “white” or their synonyms in normal conversation. They could never, for example, say that a neighborhood has a majority black population for fear that saying so makes them racist, but that’s statistics, not bias.
In a country founded on the principle of freedom of speech, unchecked political correctness too often forces people to speak in code rather than in fact.
During the summer’s turmoil there was plenty of preaching about coming together. A good first step is to understand what we’re talking about. Random-fire use of a word such as “racist” is a form of bigotry. It is a crime against understanding.