Why “Racist” Is Such a Powerful Word

There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about the term “racist.” Cognitive psychologists, political pollsters, and communications consultants have weighed in about how to talk about racism and advance an equity agenda while not alienating white people by labeling them racists.  Many advise never using the term to describe people, instead suggesting we only criticize actions. Some have gone so far as to argue against using terms like racism and racist at all, calling it a losing strategy and directing us to focus on actions and outcomes that result in unintentional inequities instead.

All of that is fine to a point. I tend to think it’s a good idea to focus on actions and assume the best of people. It’s the right thing to do if for no other reason than that it exercises and strengthens our generosity. Without generosity, coalitions and alliances don’t work, and authentic solidarity across racial differences is impossible.

But even as we try to embrace the best in each of us, we ought not forget that racist actions are attached to racist attitudes. Those attitudes may be so integrated into the common sense of our society that those who harbor them aren’t doing so consciously, but that doesn’t mean those attitudes don’t exist, nor that they aren’t damaging. We need to call those attitudes out and make what’s common exotic. Unless we do, the logic of racism will continue to dictate the pace of progress toward justice, and that disparages the rights and humanity of those who are racism’s victims. It’s an approach that allows whites sensitivity to being labeled racists to dictate that racism with continue to reign.

Whites are about 78% of the American public. According to Gallup, about 19% of whites were opposed to interracial marriage in 2007. That’s a pretty small minority of whites, but in total number, that’s something like 49 million people. There are only 69 million or so non-white people living in the U.S. That means that the number of whites who oppose interracial marriage is greater than all of any one U.S. racial minority group. Why are they so afraid?

I believe what whites have to fear is white people.

When white supremacy was challenged by the racial justice movements of the 1950s and ’60s, white elites pivoted from overt racism and co-opted the language and symbols, but not the substance, of  racial justice. By doing so, they were able to position themselves as champions of a new colorblind code of civility that reduces structural racial injustice to an attitudinal problem. This enabled them to block attempts to reorganize unjust power relations while deflecting responsibility for continuing injustice on overt racists who were cast as ignorant, immoral, and backward.

This move caused whiteness to fracture. The dominant faction of elites adopted a strategy of coded messaging and avoidance of obvious racial conflict, while using overt racists as a foil against which to position themselves as racial egalitarians. When whites are exposed as racists, their anger is in part a reaction to the fear that they will be cast out of the dominant faction of whites and marginalized along with old fashioned racists like the KKK.

If you buy that, what we are up against, at least in part, is a factional fight among whites over how best to maintain supremacy. And for people of color to concede to that by avoiding direct attacks on racism is like cutting off our noses to spite our faces.

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By Scot Nakagawa

Scot Nakagawa is a political strategist and writer who has spent more than four decades exploring questions of structural racism, white supremacy, and social justice. Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against authoritarianism, white nationalism, and Christian nationalism. Currently, Scot is co-lead of the 22nd Century Initiative, a project to build the field of resistance to authoritarianism in the U.S.

Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow, an Open Society Foundations Fellow, and a recipient of the Association of Asian American Studies Community Leader Award. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition,  and Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.

Scot's political essays, briefings, and other educational media can be found at his newsletter, We Fight the Right at He is a sought after public speaker and educator who provides consultation on campaign and communications strategy, and fundraising.

5 replies on “Why “Racist” Is Such a Powerful Word”

So important for more of our nation to understand this > “When white supremacy was challenged by the racial justice movements of the 1950s and ’60s, white elites pivoted from overt racism and co-opted the language and symbols, but not the substance, of racial justice.”

If the substance of racial justice was in place there would not an avalanche of #Stop&Frisk, #WarOnDrugs, #NewJimCrow, #PrisonIndustrialComplex, and #RacistImmigrationLaws

And it goes without saying Scot, superb article again.

The majority of white people don’t benefit from racism. Racism is just a ploy by the capitalist class to divide the working class. It makes white workers see black workers as the enemy to stop them seeing that capitalism is their real, common enemy. So no, I’m not privileged.

Your comment Burt is an example of what is being addressed in this article – the dichotomy trap of definitions – as “racist” or not racist; as privileged or not. You are not as privileged as someone born into wealth, and that you have in common with the black working class, but if you get pulled over in a traffic stop and had a choice at that very moment to appear in black skin or white skin, honestly what would you choose? Feeling unthreatened when a cop approaches your door is a privilege relative to those who must fear being wrongly accused or harassed just because of the color of their skin.

Agreed. While one may not be experiencing white privilege the way Romney does, most, if not all, white people in this country experience some benefit from being white; if nothing else, we live in a country where the white person is seen as the default person, and every other race is seen as some deviation on that default. Even if one does not experience the class privilege, there are numerous other ways those benefits can be counted. Much in our culture centers the white experience, including historical information and generalizations of what it means to be an American, or even what it means to be of the same generation (seriously, does being in the same age group as others really mean you all view the world with the same attitudes and experiences?).And certainly, a lot of that centers not just a white viewpoint, but also a middle-class and up viewpoint (except when advantageous to get support from the working class, it seems). But there are still benefits gained by being white in this culture, even if not everyone experiences those same levels of benefits.

Also, while there are schools of thought that believe everything comes down to economics, I don’t think you can have an effective worker’s movement without addressing the differences that race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, disability, etc.bring into the mix of being on the lower end of the socioeconomic scale in this country. Being working class in this country is not the only barrier many people in this class face, and to ignore that runs the risk of that movement centering the white, male, straight, cisgendered, etc. experience; and that will keep people divided as well.

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