What We Talk About When We Talk About Racism

Ever notice that when we talk about racism, those of us who are racial justice advocates are often really mostly talking about ourselves? We speak out to demonstrate our knowledge. We signal that we get it, building community among like-minded people by using the right words and being in command of the right facts. We make the case for opposing racism with descriptions of how people of color suffer, often even to the extent to ranking oppressions and making suffering into a virtue.

At our best we don’t appeal to guilt as much as to compassion. But we don’t really talk about the broad affects of racism.We don’t ask ourselves the questions, what if guilt is not a strong enough motivator? What if compassion isn’t enough?

Sadly, I think the answer to both of those questions is no, neither guilt nor compassion is enough. In order to effectively eradicate racism, we need to appeal to self-interest, and not just of people of color. Whites may be shrinking as a portion of the U.S. population, but even by 2042, the date by which the census predicts non-whites will become the majority of U.S. residents, whites will still be the largest single minority by race. Moreover, they will still lead our most powerful institutions, especially in the private sector where ownership and not participation constitutes control.

Of course, talk alone isn’t going to end racism either. But, it’s a tool nearly all of us have, so we need to think about what we are really talking about when we talk about racism.

For instance, when food stamps was talked about as a problem of black people in the recent election, many of us responded by labeling those spreading this message as racists. Some of us talked about the suffering of people of color who are over-represented on the food stamp rolls. We vilified the messengers, and then used guilt as a lever to get people on our side, describing the struggles faced by recipients. We reminded people that many recipients are white. We also pointed out that many have jobs.

But, what was lost to most of the public was one simple fact. We all benefit from food stamps. The degree to which we benefit may vary, but all of us get a bump. Think about it. Food stamps is a Department of Agriculture program. Why? Because it is as much about helping farmers and grocers as it is about helping to feed poor families.

10% of groceries in the U.S. are purchased with food stamps. People would lose jobs, and food deserts may be created in the neediest and most remote communities if not for food stamps.

Food stamps also feeds a portion of our military, making up the difference between what we pay soldiers and their real cost of living. Even a staff sergeant with two years of experience makes less than the food stamps eligibility standard for a family of four.

Many workers qualify for assistance because they are paid poverty wages. Food stamps takes up the slack left by employers who pay less than the poverty standard, making it possible for people to remain in low-wage, temporary and part-time jobs to the benefit of their bosses.

Food stamps is also the most stimulative of all forms of government spending. For every dollar spent in food stamps, we experience 1.74 dollars in growth in GDP within a year.

Racism leads us to focus on whether or not certain people deserve assistance, and upon whether or not assistance leads to dependency. But the reality is that our economy (and not just poor people) can’t afford to do without food stamps.

This same argument can be made about the gender wage gap. That gap isn’t just made of sexism. It’s also rooted in racism. The first group of Europeans to be raced white across ethnic differences were women, and in order to “protect” them from certain kinds of wage labor (but not from uncompensated labor), while arguing that Native Americans were uncivilized because they provided no similar “protection” for native women. This argument for hostility across cultures is still being made today when political leaders point to sexism in the Arab world as a justification for U.S. military intervention.

We can and should point to the mass incarceration rates of black and brown people resulting from racist criminal justice policies such as the war on drugs. However, we should also point to the fact that mass incarceration isn’t working. It’s too expensive, crowding out staples like education as a percentage of many state budgets. It’s also less effective than drug treatment as a means to reduce drug abuse. And it contributes to the conditions that lead to crime by driving up poverty and returning massive numbers of formerly incarcerated people to communities without support for successful re-entry, resulting in a vicious cycle for which all of us must bear the expense. Yes, do humanize the incarcerated, but don’t fail to speak to the self-interests of those who believe that drug crimes affect other people’s neighborhoods.

Broadening the message to talk about the impact of racism allows us to appeal to the self-interests of more people. Ending racial inequity must be understood as a matter of self-interest rather than of charity for those who are the least directly targeted by racism.

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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.

One reply on “What We Talk About When We Talk About Racism”

Thank you for this, Scot; these are all good arguments that can be used to put forward more progressive solutions to some of these problems. I still do like to think we can also argue these points from a standpoint of increasing compassion as well – in addition to getting to the self-interest that may move people, these arguments also demonstrate how we really all are pretty connected in society, whether we like it or not. None of us is really getting by on our own. I do think the self-interest argument hasn’t always worked well; for example, with those most virulently opposed to women’s reproductive rights (i.e., increased access to birth control seems to decrease the number of abortions, but that seems to be no sale to those opposed to birth control, even though it would move forward a key stated interest, decreasing abortion). So perhaps a combination of self-interest and appeals to compassion/empathy may be what works best.

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