The misused concept of racism, refined

January 8, 2018

By Douglas Todd, Vancouver Sun |

Are we starting to refine our concept of racism, arguably the most explosive word in North America today?

Three powerful African-American public intellectuals are in a high-level debate over racism. All three agree racism can be a serious problem, especially in the U.S., where black-white tensions for some still run deep.

But the eloquent authors — Cornel West, Ta-Nehisi Coates and John McWhorter — have extraordinarily different perspectives on the extent of racism. Their debate, as well as discussion in Canada, may be requiring cultural warriors on all sides to become clearer about what they mean when they use, and in many cases misuse, the term racism.

In pluralistic Canada, the anti-racism movement is not quite as aggressive as in the U.S., especially in regards to blacks, who make up only two per cent of this country’s population. Still many Canadian activists and academics try to give it top prominence.

One reason it’s important for Canadians to be clear about the meaning of racism is that cities such as Vancouver and Toronto now have among the world’s highest proportions of foreign-born residents, with ethnically hyper-diverse populations.

Discussions of housing, welfare, jobs, renting, land claims and neighbourhood enclaves sometimes touch on race and nationality. And we have to talk about these issues without fear of being silenced by trumped-up claims of racism, which has occurred over the decades.

One revealing manifestation of Canada’s anti-racism movement emerged from Simon Fraser University in 2017. Philosophy prof. Holly Andersen launched a petition to have the Scottish-rooted word “Clan” removed from the names of the university’s sports team. She argued it is potentially offensive to blacks, since they might associate it with the Ku Klux Klan.

What can a debate among America’s leading black intellectuals tell us about the value of Andersen’s petition, and, most importantly, about how to engage thorny issues that often become muddled over misunderstandings of racism?

To answer we need to know why Harvard’s Cornel West, a veteran left-wing civil rights activist, so strongly disagree with Coates, who may be the most celebrated black writer in the U.S. today.

Coates, raised in a violence-filled neighbourhood of Baltimore, is the author of many books, including last year’s We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, which celebrates Barack Obama’s era in the White House and amounts to a concerted attack on “white supremacy.”

Coates believes racism is the U.S.’s worst catastrophe and pessimistically believes it will never change. “The problem with the police is not that they are fascist pigs, but that our country is ruled by majoritarian pigs,” Coates says.

Coates, in effect, encourages activists to dramatically broaden the definition of prejudice to include what some call unconscious racism. “Racism is not merely a simplistic hatred. It is, more often, broad sympathy toward some and broader skepticism toward others,” he says.

On Dec. 17, however, Cornel West pushed back in an opinion piece in The Guardian. It has led to a titanic dispute, an intense debate going back to disagreements between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.

“Coates fetishizes white supremacy. He makes it almighty, magical and un-removable,” West says.

“Unfortunately, he hardly keeps track of our fight back, and never connects this ugly legacy to predatory capitalist practices, imperial policies (of war, occupation, detention, assassination) or the black elite’s refusal to confront poverty, patriarchy or transphobia.”

Coates’ “perception of white people is tribal and his conception of freedom is neo-liberal,” West said, defining “neo-liberal” as individualistic and embedded in Wall Street.

In response to the debate, Coates soon deleted his Twitter account, which had 1.25 million followers, saying, “I didn’t get in it for this.”

Which leads us to McWhorter, who writes about race and language as a professor at Columbia University and may be the most insightful of all three.

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