View from
The Center

As the Word “Racism” Loses Its Meaning


Ambiguity, however, is the name of the game when it comes to defining racism, while Whiteness Studies is similarly plagued with ‘critical’ obfuscation.”

The death of George Floyd was horrific. As a white belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, I know what it feels like to be unable to escape a position that has me five seconds away from losing consciousness. But Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is just a game. I can always trust my partner to let go when I tap. Mr. Floyd did not have anything close to that luxury. He was under arrest. He pleaded, “I can’t breathe.” The cop did not let up. Mr. Floyd died.

The result was so tragic it is almost ineffable. Meanwhile, violent protests, or “chaos according to Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, erupted. Looters reminded us of Los Angeles in the aftermath of Rodney King and had us scratching our heads to understand how a breakdown in law and order and the destruction of black and Latino businesses in Minneapolis helps advance the cause of racial justice. President Trump did his thing to stoke divisions. The CEOs of JP Morgan and Citi did what they had to do to promote their brands and condemned racism. In other words, people took for granted that this tragedy was vivid evidence of pervasive racism in America. 

But was it?

The answer, I submit, is far from clear. Part of the reason, as John McWhorter wrote in 2016, is that “police kill too many people—white and black.” In response to voluminous hate mail directed at him “for supporting protests against cops about black shooting deaths,” McWhorter “challenged those who disagree to present a list of white people killed within the past few years under circumstances similar to those that so enrage us in cases such as what happened to Tamir Rice, John Crawford, Walter Scott, Sam Debose and others.” “The simple fact,” McWhorter wrote, “is that this list exists.” And he proceeded to describe numerous examples of white people “killed by police officers under circumstances that would almost surely have elicited indignant protest nationwide if they were black.”

Indeed, examples of recent research suggest that, while blacks are more likely than whites to suffer abuse at the hands of cops, it is not obvious that blacks are more likely than whites to be killed by cops. PhD student and self-described “Wokeness Studies scholar” Zach Goldberg tweeted data, from The Washington Post Police Shootings Database and FBI Uniform Crime Reporting, showing that the number of unarmed blacks killed by police has declined since 2015—and has been less than the number of police officers killed by blacks since mid-2017. Moreover, 318 unarmed whites have been killed by police since 2015. Clearly, it is not the case thatthe names change but the color is always black.”

These studies and data are not dispositive. Moreover, we must not lose sight of what social justice activist Robin DiAngelo calls the psychic burden of race, illustrated by sociologist Michael Eric Dyson’s instinct upon seeing a drunk white kid harassing a cop in the wee hours of the night, as described in this interview. As a black American, Dyson immediately worried the cop might pull out a gun. Even if data suggest racial disparities in police killings are minimal, blacks are understandably far more anxious than whites in their interactions with cops. 

Nonetheless, there is enough research to cast doubt on the claim that police bias leads to disproportionate killing of blacks. One study, for example, “tested 80 police patrol officers by applying [a] leading edge method” that involves examining “racial bias in police decisions by pressing ‘shoot’ or ‘don’t-shoot’ buttons in response to pictures of armed and unarmed suspects.” The study “found that, despite clear evidence of implicit bias against Black suspects, officers were slower to shoot armed Black suspects than armed White suspects, and they were less likely to shoot unarmed Black suspects than unarmed White suspects.” These data are consistent with a model proposed by economist Roland Fryer “in which police officers are utility maximizers, a fraction of which have a preference for discrimination, who incur relatively high expected costs of officer-involved shootings.” In short, the belief that the police kill more blacks than whites may indicate availability bias (the tendency, for example, to think that headline news events captured on viral videos are more common than they are) but may not be based on evidence of racial bias among cops.

None of this is to suggest we should not seek justice for George Floyd or anyone else wrongfully killed by the police. Nor is it to suggest that we should not be vigilant about any vestige of discriminatory behavior latent in courts and law enforcement. It is, however, to suggest that we have reason to question the prevailing belief that police bias has led to a racist epidemic of police targeting blacks for kill. More generally, it is to suggest that maybe we do not know as much as we think we do about what racism is and how it relates to racial discrimination and inequality. 

“Critical Social Justice”: A Torrent of Confusion about “Racism”

The reason for doubt rests in the insinuation by scholars and activists at the vanguard of “critical social justice” that racism is anywhere and everywhere in society. Thus, if a black man dies at the hands of a police officer, racism manifests. Not in the sense that the police officer held such a visceral bias against black men that he felt compelled to suffocate an innocent black man, but in the sense that he could not help doing so because he is white in a “white” society. Being white in a white society means being so hooked into a matrix of implicit bias that he could not help but kill an innocent black man. As one Facebook post I saw wrote: “I won’t say the murderer’s name because his name is whiteness. It’s whiteness and it is violence. It isn’t just the cops. They are contracted to kill for whiteness.”

This is the kind of reasoning that leads anti-racist activist Ibram X. Kendi to say, “when I see racial disparities, I see racism.” These statements do not tell us what racism or whiteness is. They tell us only that when Kendi sees racial inequality, he assumes racism is the cause. Similarly, when the author of the Facebook post sees a white cop kill a black man, he assumes whiteness is the cause. These are examples of the fallacious argument of affirming the consequent, which goes like this: 

If P, then Q.

Q, therefore P.

As I hope we can all agree, it is quite reasonable to argue that racism (assuming that we understand racism to mean explicit racial discrimination at the individual or institutional level) leads to racial inequality. In other words: if racism (P), then racial inequality (Q). It is fallacious, however, to argue: if racial inequality (Q), then racism (P). One reason is unobserved heterogeneity, otherwise known as omitted variable bias. That is, there may be other reasons that explain racial inequality. Perhaps Kendi has in mind the contrapositive argument: if not Q, then not P. That is, if we do not observe racial inequality, then we should not observe racism. In this case, Kendi would be on solid logical grounds. But his precise formulation fallaciously affirms the consequent.

It also does not resolve the question of what racism, or whiteness, is. Over the last few decades, critical race theory and Whiteness Studies have unleashed a torrent of confusion on this matter. The basic idea behind critical race theory is that society is inherently racist and that everything about it must be investigated not to determine whether some feature of society is racist, but how it is racist. Similarly, the basic idea that underlies Whiteness Studies is that racism and Whiteness are one and the same. White supremacy continues to thrive because all our institutions are “white”  (i.e. made by white people, ruled by white people, and kept in place by white people).

Logic, however, is of less concern to critical theorists than the politicization of anything that hints at oppression and marginalization.

As a result, everything about society must be investigated not to determine whether it contributes to white supremacy and white privilege, but how some feature of society does so. In the words of DiAngelo, “Whiteness Studies begin with the premise that racism and white privilege exist in both traditional and modern forms, and rather than work to prove its existence, work to reveal it.” [Emphasis added.] Once again, a logician itches to point out that this is a fallacious line of reasoning called begging the question, a “form of circular reasoning in which a conclusion is derived from premises that presuppose the conclusion.” 

Logic, however, is of less concern to critical theorists than the politicization of anything that hints at oppression and marginalization. Given a society anchored to Whiteness, anything having to do with race or racial inequality is unavoidably a manifestation of Whiteness, which itself is nothing but a historical and social construction built on anti-blackness. The only way to fight racial inequality is to dismantle Whiteness. As UC Berkeley professor Ian Haney Lopez says, “there is no other way.” This means that “political correctness” is not an attack on free speech, but an attempt to dismantle “white” norms of speech that underlie “racialized” institutions.

The central problem with this paradigm is that Whiteness is a vague, highly politicized term invented to describe whatever arbitrarily strikes intuition as racism, rather than something concrete that we can easily point out in reality. More technically, scholars and activists see Whiteness as reified in society. Reification involves treating an abstraction—Whiteness—as if it had a material existence that embodies social relations. As such, for example, a Jane Austen novel is not a Jane Austen novel, but a “white” novel. It seems to go unnoticed that reification is a logical fallacy, but never mind. It has gotten so bad that a whole new theory of white fragility says that if you disagree with any of these claims about racism, you are a “fragile” white person invalidating those claims. As one tweet puts it, “[r]acism isn’t a touchy topic if you’re not a f—ing racist.”

Searching for facts and interpretations that confirm one’s beliefs, rather than formulating hypotheses that can survive testing and falsification criteria, is the name of the game when it comes to identifying whether a feature of society is or is not racist. Or as Karl Popper argued about Marx, Freud, and Adler, it is about couching “theories in terms which [make] them amenable only to confirmation,” in contrast to Einstein’s theory, “which had testable implications which, if false, would have falsified the theory itself.” 

Not so for Whiteness Studies.

Putting aside concerns that claims about racial inequality are vulnerable to confirmation bias, nothing about this approach helps us to understand what, in fact, racism is. It used to be that if you were bigoted—and your bigotry caused you to intentionally treat people differently—you were a racist. But no more. If you believe that, you fall into the good/bad binary trap, in which racism is, in the words of DiAngelo, “reduced to simple, isolated, and extreme acts of prejudice” which “must be intentional, malicious, and based on conscious dislike of someone because of race.” This belief “obscures the structural nature of racism and makes it difficult for us to see or understand.”

Racism must be understood as a “system.” The belief that racism is intentional bigotry constitutes an adaptation of an ever-evolving “system” of racism, which is meant to distract white people from understanding racism as a structure of unequal power between dominant and marginalized groups. Or as Ibram X. Kendi says, “when I see racial disparities, I see racism.” We saw above that this view that racism falls prey to the fallacy of affirming the consequent. It also succumbs to the fallacy of ambiguity.

Inferences drawn about racial inequality are invariably drawn from a presumed understanding of racism as a system that necessarily and always benefits whites. As DiAngelo writes, “In the United States the dominant group is white, therefore racism is white racial and cultural prejudice and discrimination, supported intentionally or unintentionally by institutional power and authority, and used to the advantage of whites and the disadvantage of people of color.” But the scale and scope of what this system entails has expanded so widely and rapidly in the wake of critical race theory and Whiteness studies that white supremacy is allegedly “reified” in every way imaginable. 

We could point out additional logical fallacies that arise from the application of this framework, such as the fallacy of division, the ecological fallacy, and the fallacy of composition. We could also point out ambiguities in the concept of white privilege—and how a Bayesian conception of white privilege could help clear up matters. But let us stay on course. DiAngelo’s PhD dissertation is a case study in how Whiteness scholars analyze the so-called discourses of “Whiteness” in a way that reduces every social interaction to “moves” of Whiteness to retain institutional control. The approach is so obsessively myopic that reading DiAngelo’s dissertation can feel like reading about how the Queen in Alice in Wonderland oversees trials. Sentence first. Verdict later. We end up with “language games” not in the serious analytical sense intended by Wittgenstein but, rather, in the absurd sense we observe in the Queen’s court or at the Mad Hatter’s tea party. 

For example, DiAngelo’s dissertation examines four, two-hour sessions of inter-racial dialogue among thirteen participants. The sessions are monitored by DiAngelo, who sits eager to analyze every statement by a white participant as a “move” of Whiteness that reinstates white supremacy. During a break, two white participants are having a conversation while a person of color gets a drink of water. The person of color notices that the cup sizes are small. She jokes, “Good thing I’m not thirsty.” The two white participants keep talking to each other, apparently failing to appreciate the joke. The person of color then cracks, “That’s just like white people to ignore a person of color.” One of the white participants hears this remark and chokes on her water, spitting it up, which prompts a reply from the person of color, “Now the white people are spitting on me.”

When everyone returns to the dialogue, the white participants express their dismay. It was not fair. It was not professional. And so on. DiAngelo interprets all of these remarks as “moves” of Whiteness that “position” whites as “professional” or which invoke “fair=same” discourse to obscure the power relations between whites and blacks. These moves “reestablish White dominance of the proceedings.” Examples abound throughout the dissertation of alleged “moves” of Whiteness. In sum, dismantling “whiteness” means seeing racism in everything white people do and say, then rooting it out.

While it is true that the purpose of the study was to analyze Whiteness, everything is seen as an unmarked white norm, even failing to laugh at a joke—or disputing the insinuation that spitting up water because one is choking is the same as spitting on a person of color. This analytical framework not only leaves white participants in a Kafka trap. It also succumbs to the fallacy of ambiguity, which refers to “[w]hen an unclear phrase with multiple definitions is used within the argument [and] therefore, does not support the conclusion.” The unclear word in this case is Whiteness. Although everything is interpreted as a move of Whiteness, which perpetuates racism because racism is based on Whiteness, the meaning of Whiteness and racism are not well-defined. 

Let us see why.

Implicit Bias and “Cultural Racism”

In December 2019, Robin DiAngelo, who has become famous in recent years for her theory of white fragility, joined psychologist Jennifer Eberhardt at the Cleveland Public Library “to discuss racism, implicit bias, and reform.” According to the event, Eberhardt’s “research focuses on how racialized judgments ‘suffuse our culture and society, and in particular shape actions and outcomes within the domain of criminal justice’.” To address racism, we must confront implicit bias.

Indeed, as DiAngelo writes, “[o]nce we understand the power of implicit bias…we know that we must deepen rather than close off further reflection.” To fight racism, white people must learn to “understand how socialization and implicit bias work.” For DiAngelo, implicit biases are pervasive, implicit biases predict behavior, and most people are unaware that they have implicit biases. 

DiAngelo and her acolytes are apparently unaware that a second generation of research in the psychology literature has raised serious doubts about all of these claims. It is not clear what exactly implicit bias measures. Professor Gregory Mitchell explains that implicit bias is not the same thing as unconscious bias. Finally, a recent paper provides a comprehensive review of 492 studies with 87,418 participants and concludes that implicit bias is not a strong predictor of how an individual will act in real life.

Nonetheless, the increasingly influential field of Whiteness Studies claims that white people are unwittingly conditioned by a “white” society to believe in their own superiority. They cannot help it. Like fish in the seasays DiAngelo—they have been swimming in a culture of white supremacy from the moment they were born, absorbing biases as part of their immersion in a society which teaches them how to act in ways that consistently benefit them at the expense of people of color. According to DiAngelo, “[a]s we are socialized into our culture’s gender roles, we are similarly socialized into our culture’s racial roles.” Even though “[o]ur parents might tell us that race doesn’t matter and that we shouldn’t see color,” the fact is, “as with gender socialization, this explicit teaching is not enough to inoculate us against all of the other messages circulating in the culture.” 

A paradox arises, of course, because if we are like the fish which “cannot live without water” and which “has no way of knowing that it is actually separate from the water,” we are left to wonder how DiAngelo and her fellow Whiteness scholars, presumably not immune from the same forces of socialization, are able to step out of the water and breath long enough to do us the service of explaining our dependence on “the meaning-making system that our culture provides.” A fish, after all, cannot survive outside water for long, certainly not as long as the months, or years, it likely took for DiAngelo to write a PhD dissertation on Whiteness. She is telling us that we cannot escape socialization, while simultaneously encouraging us to break free from our socialization. This “fly in the ointment” of “critical social justice” is similar to its conflation of objectivity and neutrality, incoherently making the objective statement that objectivity is not possible.

Indeed, logic has never been DiAngelo’s strong point, and if pressed, she would probably ignore the point as coming from a “dominant perspective,” which falls prey to the genetic fallacy but never mind. Let us focus, then, on her point that we all swim in the water of “cultural racism,” with white people learning to internalize a feeling of racial superiority and people of color learning to internalize oppression. Examples of cultural racism include the centrality of white people in textbooks, media, and advertising, or depicting God, Adam, and Eve as white. DiAngelo does not explicitly define cultural racism, content to assert that it is “deeply embedded in the culture and thus always in circulation,” keeping “our racist socialization alive and continually reinforced.”

If we are to extract a definition from her examples, it seems safe to say that, in her view, “cultural racism” refers to racially-biased messages implicitly but steadily disseminated through cultural venues to all members of society, resulting in the internalization of norms that “position” whites as dominant and people of color as marginal. This messaging results in things like “Cultural Deficit Theory,” which DiAngelo defines as the “explanation that minoritized groups do not achieve in society because they lack the appropriate cultural values (e.g. ‘They just don’t value education’) or because their culture is deficient in some other way.” Closely related is “aversive racism,” an example of which is “[a]ttributing inequality between whites and people of color to causes other than racism.”

DiAngelo thus admits that she does not care about unobserved heterogeneity, otherwise known as omitted variable bias. This is refreshingly honest, but it leads us far astray in attempting to understand racial inequality, especially if “racism”—defined in numerous ways (e.g. color-blind racism, aversive racism, cultural racism, front and back-stage racism)—is not the only, or even primary, cause of racial inequality. It also adds to confusion about what, in fact, we are to understand by “cultural racism.” On the one hand, her attempt to explain cultural racism appears to dovetail with a seemingly more common-sense conception of cultural racism as the dissemination of cultural messages that promote the belief that cultural factors determine the superiority of some races over others, leading to attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that contribute to systemic exploitation. 

On the other hand, her failure to provide an explicit definition reminds us of the judge who famously said about obscenity that “I know it when I see it.” This is unacceptable, of course, for anyone interested in robust measurement, as it reminds us of labor historian Eric Arsenen’s caution that “whiteness has become a blank screen onto which those who claim to analyze it can project their own meanings.” Claiming that “cultural racism” is “deeply embedded in the culture and thus always in circulation,” keeping “our racist socialization alive and continually reinforced,” DiAngelo’s definition, as conveyed in her book What Does It Mean to Be White?, relies on “examples of implicit (indirect) rather than explicit (direct) messages, all telling us that it’s better to be white,” and that “[w]hile we may consciously reject the notion that we are inherently better than people of color, we cannot avoid internalizing the message of white superiority below the surface of our consciousness, because it is ubiquitous in mainstream culture.” 

The takeaway, then, seems to be that cultural racism is rooted in implicit biases that permeate the culture—and that these biases tell us it is better to be white. However, in her best-selling book White Fragility, her explanation of “cultural racism,” relying again on examples, invokes a study by sociologists Leslie Picca and Joe Feagin in which “[t]hey asked 626 white college students at twenty-eight colleges across the United States to keep journals and record every instance of racial issues, racial images, and racial understanding that they observed or were part of for six to eight weeks.” 

The results? “The students recorded more than seventy-five hundred accounts of blatantly racist comments and actions by the white people in their lives (friends, families, acquaintances, strangers),” coming “from the generation most likely to claim they were taught to see everyone as equal.” In What Does It Mean to Be White?, DiAngelo invokes the same study as an example of “back-stage racism” in a section separate from her section on “cultural racism.” In her book White Fragility, however, she invokes the study to identify “back-stage racism” as a kind of “cultural racism.” 

In other words, in one book they are different forms of racism, while in another “back-stage racism” is a subset of “cultural racism.” We might also point out that “blatantly racist comments and actions” sound like traditional explicit racism, not the implicit cultural messaging which DiAngelo identified as “cultural racism.” It is enough to say that DiAngelo does not help her case by failing to keep her concepts and ideas consistent. Ambiguity, however, is the name of the game when it comes to defining racism, while Whiteness Studies is similarly plagued with “critical” obfuscation.

As a result, the conclusions DiAngelo draws about racial inequality rely on a premise that Whiteness and racism are everywhere and explain everything, yet she fails to offer us a rigorous definition of either Whiteness or racism (at best, she refers us to the critical race theory and Whiteness literature, where these terms are also plagued with obfuscation). There is also the perennial question of what “culture” is. There is the question of what socialization is and how it operates as a mediator, something I examined in an essay on how DiAngelo mistakes correlation for causation. And, of course, there is the amorphous nature of “cultural racism” as well as “isms” in general.

The Reign of “Isms”

I admit, it is a habit of mine to be skeptical about “isms.” I even published a poem about the personal and social schisms that can arise from how people align themselves with the trendy “isms” of the day. Statism, capitalism, communism, fascism, anarchism, individualism, narcissism, solipsism, and so on. What are they, really? They might be abstractions, but surely, they point to something real. Capitalism? Look at corporate balance sheets. Socialism? Look at the Soviet Union. Individualism? Read about Abraham Lincoln pulling himself up by the bootstraps.

Yet a closer look at any of these terms yields a more complex terrain, which almost causes the abstractions to self-destruct. Defenders of socialism will insist that the Soviet Union was a perversion of Marx’s vision. Critics of “rugged individualism” might snidely claim that Lincoln was an exception hoisted up to “prove” the myth. A letter exchange between Gretchen Mullen and Michael Issacson reveals much complexity in how we understand the meaning and appeal of fascism. 

The resolution to these debates may seem immutably elusive, but this does not necessarily mean the debates are useless, or that we need be content with the “dogmatic slumber” of perpetual skepticism. The complexities may simply show that answers do not come easily, as well as that a hermeneutic of suspicion is welcome. Indeed, they may show that a rich terrain of insight is in store.

For DiAngelo, “[t]he ‘ism’ words give us the language to discuss these specific forms of oppression and include in the discussion the reality of unequal social and institutional power between dominant and minoritized groups.” An “ism” like “cultural racism,” then, gives us the vocabulary we need to “avoid denying power dynamics by reducing oppression to individual acts of discrimination and claiming that these acts are comparable, regardless of who commits them.” Not all “isms,” mind you, since “‘reverse racism’ or ‘reverse sexism’ are misnomers and do not exist because racism and sexism (or any form of oppression) refer to power relations that are historic, embedded, and pervasive.” But definitely the “ism” words that apparently give us the vocabulary to forgive a person of color who facetiously intimates that the white person who chokes up water is spitting on her. It also gives us the vocabulary to characterize as a “move” of Whiteness a white person’s dismay at being held “accountable” for complaining about such an accusation. 

Unfortunately, forgiving a double standard in conduct as a way of exposing racism does not really tell us what racism is. It only tells us that the double standard is supposed to be permissible because white people are the majority in a society characterized by racial inequality.

We should acknowledge the point made by participants of color that, for them, talking out in the open about race in such ways is a means of reminding us that racism is always present, and thus such remarks are not malicious in intent—but are only a way of relieving stress and exposing the systemic nature of racism. Unfortunately, forgiving a double standard in conduct as a way of exposing racism does not really tell us what racism is. It only tells us that the double standard is supposed to be permissible because white people are the majority in a society characterized by racial inequality. A lexicon of “isms,” then, is perhaps not as useful as DiAngelo believes, at least not when the “wokism,” which invokes such “isms,” relies only on facts and interpretations that supposedly confirm the views of “wokism.” 

The neglect of robust methodology—the kind that can withstand falsification—leaves us with wishy-washy ideas that do more to cause confusion about racial inequality than to facilitate its redress. For example, DiAngelo’s discussion of “Cultural Deficit Theory” invokes what Whiteness scholars would call the “blaming the victim” narrative. Indeed, the sociologist and author of Racism without Racists Eduardo Bonilla-Silva defines cultural racism as “a frame that relies on culturally based arguments such as ‘Mexicans do not put much emphasis on education’ or ‘blacks have too many babies’ to explain the standing of minorities in society.” But this is not helpful.

There is a difference between saying, as the Moynihan report famously argued, that the breakdown in the black family is an important factor underlying racial inequality, and saying that blacks are not capable of forming strong families. There is a difference between locating a breakdown in the black family in discriminatory policies in the past, and encouraging the formation of strong black families in the future, perhaps by addressing prison reform and what economist Glenn Loury calls developmental (as opposed to preferential) affirmative action policies aimed at helping black communities gain greater access to education and other means of acquiring human and social capital. 

Moreover, we do not ignore how policies like redlining helped widen the racial wealth gap by also paying attention to Coleman Hughes’ point, citing research by economists at the University of Chicago and University of Pennsylvania on sixteen years of Consumer Expenditure Survey data, that discretionary spending habits by blacks “explained fully 20 percent of the total racial wealth gap.” Finally, as Loury emphasizes (12:30), it is inconsistent to say that white society is responsible for racial inequality, while also saying that white society must be the agent of change. It leaves no room for black people to be agents of their own improvement, leading to the “soft bigotry of low expectations” (37:20).

The rejoinder we can expect from DiAngelo and Whiteness scholars is that black people are up against the handicap of a racist society. As a result, black people cannot be agents of change because structural forces keep the institutional means by which they might be agents of change out of their hands. As DiAngelo’s writes in Is Everyone Really Equal?, describing racism as a system, “[r]acism within the U.S. and Canadian contexts is defined as White racial and cultural prejudice and discrimination, supported intentionally or unintentionally by institutional power and authority, and used to the advantage of Whites and the disadvantage of people of Color.” 

Take, for example, “cultural racism.” DiAngelo discusses all the ways that cultural messaging in the media reinforces this “cultural racism” in ways that inculcate the implicit biases, which reinforce and reinstate white supremacy. If there were more black filmmakers, or more black faces on cultural artifacts (which happily seems to be the case if the books I read to my three-year old daughter and the cartoons she watches are any indication), we might observe a wider variety of racial experiences rather than the one-dimensional depictions we supposedly get, which might then somehow reduce deep socioeconomic disparities. But are media depictions of race so one-dimensional as DiAngelo presumes? No. Consider episode four of season three of the HBO series True Detective. 

In one scene (set in 1980), white detective Roland West and his black partner Wayne Hays drive to a predominantly black neighborhood in an attempt to question a suspect in the case they are investigating. When they arrive, they have a tense encounter with the residents. The encounter exposes deep friction and distrust between black residents and the police, especially towards West (as well as resentment at Hays for wearing the badge). After a resident tosses an object at West’s shoulder, West and Hays rush inside the suspect’s house and begin their interrogation. While inside, they hear a bang outside. When they come out, they find that someone smashed the windshield of West’s car. 

On the drive back to town, West and Hays agree to file the incident as the result of actions by “anonymous vandals.” West lets it slide despite his anger. Hays asks West if he would have shot one of the residents after West fumes about the residents’ “overreaction.” West insists the answer is no, saying, “the fact is, with black folks, probably gave me more pause.” But if a group of “white people surrounds me, smashes up my ride, there’d be a lot less hesitation in what I do.” This “white” perspective lends credence to the finding from the study cited above which “found that, despite clear evidence of implicit bias against Black suspects, officers were slower to shoot armed Black suspects than armed White suspects, and they were less likely to shoot unarmed Black suspects than unarmed White suspects.” All of which leads me back to the question: What is racism?

In asking not whether racism manifests, but how it manifests, Critical Race Theory falls prey to the fallacy of ambiguity.

“Racism” Has Become a Naked Emperor

According to Whiteness scholars, racism permeates every interstice of the social fabric. DiAngelo writes, for example, that the “body of research about children and race demonstrates that white children develop a sense of white superiority as early as preschool.” She only cites two sources, one a study on dolls, the other a book on how to teach anti-racist principles to children. In an article for Areo Magazine, Jacob Derin elaborates on Peggy McIntosh’s idea that one example of white privilege is the ability to “easily buy posters, postcards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys and children’s magazines featuring people of my race.” Derin writes: 

“It is puzzling to consider the abundance of pale-skinned dolls, for example, a societally conferred privilege. No central committee has decreed this and we have no evidence that the decisions underlying it were racially motivated at all. We are talking about an advantage which accrues to the majority group in any culture, one which can be found among black people in African countries, Muslim people in Middle Eastern countries and, yes, white people in America. A demographic mismatch does not in itself prove unfair discrimination.”

DiAngelo is undeterred, invoking studies on dolls that purportedly demonstrate internalized oppression:

“Studies conducted by Kenneth and Mamie Clark powerfully illustrate internalized racial oppression (Clark & Clark, 1939; 1950). The Clarks were interested in the self-esteem of black children. They found that by age 3, black children had begun to internalize a sense that they were inferior to white. By age 7, this sense was firmly in place. They conducted their studies by asking the children to choose which doll they preferred, a white doll or a black doll. Their questions included, ‘Give me the doll that you like to play with,’ ‘Give me the doll that is a nice doll,’ ‘Give me the doll that looks bad,’ and ‘Give me the doll that is a nice color.’ The majority of the children preferred the white doll to the black, and this preference was stable regardless of whether they lived in the North or South United States, although Northern children had a more definite preference for white skin. Similar studies have been informally conducted on both black and white children in recent years with the same result. When asked why the black doll looks bad, both white and black children consistently attributed it to the doll’s blackness. As The Harvard Implicit Association Test demonstrates, everyone is impacted by the racial messages that circulate in the culture at large, albeit with different outcomes based on their position.”

We have already noted that a second generation of research casts doubt on the validity of the Implicit Association Test. Moreover, the Clark & Clark studies were conducted in 1939 and 1950, before Civil Rights and before a half-century of profound changes in attitudes about race relations. DiAngelo claims that more recent studies show similar results but does not provide citations. A quick Wikipedia search shows that at least one recent study relies on a sample size too small for generalization: 

“In 2005 filmmaker Kiri Davis recreated the doll study and documented it in a film entitled A Girl Like Me. Despite the many changes in some parts of society, Davis found the same results as did the Drs. Clark in their study of the late 1930s and early 1940s. In the original experiment(s), the majority of the children chose the white dolls. When Davis repeated the experiment 15 out of 21 children also chose the white dolls over the black doll.”

DiAngelo makes no mention of alternative interpretations of the Clark & Clark studies, including one offered by Robin Bernstein, described by Wikipedia: “Robin Bernstein has recently argued that the children’s rejection of the black dolls could be understood not as victimization or an expression of internalized racism but instead as resistance against violent play involving black dolls, which was a common practice when the Clarks conducted their tests.” It is probably also worth mentioning at this point that the concept of “internalized racism” is not as well understood as might be commonly assumed, at least if publication bias in research on stereotype threat is any indication, as I have argued here.

At this point, I have perhaps ironically followed the same course as DiAngelo and other Whiteness scholars in going on at length to “problematize” various aspects of the Whiteness paradigm, as well as ideas about racism which have emerged from critical race theory in the generation since Derrick Bell published And We Are Not Saved in 1987. But the upshot is clear: In attempting to problematize everything, critical race theory and Whiteness Studies have created far more confusion than clarity. In asking not whether racism manifests, but how it manifests, Critical Race Theory falls prey to the fallacy of ambiguity. That is, it assumes that racism is the cause of every observable racial disparity, while expanding the definition of racism so widely that—in encompassing everything—it encompasses nothing. Critical race theory has made “racism” a naked emperor.

Jonathan David Church is an economist and writer. He is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and Cornell University, and he has contributed to a variety of publications, including Quillette and Areo Magazine.

Jonathan Church is a contributing editor at Merion West. He is a government economist with a background in energy economics and inflation measurement. In addition to authoring several essays, he has published two books: Reinventing Racism: Why “White Fragility” Is the Wrong Way to Think about Racial Inequality and Virtue in an Age of Identity Politics: A Stoic Approach to Social Justice. He holds an undergraduate degree in economics and philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania and a master’s degree in economics from Cornell University. Contact Jonathan at

2 thoughts on “As the Word “Racism” Loses Its Meaning

  1. Excellent article. I look forward to reading more of your work, as your writing is clear, concise, and explains a great deal about what’s wrong with Grievance Studies.

  2. A very interesting and helpful article with some new ideas I had not considered. I don’t quite agree with your conclusions from Kendi’s work, however. To me, it stems from your statement: “assuming that we understand racism to mean explicit racial discrimination at the individual or institutional level.” A key takeaway that I got from Kendi’s “How to be an Anti-Racist” is that not all racist things are explicit or intentional. So to create a different definition for “racist” and then use that in an argument against his work seems disingenuous.
    Many actions that people take, and policies that they create, are first and foremost done out of pure self-interest; there is no racist intent to them. But when the actions and policies have the effect of creating racial inequalities or injustices, even if unintentionally so, he defines them as being racist. And, to me, therein lies some of our greatest challenges: 1) determine what those (unintentionally) racist actions and polices are and correct them, and 2) to do a much better job of understanding the racial inequality implications of future actions and policies before we take and enact them.

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