“Dropping one term in favor of another will not, by itself, solve any great problem, but it can make finding a solution a bit more likely.”
Editor’s note: This essay is adapted from an open letter published at the platform Letter.wiki in January by the author.
hile this is always a complicated and controversial subject with many aspects and facets, I believe some of Americans’ fierce arguments over issues of race in public policy can be made somewhat less fierce by changes in words and terms frequently used in discussion of these issues. I believe some of the difficulties in substantially solving policy problems (as opposed to simply taking stances with little or no effect on substance) are rooted in the use of counterproductive terms, both by advocates of major changes and by critics of such changes. While a vast and varied country like the United States, one with a long history of diversity and conflict (many of today’s phenomena have precedents in America’s past), will never have a single sociopolitical lexicon, if there is to be any hope of cooling down the temperature of our debates around racial topics (and possibly building common ground on solutions to common problems), our choices of words are very important.
I would like to make six propositions, each regarding a term or descriptor frequently used regarding race and/or racism. Broadly speaking, three of these are terms generally associated with the political left, and three are probably more likely to be used by people on the political right, though none of them is used exclusively by one side or the other. Also, while I focus here on the United States, many of these issues are applicable in some ways to other societies, especially in Europe and the Western Hemisphere.
I do not claim that these six terms should never be used under any circumstance. I put them forward because I believe that their use, on balance, is counterproductive. I also do not believe these to be the only terms that lead to unnecessary confusion and conflict. I have chosen an even number in an attempt at ideological balance. Most importantly, I do not claim that modifying word choice alone will be nearly enough to produce positive, widely accepted changes in law, policy, or society. Many subjects related to race in America deserve vigorous debate, even as we will be better off if debate becomes more respectful and less polarizing. Last but not least, I have listed the terms alphabetically.
Whatever the intention (and yes, intention matters, not just outcome) behind using this term to describe crimes in which both the perpetrator and the victim are black, describing such crimes this way probably does not do anyone any good. It makes it too easy, especially among whites, to envision crime among a particular demographic group as just something that happens to “those people,” rather than it being of common concern to the entire society. Emphasizing an immutable characteristic that either a perpetrator or a victim possesses provides an incentive to care more or less about a particular crime, in a way that likely makes it more difficult for Americans to alter public policies and save lives. Even though, for example, homicide rates among African Americans are higher than the American average, stressing that fact is not always productive. If the point is to argue for efforts to lower rates of violent crime and save black lives, it might be better to present a favored policy as a way to cut violent crime rates generally, rather than being racially specific.
Even though some of the people who immigrate do so illegally, it is unnecessarily harsh to describe such people as “illegal.” Describing a person, as opposed to an action they have taken, as illegal is dehumanizing. It takes what should be a careful, respectful debate (difficult though that is in today’s political atmosphere) about a complex, difficult subject and leads it needlessly in a Manichean direction. Far too much nuance is lost when a human being, regardless of why he or she is in a particular country, is given the same label as an action, like murder or theft. While reasonable arguments can be made for reducing immigration into the United States, and for strengthening security along the United States-Mexico border, it would be wise for supporters of those policies to be less polarizing in the terms they use. A term like “undocumented immigrant” may roll off the tongue less easily, but embracing it is more likely actually to help change public policy.
This term is a mistake, for at least two reasons. First, it dramatically oversimplifies an extremely wide range of backgrounds, heritages, interests, and life experiences, obscuring a huge amount of diversity by presuming that not being white is enough to put many millions of people into a category with one another. Second, the more frequently white people are contrasted with everyone who is not white, including by progressives who speak fondly of a “majority-minority” future in the United States, the more incentive they will have for overt, conscious white pride. Such pride is dangerous in the American context, but it is also natural under a given set of circumstances. The more whites begin to think of themselves as a coherent group with common interests and values, the lower America’s chances will be of alleviating the harm done by racism across its history.
The Left has distorted the meaning of this word in a counterproductive way, a way that also makes public policies that would narrow racial gaps less likely to be enacted. It shifts the onus of being advantaged, with the responsibilities to the general welfare that entails, away from affluent and famous people (those traditionally defined as privileged) onto the majority of the population of one of the most developed, most tolerant societies on earth (even with all its flaws). Not only does it create resentment among the racial majority (the less affluent of whom, quite reasonably, are baffled by being called privileged), it makes it easier for those with lots of money, those best positioned to be taxed to pay for universal public goods that will disproportionately benefit members of racial minorities, to feel justified in dodging or minimizing a responsibility to contribute to the common good. Applying the label of privilege to a racial majority allows racial gaps to continue, class gaps to widen, and anger to build.
This term often functions as an attempt to end debate on a subject related to race, by insisting that a person is bringing his or her personal status into play in a way that he or she should not. Much like accusing someone of “privilege” can serve to portray his or her beliefs as less valid or less justified (regardless of why that person really holds them), accusing someone of “playing the race card” can serve to portray that person as unduly self-interested, or as personalizing what should be a more objective discussion. While there are certainly cases where individuals use their racial background (and many other demographic characteristics) to affect the outcome of a debate in a way that might be unfair, accusing an interlocutor of doing so can also be unfair. If someone emphasizes race when trying to prevail in an argument, the best response may be to acknowledge his or her concern, while showing (carefully and politely) that an opinion can be valid regardless of the race of the person who holds it.
It is not clear that racism in the United States is always “systemic” in the way the adjective is commonly used. There is obviously a long history of public policies in the United States with racist intent. Redlining belongs in that category, and I would argue voter suppression in recent years does, too. However, the fact that a policy produces unequal results by race does not mean that it is inherently racist. Poor investment in public services disproportionately harms blacks and Hispanics, but that does not mean racism is the motivator. For that, I fault a general American unwillingness to pay taxes to fund better services, particularly among the (disproportionately white) upper and middle classes. Racial resentment may well play a role in that unwillingness, but so does Americans’ long history of low trust in government, relative to many other wealthy democracies. As for the lingering effects of past racist policies—like redlining and its role in the huge gap in average wealth between black and white households—I believe these would be better described as “residual racism,” rather than “systemic.”
I welcome discussion regarding each of these terms, their accuracy, their utility, and whether alternatives can and should be found and used. Dropping one term in favor of another will not, by itself, solve any great problem, but it can make finding a solution a bit more likely. In America in 2021, any such improvement is welcome.
Michael D. Purzycki is a staff writer at Charged Affairs, the journal of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.