Where Did We Get the Idea That Only White People Can Be Racist?

Peter Wood

The recent rush to defend a black professor’s racist tweets is evidence of powerful self-deception about race.

An incoming professor of sociology and African-American studies at Boston University, Saida Grundy, tweeted, “Why is white america [sic] so reluctant to identify white college males as a problem population?” In his letter responding to controversy over these and other comments, BU president Robert Brown acknowledged that “Many have expressed the view that some of Dr. Grundy’s comments are offensive and/or racist.” Students then rushed to Dr. Grundy’s defense, using the hashtag #isupportsaida, saying that the professor’s words were not racist, just uncomfortable. A Howard University Ph.D. candidate, Lauren Chanel Allen, wrote in Quartz:

A few white students are upset that their bubbles were burst, and for five seconds they were forced to think about their race and privilege—and Boston University instantly condemns a Black woman for provoking this discomfort. For making them think critically.

Those defending Dr. Grundy have a double standard when it comes to racism. That double standard has been around for a while. It seems to have originated with the Black Panthers, who fought racism with more racism, which they felt was justified anger, not racism.

The twin themes “only whites can be racist” and “all whites are racist” appeared at the University of Delaware in 2007. The “sustainability” dorm-based indoctrination program at UD offered this aperҫu:

A RACIST: A racist is one who is both privileged and socialized on the basis of race by a white supremacist (racist) system. ‘The term applies to all white people (i.e., people of European descent) living in the United States, regardless of class, gender, religion, culture or sexuality. By this definition, people of color cannot be racists, because as peoples within the U.S. system, they do not have the power to back up their prejudices, hostilities, or acts of discrimination….’

This formulation was adopted by UD after consultation with Dr. Shakti Butler, a consultant who goes around advising colleges and universities to this effect. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), whose spotlight on UD led to the end of the residence program, archived a database of materials from it, including Dr. Butler’s “Diversity Facilitation Training.” Dr. Butler, incidentally, lists Boston University as one of her clients.

She is a popularizer, not the originator of these conceits. But the thing to note is that there is a whole sub-industry within the diversity industry that is devoted to advancing the idea that only whites can be racist. Dr. Grundy is just repeating a widespread meme that circulates among the radicals of the diversity movement. 

In January 1987, Socialist Worker published the article “The Fallacy of Reverse Racism,” in which the author wrote, “Blacks cannot be ‘racists.’ They are not in a position to oppress anyone—certainly not the majority white population of the U.S.” In 1991, Spike Lee said in a Playboy interview, “Black people can't be racist.” In 2013, Georgetown professor Michael Eric Dyson, who had previously said black people do not have the capacity for racism, said white people needed to die in numbers equal to black people in order for racism to end.

The idea that “black people can't be racist” is just a meme, not a coherent argument. It is easy to see why it appeals. The programs these folks want to defend and, if possible, advance, are inherently racist. That is, they divide people into primary groups by race; treat race as “essential”; and distribute public goods according to racial group identification and affiliation. This is purely and simply racism. Because it is so patent, its supporters must reach for excuses and work-arounds. The mainstream justification is like Justice O’Connor’s: yes, racial preferences are bad, and it would be great if we could get along without them, but we will have to make use of them for a while until we have reached an equitable society. Shakti Butler, Saida Grundy, and the other radicals reject this in favor of redefining racism in a manner that excludes the possibility of black racism. The usual step is to assert that racism must involve a structural privilege that an oppressed group can never have.

In a scene in the 2014 film Dear White People, one black character says to another, “Black people can’t be racist. Prejudiced, yes, but not racist. Racism describes a system of advantage based on race. Black people can’t be racist since we don’t stand to benefit from such a system.”

The psychological appeal of this idea is immediately apparent.  It invites racial minorities to valorize their own racism.  But it is an idea that withers if you look more closely. 

To call racism “a system of advantage based on race,” truncates the concept.  To break it down, racism is first of all a belief that “racial” classification is valid:  that classifying people by race captures some of the most important differences among people.  To this, racism adds the idea of ranking: some of those differences aggregately make the members of group X better than group Y.  Only then do we get to the possibility of “a system of advantage based on race.” 

Such social systems exist and are actually pretty common, but of course not all “systems of advantage” are based on race.  They may be based on lots of things—family wealth, birth order, or social networks, for example—that may overlap with racial categorizations but which are not racial per se.  This isn’t a minor distinction.  It is central to the question of how equitable our society really is.  Those who reduce everything to race or who make a practice of discovering racism hidden behind every disparity are engaged in what has become the most common contemporary form of racism in America. 

Define “racism” as group hierarchy in which only the “privileged” dominant group can be racist, and instantly this common form of racism is defined out of existence.

The portrait of American society as essentially a hierarchy of privilege based on race is false.   But that idea is the beating heart of the post-Ferguson protests. It was true at one time, but the American racial hierarchy has been dismantled legally, politically, morally, and socially. And to a fair degree economically. It has left, to be sure, remnants.  And of course it remains in memory as a cultural artifact, and for some a central and powerful one. 

Image: "Negro drinking at "Colored" water cooler in streetcar terminal, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma"

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