Last week, I was having a conversation with a woman who said that her father was distrustful of people of other races. When I asked her if she considered her father a racist, she balked at the premise of the question. When I think of a racist, I think of the worst kind of person, she said. And anyway, she said, her father didn't like anybody.
It's safe to say that this is the popular formulation.
Since folks believe that racists are monsters, and most people aren't likely to be incontrovertibly monstrous, few people could ever qualify as racist. Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who thought black people were better off as chattel, doesn't consider himself a racist. And Donald Sterling, the billionaire owner of the NBA's Los Angeles Clippers who was caught on tape saying that he didn't want his girlfriend photographing herself or showing up to his team's games with black people, argued the same.
"I'm not a racist," the 80-year-old Sterling said to CNN's Anderson Cooper. (The interview is set to air on Monday.) "I made a terrible mistake. I'm here to apologize."
Sterling's comments, by themselves, were vile. But he's been involved in racial controversies with far greater consequences. Sterling made the largest-ever payout in a housing discrimination case involving rentals, federal officials said. Prior to that settlement, he'd been repeatedly accused of not renting to blacks, Latinos and people with children.
Part of this is a problem with terminology. As Jay Smooth famously said, conversations about racism often become bogged down in digressions about epistemology, the inner workings of one's soul. The more useful way to discuss racism, he argues, is to focus less on the intent behind the behavior, which is unknowable, and more on knowable impact of the behavior in question.
But that doesn't get to a thornier problem with the wording. When we talk about racism, we're talking about stuff like microaggressions, which can be motivated by abhorrent views and might be of relatively little significance. We also use the term to refer to people who are bigots, and since people who are bigots are, you know, people, they tend to be complicated and not easily reduced to ugly caricature. (They might even have friends who are ____!) But we're talking about big historical phenomena that have widespread contemporary ramifications, like housing discrimination — phenomena that are hard to detect and which folks can actively perpetuate even if they don't hold any abhorrent views.
Racism has been a fundamental organizing force in American life from the beginning, and as such, it has taken on a range of shadings and textures. And while all these things may fit a definition of racism at different times, it also means that referring to someone as racist means summoning all of those permutations simultaneously. And how could any real person be implicated in all of those things at once?
Donald Sterling might seem to come pretty close. Considering the role housing discrimination and segregation plays in so many racial disparities — the wealth gap, educational attainment, health outcomes, etc. — it seems both odd and fitting that this is the scandal that felled Sterling. The thing that sparked public opprobrium wasn't the more complicated, structural stuff. It was the dumb comments that made him seem like a cartoon villain, Bull Connor with expensive sunglasses and a perma-tan. This is the shape of the racism we're equipped to deal with: voiced by an unsympathetic figure and easy to condemn.