Here’s a joke:
Q: What did the Nazi say to the segregationist?
A: You’re doing a great job over there.
While that joke may not make you burst at the seams in laughter (I admit that I haven’t properly cultivated my cache of Nazi material), it raises an interesting question:
Are there varying degrees of racism?
Different people will have different answers. Some will argue that there is a big difference between a lynching and wearing blackface. Others dismiss the idea of a sliding scale of bigotry and believe that being “a little racist” is like being “kinda pregnant.”
It is a complex debate full of nuances and caveats. As someone who has studied the intersection of race theory and economic theory for years, I cannot give a definitive answer. There is only one thing about which I am 100 percent sure:
White people do not get to decide.
On Monday I published a piece titled, “The NFL Protests Are a Perfect Study of How White Supremacy Works.” You don’t even have to click on the link and read it; I can give you the CliffsNotes version:
- There are a lot of people who are outraged and feel it is disrespectful for black players to kneel during the national anthem.
- Those people think the NFL or the team owners should enact rules or a form of punishment for kneeling during the anthem.
- The number of black players who kneel during the national anthem is very small (less than 2 percent of the league’s black players kneel during the anthem).
- The fact that fans, owners and the president of the United States are threatening to shut down these players’ protests is a microcosm of how white supremacy works to oppress people of color.
In response to the article, writer Megan McArdle wrote a piece for Bloomberg titled: “Be Careful Who You Call a White Supremacist.” In her piece, McArdle warns ... ummm ... me, I guess, that using the term “white supremacist” is hyperbolic and damaging to the hope of productive conversation. McArdle writes that “lexical activists” like myself (Who knew? I have an entirely different job title now! I am getting new business cards as we speak) run the risk of simultaneously neutering the power of the words and causing people to become apathetic.
McArdle somehow manages to channel the inner workings of my pitiful wittle peabrain to whitesplain how I—or people like me—think that “the idea is apparently that if we put the racial inequalities perpetuated by the criminal-justice system on the same moral plane as lynch mobs and segregated lunch counters, people will have to attack the former with the same vigor we would use against any attempt to bring back Jim Crow.”
Nonetheless, using “white supremacy” this way is a mistake. It leads to confusion in the national conversation because opposing sides are using a critical term in very different ways. It hampers our ability to discuss the phenomenon that the anti-racists actually want to discuss. And ultimately, if we continue to use it this way, it will lose the very emotional resonance that made it an appealing substitute for more clinical terms.
Megan McArdle is a white woman.
That is not a pejorative or an accusation. It just is. No matter how much thought and insight she put into defending white supremacy, it is always going to come off, as a friend, Ryan J, put it, as “eerily similar to the feeling you get when a white person places their hand on your shoulder uninvited and tells you to calm down.”
The blurb for McArdle’s article is, “If you’ve cried wolf too many times, no one will listen when you see the real thing.”
The problem with McArdle and all of the white people throughout the history of white people is that they have never been able to see the “real thing.” They have never been able to recognize racism in real time.
They are good at seeing everything in hindsight, but their infinitely wide blind spot for white supremacy is how we got the trans-Atlantic slave trade, more than 4,000 public black lynchings between 1877 and 1950, and the deadliest war in the history of America.
After bodies swing from nooses, or skeletons litter the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, they have the luxury of looking back and reluctantly admitting their mistakes. Even when mothers would rather murder their newborn children than have them be born slaves, Caucasians will tell you, “Things were different back then.” Excuse my language here (as a lexical activist, I shouldn’t have to say that, but I will acquiesce this time):
How the fuck can you tell us not to cry wolf when you have never recognized a wolf?
Let us be clear: I and my fellow L.A.s (that’s what we call it at the meetings of BLACC—the Brotherhood of Lexical Activists and Caucasian Complainers) do not ratchet up our language with the hope or expectation that doing so will cause people of no color to fight racism with urgency. To wit, McArdle missed a very important point in her whitesplained defense of white supremacy:
White people didn’t do a damn thing about the lynch mobs, lunch counters or Jim Crow. We did.
White America and white people, in general, have never been on the real-time right side of the movement for justice and equality. They didn’t call the genocide of the Native Americans “white supremacy.” They fought abolition and refused to call the holocaust of chattel slavery “white supremacy.” They referred to lynchings as “vigilante justice” and “lesson teaching.” They didn’t name the internment of Japanese Americans “white supremacy.” The same went for redlining, Jim Crow, the terrorist bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, George Wallace standing on the steps of the University of Alabama and now their esteemed president.
White America didn’t think any of it was wrong. In a 1964 Gallup poll (pdf), when asked about civil rights, 73 percent said: “Negroes should stop demonstrations.” In 1966, most whites believed that civil rights activists were “not justified” (pdf) in participating in the movement for change.
Do you want to know how I am 100 percent sure that Megan doesn’t know what she’s talking about? Because in her explanation she nonchalantly typed, for the entire world to see, that she does not place the “racial inequalities perpetuated by the criminal-justice system on the same moral plane as lynch mobs and segregated lunch counters.”
If there is one group of people for whom you should plug your ears when they talk about systematic injustice and structural racism, it is white people. They have never, ever been right about what constitutes white supremacy.
They will never see the wolf. Even when it is chewing chunks of black flesh, they will call it an innocent little puppy. They will watch us being devoured and equivocate about the degrees of canine bloodthirstiness. They will tell you to quiet down as they claw out your throat.
Whether it is malice, willful blindness or having their panties in a bunch about being called out for their complicity, they will never call a thing a thing.
And I should know. I’m a lexical activist.