A primer on the word racism.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Sept. 30 2009 12:41 PM

A Primer on Racism

The many uses of the word and how legit they are.

(Continued from Page 1)

Banaji's research suggests we have a way to go before we get to a post-racist utopia. But she warns against using the test to try to prove individual bias; in fact, she has pledged to testifyagainst anyone who tries to use her work to prove discriminatory intent in court. Other psychologists have questioned the whole approach. For instance, U.C.-Berkeley psychologist Phillip Tetlock thinks that Banaji's test doesn't prove anything about discrimination in real-life situations: "We've come a long way from Selma, Alabama, if we have to calibrate prejudice in milliseconds," he argues.

Environmental racism
After the levees broke in New Orleans, it was hard to miss the overwhelming number of black victims of Hurricane Katrina. Some suggested that blacks suffered after the storm because of racially biased disaster-relief efforts. But the real problem was neighborhood segregation. Most blacks lived in the less-desirable low-lying areas of the city, which suffered the worst damage from the flooding. Almost every metropolitan area in the United States is home to such segregated minority neighborhoods, many of which are located next to environmental hazards such as garbage dumps, heavy industry, oil refineries, sewage-treatment facilities, and areas abandoned due to toxic contamination. Community and environmental activists have found common ground in condemning this pattern as environmental racism.

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The term environmental racism refers to a serious problem, but like institutional racism, it muddies the issue by implying that bad people acting with racial animus are behind it, when poverty, bad urban design, and segregated residential patterns put in place many years ago are really to blame.

Reverse racism
Glenn Beck took the fear of anti-white racism to new extremes when he accused President Obama of being a racist, but political hacks have for decades used accusations of reverse racism as part of a well-documented, cynical political strategy. For instance, in 1990 North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms turned the polls around in his race against challenger Harvey Gantt * by playing the reverse race card. In Helms'  advertisement, a pair of white hands crumples a rejection letter while ominous music plays and a voice-over intones, "You needed that job … but they had to give it to a minority."

There are real instances of anti-white racism, such as Louis Farrakhan's crude diatribes against "white devils." But they are relatively few and rarely amount to more than impotent blustering. Affirmative action—often tarred as reverse racism by its opponents—doesn't qualify. Affirmative action is an imperfect but pragmatic effort to promote integration in the face of the effects of past and ongoing discrimination. There's plenty of room for legitimate criticism, but suggesting that affirmative action is a form of racism is disingenuous and turns what should be a level-headed debate into a shouting match.

Racism is still a force to be reckoned with in American society. But we should think twice before jumping to the convenient conclusion that people who don't agree with us must be bigots. And we should call the bluff of people who play the race card for rhetorical advantage or political gain, whether they're leftist agitators or right-wing blowhards. There may never be consensus on what counts as racism and when it's in play. But this lexicon should give you a place to start for deciphering the many conversations about race that will no doubt continue.

Correction, Oct. 1, 2009: The original sentence misspelled Harvey Gantt's name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

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