A primer on the word racism.

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Sept. 30 2009 12:41 PM

A Primer on Racism

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

More than a few naive souls hoped that the election of Barack Obama signaled a new era of racial harmony. Instead, alas, American race relations have entered a bizarre new phase in which tension is ubiquitous and almost anyone can claim to be the victim of racism. Former President Jimmy Carter lamented that "there is an inherent feeling among many in the country that an African-American should not be president," in reaction to Rep. Joe Wilson's now-infamous outburst during President Obama's congressional address. Also of late, the Rev. Al Sharpton and many others cried racism over a tasteless New York Post cartoon, Cambridge police were accused of "racial profiling" after arresting  Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. at his home, and Newsweek asked "Is Your Baby Racist?" And although conservatives have long complained of unwarranted accusations of racism, two of their henchmen, Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, have been shamelessly playing the race card.

Politicians and pundits on both the left and right abuse the term racism to tar their political enemies. But decent people with good intentions also overuse the term as they struggle to draw attention to racial injustices that do not involve overt bigotry. With the R-word used to describe so many different things, it no longer has a clear and agreed-upon meaning. Attorney General Eric Holder has urged Americans to talk bravely and openly about race, but how can we when we aren't speaking the same language? In the interest of democratic dialogue, I offer this rough-and-ready primer on racism for the not-so-post-racist era. Below, I'll define several of the more commonly cited types of racism and offer my humble opinion as to whether they deserve the label.

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Institutional racism
Many businesses, schools, clubs, and other organizations are racially homogenous or segregated, even though no one deliberately excludes racial minorities or tries to prevent them from succeeding. For instance, although roughly half of all college football players are black, only about 5 percent of head coaches are.

Retired NBA star Charles Barkley made headlines when he claimed that his alma mater, Auburn University, was racist after it hired a white candidate—Gene Chizik—over a black candidate—Turner Gill—who had a better coaching record. But the larger problem is probably the college booster networks that help raise money for college sports. If a white coach can more easily establish a rapport with alumni than a black coach—whether the underlying reason is cultural similarities, long-standing social networks, prejudice, or some combination of the three—the college might prefer him for a reason that has nothing to do with race. Namely, money. On the other hand, if alumni prefer white coaches because of their race, then racism is still the root cause. And even if no one involved is a bigot, many scholars and activists would insist that this is a form of institutional racism. The term institutional racism suggests moral fault and culpability when often the racial inequity is unintentional. But, intended or not, practices that create "built-in headwinds" for minority groups are a serious injustice.

Cultural racism
Studies have shown that employers prefer résumés with conventional names to otherwise identical résumés with stereotypically black names like DeShawn or Shaniqua. Some employers may be weeding out blacks, but others may dislike not individual black people but what might be called "black culture." Employers who would be happy to hire a preppy Cosby kid might worry that people with "black names" are more likely to use ghetto slang, dress in gangster fashion styles, or cop a tough or sassy attitude on the job.

Is this racism? Maybe not. In a notorius speech, Bill Cosby lambasted poor blacks for contributing to their own misfortunes by using slang, dressing badly, and giving their children "names like Shaniqua, Taliqua, and Mohammed and all that crap." Cultural misunderstanding and hostility is a serious problem in today's increasingly cosmopolitan society. But when Cliff Huxtable can be called a racist, it's probably time to rethink our terms.

Unconscious racism
Harvard psychologist Mahzarin Banaji has developed a test designed to smoke out unconscious racial bias. The test requires the subject, under intensive time pressure, to match black and white faces with value-laden terms such as good, smart, and diligent or bad, stupid, and lazy. If you find it easier to match white faces with good terms and black faces with bad terms, you have exhibited what Banaji calls an implicit association between race and merit or virtue. Although she scrupulously avoids using the term herself, almost everyone else has predictably described the results of her research in terms of unconscious racism. And the results are disquieting: Almost 90 percent of whites exhibit some unconscious racism against blacks, while around half of all blacks exhibit anti-black bias.

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