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Overuse of the term “Racist” and the First Amendment

Perhaps the most overused and misused term in the English language these days is “racist.”  In the politically-correct America of today, an individual can be called a “racist” for little or no reason.  People are called “racists” for disagreeing with President Obama’s policies, for calling rioters and looters in troubled cities such as Ferguson and Baltimore “criminals,” and, irony of ironies, for being conservative and black.  People are also called “racists” for questioning the entitlement mentality that is part of the leftist agenda being advanced by liberals in America.  Liberals use the term “racist” like cavalry officers used their sabers—to skewer their enemies, except the enemies in this case are those who refuse to toe the line of liberal orthodoxy.

In fact, it appears that labeling people as “racists” is an attempt by those on the left to suppress the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech—not by legal means but by social pressure.  With America’s checkered past concerning race, there are few things worse one could be called than a racist.   However, since the term is so overused and abused, all Americans would do well to reflect on what it really means.  Here is a hint: it does not mean disagreeing with Barack Obama’s policies as president or being black and conservative.

Racism is a form of bigotry in which individuals of one race feel superior to those of another race(s) by dint of nothing more than the color of their skin.  Members of any race may be racists, but in America—because of our nation’s history—the term is most frequently applied to white people to portray them as prejudiced against members of the black race.  At least this has been the case historically.  In recent years, it has become the practice of liberals to label anyone of any race who does not toe the line of liberal orthodoxy as a racist.  This has created the ironic situation in which liberal white people who have never suffered the indignities of segregation or second-class citizenship call black conservatives who have  “racists.”   It’s as if liberals who cannot muster the support to legally suppress free speech are trying to use social pressure to achieve the same end.

I grew up in the Deep South during the bad old days of Jim Crow.  Segregation, “colored” water fountains, and “whites only” signs were common during my childhood. Some of the worst battles between Civil Rights advocates and the hardened bigots who opposed them occurred during my formative years.  Consequently, the images conjured up in my mind when I hear the term “racist” are of hate-filled bigots in robes and hoods burning crosses, lynching blacks, beating sit-in participants, burning the busses that carried freedom riders, turning snarling dogs and water cannons on peaceful protestors, and—worst of all—murdering four innocent little black girls by setting dynamite to their church. With this background, one can understand why the term “racist” has historically been such a powerful pejorative in America; something few would ever want to be called or even associated with.

But much water has run under the bridge since my childhood and the America of 2015 is much different than the America of the 1950s and 60s. So are those who are now called “racists.” Today when you hear the term “racist” applied to someone, that person is less likely to be a hate-filled bigot who is committed to racial segregation and burns crosses in the front yards of black people.  Rather, the so-called “racist” of today is more likely to be an individual who exercises his First Amendment right of free speech to espouse a conservative worldview, questions the policies of President Obama, believes that personal initiative is trumps the entitlement mentality, rejects the government’s failed fifty year-old war on poverty, and views Affirmative Action as legally sanctioned discrimination.  In other words, a “racist” in contemporary America is any conservative—white, black, Hispanic, or Asian—who speaks out against the manifest failures and personal indignities of progressivism.

In view of this new definition of what now constitutes a “racist” and because the term has been so badly abused by liberals, people are coming to the point where they no longer fear being called that once most feared of epithets.  Ironically, those who call others “racists” in an attempt to suppress conservative views often do those they label an unintended favor by putting them in company with some outstanding Americans.  The Americans in question are widely admired outside of liberal circles for their courage, scholarship, powerful commentary, and common sense.  They include Shelby Steele, Walter Williams. Thomas Sowell, and Jason Riley to name just a few.  What all of these renowned Americans have in common—other than their courage and commitment to truth—is their race; all of them are distinguished black Americans who daily endure the slings and arrows of liberals who consider them sellouts and “racists” of another sort for turning their backs on such liberal mainstays as victimhood, entitlement, and government dependence.

In his book, SHAME: How America’s Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country, Shelby Steele writes: “I am used to being in situations where mention of such ‘conservative’ values (as self-help and individual responsibility) amounts to an impropriety.  On today’s political landscape, there are few people more inherently provocative, more unforeseen and unsettling, than people like myself who are designated ‘black conservative’.”  In a recent edition of his syndicated newspaper column, Walter Williams called multiculturalism—a mainstay of liberal orthodoxy—“a cancer on Western society.”

In his book, The Thomas Sowell Reader, Sowell uses a scholar’s grasp of the facts to excoriate liberals for attributing to racial discrimination things that have nothing to do with race. He writes, “Local demagogues who thunder against the fact that Koreans run so many stores in black ghettos merely betray their ignorance when they act as if this is something strange or unusual.  For most of the merchants in an area to be of a different race or ethnicity from their customers has been common for centuries in Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, West Africa, the Caribbean, Fiji, the Ottoman Empire and numerous other places.”  In a recent article for Imprimis, Jason Riley took young black Americans to task for construing the use of proper English as “speaking white” rather than as the language of success.

These renowned black Americans are not “racists,” nor are they sellouts.  They are bright, successful professionals who know what it takes to succeed in an admittedly imperfect world; a world that has not always been kind to them; a world that has given them plenty of excuses to be bitter and angry if they were the kind of men to make excuses.  Fortunately for America, they are not. As a result, people of all races can look up to them as positive, inspiring role models.  These “black conservatives” are committed in reality to what liberals only claim to be committed to: helping black Americans improve their lives. It isn’t that they deny that blacks have been victims—each of them has been victimized because of his race.  Rather it’s that they do not believe that the way to overcome being victimized is to depend on government.  All of these individuals and others like them—white, black, Hispanic, and Asian—who have had to work their way out of disadvantageous circumstances by dint of personal initiative and steadfast determination know what it takes to do so.  Each of them knows that what it takes to succeed is not government assistance, victimhood, or excuse making.

The overuse and careless misapplication of the term “racist” by liberals with a nefarious agenda has taken much of the sting out of a term that once struck fear in the hearts of white people.  According to liberals, if crime is rampant in black ghettos, the cause must be racism. If the dropout rate among black students is inordinately high, the cause must be racism.  If the majority of black children grow up in fatherless homes, the cause must be racism.  To point out any of these facts—as Shelby Steele, Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, and Jason Riley have done—is to be labeled a “racist” by liberals, both white and black regardless of one’s race.

There are still racists in America, and they come in all races.  But the overwhelming majority of Americans of all races long for racial harmony, not racial discord.  It is only liberals with an agenda that has nothing to do with helping improve the socio-economic conditions of black Americans who fear racial harmony.  If this desirable goal is achieved in America, those who use the term “racist” as a club to prevent it from happening will eventually fade into irrelevance.  This is why conservatives should not fear being labeled as “racists” when they criticize government policies that promise black Americans progress while, in reality, holding them back.  The term “racist” no longer has anything to do with race.  It is simply a political billy-club used by desperate liberals who fear losing control of the social narrative, in turn, their relevance.

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Jacob "Jake" Steele

Dr. Jacob Steele is a professor of Political Science and the author of numerous books and articles in this field.

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