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“Racism”: What’s in a Name?

In one of Shakespeare’s most famous quotations, Juliet asks Romeo “what’s in a name”?  Indeed, name-calling is a meaningless and artificial convention, attendant to children who quote the verse “… names will never hurt me.” But they can and are meant to, not physically, but psychologically.

Today’s America has become consumed with a set of “names” that are so commonplace that they practically define the entire social mores, including the academy, entertainment, the media, and local and federal governments. “Liberty,” the dominant creed from the Founding until recently, has been replaced by a category of idioms that translate simple nouns into dynamic and aggressive worldviews. Sex and race, especially, become “isms,” which elevates them into ideologies, replete with comprehensive interpretations and explanations of humanity since time began. Enemies are targeted and assaulted but without weapons. These targets are equally comprehensive, to embrace enemy colors, “white” privilege or supremacy, favored colors, “black” and all other “people of color,” against a whole gender (masculine), for protected genders, LGBT, or no genders at all, “trans” people. Entire social and physical disciplines, history and biology, disappear or are ignored. An overwhelming “feminist” ideology arises, but without a counter “masculinist,” which doesn’t exist but is seen as pervasive.

Today’s America, therefore, is assaulted from within. The existential enemy, as in 1776 and 1861, is internal. The country has not been invaded by an army since 1812 and there is little prospect of Chinese soldiers storming the Pentagon. Illegal immigration may challenge the fabric of society, but this, too, is not armed and, thus, is also sociological.

The word “racism” has no common definition and, like terrorism, is colloquial: you will know it when you see it. Like “white supremacy,” its very dominance does not require analysis, it is just there. Like terrorism, its content is seen as inherently evil. Bombing cities from the sky is war, flying into buildings is something else.

What’s in a name?

As a word, racism is expansive enough to cover all sins. It is completely modern, first used to describe the Nazis in the 1930s, but is now in “occupation” of American soil. Distinctions are excluded. While there may just be a slight difference between gassing six million Jews and using the “N” word, President Trump is routinely compared to Hitler (one doubts if the Fuhrer would have a Jewish son-in-law, nor is Trump about to invade France).

From where do such ridiculous oxymorons derive, and why do they absorb such an advanced society as this one? Racism is now almost a universally accepted identification of a country once called the “land of the free.” There are, of course, contradictions in all societal metaphors, but the essence of each depends on what is believed. Today, racism has replaced liberty.

The extent of the penetration of this idea can be found the moment one awakes. A casual read of a popular morning newspaper (unnamed to protect the guilty) finds racism the dominate note of everyday life. One columnist wrote on classical literature, condemning its wholesale avoidance of contemporary American shortcomings. Her conclusion was to urge readers, of Socrates to Aquinas, to find “ancient racism and sexism … as topics to be explored thoughtfully than mindlessly celebrated.” In other words, the classics are not classical but are judged on how they satisfy CNN or Madonna. 

Another, the next day, wrote on feminism and the upcoming midterm elections, examining that “suburban women do not like racist, sexist speech. I will tiptoe out further to say it’s weird  that racist, sexist speech would not also bother male voters” (implying that they don’t even recognize it).

The overwhelming goal of a liberal culture, (assuming the U.S. is one) is toward a “color-free” society.  As Martin Luther King said so eloquently years ago, people should be judged by the “content of their character” and not the color of their skin. It seems as though color is critical to different groups – from the Ku Klux Klan to Black Lives Matter – which seems to challenge King’s essential point.

Color has always been an inaccurate, and thereby explosive, identification. All sides are guilty. The “yellow peril” against Chinese immigration in the nineteenth century, the identification of native Indians as “red” (and the Washington football team) are just cases in point. There are no yellow or red people. White, Black, Red, Yellow all mock human content and are the very origins of stereotyping. 

To meet King’s great goal, we should emphasize content over color. That means: how do people behave? Do they give to others what they have or do they take what others have? Are they stable? Do they obey the law? Do they respect their neighbors, families, and friends? Do they forgive their enemies? Do they plan, do they pray? Etc.

Keeping slogans and nametags will only worsen the issue; it’s called “bumper sticker” thought. Names are also “lightning rods,” deflecting all that comes at them. They also suffocate analysis, remove responsibility, and blame the rest of the world, from Scandinavia to Argentina to Detroit.

Stop the name-calling. To quote Shakespeare, again, it’s “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”


Please note that the views expressed by our faculty, research fellows, students, alumni, and guest lecturers do not necessarily reflect the views of The Institute of World Politics.