Racialicious on Richard Thompson Ford’s “A Primer on Racism”

Compiled by Thea Lim, with Andrea Plaid and Wendi Muse

My day job takes me into some pretty non-anti-oppressive environments. Generally I try to steer clear of conversations that deal with any parameter of power in depth (race, class, gender, sexuality, ability…) because in my environment, I find these conversations excruciating. It’s not that folks necessarily say blatantly hateful things. It’s rather that we can’t even agree on the basis for conversation. Or to put it more bluntly, my interlocutors have no concept of – or respect for – certain Racism 101 concepts.

I think what is particularly frustrating is the way that critical race theory – if I can use that term to describe the basic tenets that we and many of our buddy blogs operate off of – is treated as if it’s a loose collection of unverified opinions. It is not recognised as an actual body of thought that people of colour and allies have been writing and thinking about since Sojourner Truth gave her Ain’t I A Woman speech in 18freakin51.

If a medieval scholar engaged me in a discussion on representations of the clergy in the Lancelot-Grail cycle, I wouldn’t talk over them and contest every single point they made just because I had seen Disney’s The Sword in the Stone. Yet white folks who have absolutely no concept of the fact that there is a whole body of books, blogs, speakers, academic departments and workshops devoted to a common understanding of systemic racism, feel free to talk over my observations, as if the things I am saying are just random observations I’ve made.

So I welcome Richard Thompson Ford’s assertion that we need some kind of commonly held notion of what racism is, in his Slate article, “A primer on the word racism”.

Ford breaks down five different commonly cited examples of racism – institutional, cultural, unconscious, environmental and reverse – providing definitions for them and then evaluating whether or not they really are racism.

But. It’s clear that racism gets in the way of us defining racism. I don’t think Rush Limbaugh would be down with Racialicious’ definition of racism. But is Racialicious’ down with Ford’s definition of racism? Our correspondents weigh in.

Thea Lim

My first issue with Ford’s article is that it is confusing. It would be easier to understand if Ford started out with a clear definition of what racism entails. Because it took me a few minutes to glean from this article that Ford thinks anyone can be racist – a claim that I flat-out reject.

Ford seems to conflate racial prejudice with racism: roughly, if you treat someone according to their race, you are being racist. Meanwhile, I think that it is only racial prejudice + power that = racism. So if I yell “cracker” at a white man walking down the street (which btw I wouldn’t do and also don’t condone), my action has far less impact than if a white man yelled “chink” at me while I was walking down the street. The first scenario is an example of racial prejudice and being a jerk. The second scenario is racism and a hate crime. This is sort of 101 stuff, but there you have it.

Because Ford and I diverge on this basic tenet, I have multiple problems with certain conclusions that wobble out of his analysis.

In places in his article, it feels like Ford is trying to find short-cuts that gloss over analysis and appeal to “common sense” to get us to agree with him. The first short-cut Ford uses is “Bill Cosby.” In a discussion of cultural racism, Ford says that wariness of another’s culture is not racism because:

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.

So Ford is saying that
a) Cultural racism is not racism because Bill Cosby is a cultural racist
b) Bill Cosby can’t be racist.

In trying to rush us through this part of his analysis by assuming we like Bill Cosby – or accept him as some sort of standard for “not racism” – Ford doesn’t address the fact that saying “Mohammed and all that crap” is racist, xenophobic and Islamophobic. I am surprised that anti-racist scholar like Ford can think Cosby’s comments are ok — and not even bother to explain why they are ok.

Another short-cut “Selma, Alabama.” If Bill Cosby is the personification of “not racism,” Selma, Alabama is the personification of racism.

Ford says that unconscious racism – when your mind immediately equates a person of colour with bad traits – is not racism. Discussing a test that looked for immediate reactions to photos of light-skinned & dark-skinned faces, and concluded that 90% of white test participants found it easier to associate black faces with bad qualities than good ones, Ford quotes:

“We’ve come a long way from Selma, Alabama, if we have to calibrate prejudice in milliseconds”

Selma, Alabama – or beating and arresting black folks for sitting in the wrong section of the restaurant or cinema – is short hand for “total racism.” As long as we are not physically beating POC, it doesn’t matter if our immediate reaction to dark skin is suspicion.

Those are not the only places in the article where it feels like Ford’s thought is not as careful or thorough as it should be. In both his discussions of institutional racism and environmental racism, Ford concedes that these are two forms of genuine racism, but states that these kinds of racism are mischaracterised because in calling them “racism” the implication is that the acts are the result of deliberate bigotry (emphasis mine):

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…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.

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.

I found both these paragraphs confusing because Ford doesn’t unpack what he means by “racism.” After reading this article more than once, it became clear to me that Ford is assuming the reader thinks that racism is a) something that everyone is capable of (a belief I dealt with above) b) something that only baaad people do. And at points he seems to be implying – I think – that calling something racism when it doesn’t involve deliberate hatred, is confusing.

And that confuses me. Again it is a bit weird that an anti-racist scholar like Ford holds the rather elementary opinion that it is only baaad people with baaad intentions who get pleasure out of seeing others in pain are racists. As our friend Jay Smooth pointed out many eons ago – and as we state almost weekly – it really doesn’t matter what your intention is. To me there is absolutely nothing “muddying” or mischaracterising about saying that academic centers of power with no POC representation or “bad urban design” are racist.  The intentions or motivations behind those barriers are irrelevant to me.  By the fact that they form barriers to quality of life for POCs, they are racist entities.

This is nearly enough out of me, but I’d like to end by saying that I’d be much more open to this article if Ford presented these terms for consideration, saying that this is a starting point for a definition of racism, instead of saying “this is what racism is.” I would like this article a lot more if it was titled “An Open Invitation to Consider how we define Racism, Starting with My Opinion” rather than “A Primer on Racism.”

The attempt to define racism needs to be a dialogue, and it needs to take special heed of how the most marginalised folks in our society (in other words, not Stanford law professors, not Slate writers, and yes, not even Racialicious deputy editors) themselves define racism. Because I think as those who bear the brunt of racism are probably best qualified to tell us what it really is.

Andrea Plaid

Remember when I said I think the new way to discuss racism in the press is the “Trojan Horse” approach, in which white media hides their racially status-quo yet we’re-too-educated-to-be-racist ideas by offering PoCs writers the perfect publishing duty to, well, write those very same ideas. Thompson Ford’s article is the latest Trojan horse, where his primer really serves as a comfort for Slate’s mostly white audience by giving a Black person’s imprimatur on what’s “real” racism and what’s not. Because, as we all know, one Black person represents the whole race because we all think alike. (/sarcasm)

Thompson Ford offers comfort by either dismissing or euphemizing the “racisms” he discusses. Institutional racism equals a “serious injustice”; cultural racism is boils down to “serious problem”; unconscious racism is untestable and, therefore, questionable; environmental racism, “like institutional racism,” just muddies up the “true” class analysis; and reverse racism is truly practiced by Louis Farrakhan. (I’m surprised Thompson didn’t drop Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s name.) As with too many discussions about race and racism, his piece falls into the Black-White binary where, except Glenn Beck and Sen, Joe Wilson, whites are invisible and Black are in high relief as the vicitims or the perpetrators. Also, Thompson Ford also reuses the word “racism” until it becomes meaningless.

But what Thompson Ford did brings up a point Carmen brought up a good point in a tweet or her blog: we need another word besides “racism” to describe the hatred and/or fear of certain people based on a person’s phenotype and all the attributes attendant to it. I’m still thinking about it; Thompson’s post makes that re-thinking more urgent.

Wendi Muse

“That’s Racist!” is the well-known tagline from the blog Angry Asian Man. It also happens to be the rallying cry behind many a social movement, particularly in the United States, where race often trumps many other facets of our identities in debates on equal rights because, well, it’s so easy to identify. Or is it? Richard Thompson Ford attempts to unpack racism’s multiple forms (i.e. institutional, environmental, cultural, etc) for the reader who may not be so well-versed in racism’s many nuances. While Ford’s attempt is noble and, in my opinion, a great start for clarifying what racism means in a modern, American context, he makes one classic mistake. Instead of explaining racism’s effect on multiple communities, Ford boils down the great racism debate to black and white.

Given, Americans of African descent have often been the most vocal players in discussion around race and racism in the U.S., particularly because of their demographic visibility and the nation’s legacy of slavery, which made even the whitest of the white, from statesmen and slave owners to every day citizens, confront the issue of race, even if the debates around it were framed differently from those of today. Contemporary discussions of race also tend to resort to the bicameral black and white system, but with time, people of color from multiple backgrounds have played significant roles in the struggle for recognition, civil rights, and equality. So why now, as Ford discusses the multiple layers of racism and its evidence in the media and political realm, would he choose to ignore the complexities of the race debate when it comes to its own diversity?

All the more puzzling is how Ford could write an entire article on racism without pointing out that in each and every subcategory, one could replace the word “racism” with the word “classism”: and find oneself in a similar conundrum. Most of the issues covered in the article are tied inherently to class, and while Ford does make mention of the money issue, he focuses the entirety of his energies on the definitions of racism, distracting his audience once more from a topic that they should be thinking about in more depth.

I agree with Ford in his assertion that sometimes talking about race by way of racism can be a roundabout way of getting at a greater issue or even a point of distraction because of its sensationalism, but I wonder if he, too, has given much thought to the glaring absences in his piece and how their presence could help foster a more sane, concise, and developed discussion about race in the United States.


Image via The Awl