Archive for January, 2010

Defining Racism

January 12, 2010

Ann Althouse says

If by “racist” you mean somebody who would use other people’s feelings about race in a purely instrumental way to amass political power, then Harry Reid is a racist.

Eugene Volokh responds

My question: Does the term “racist” indeed normally mean “somebody who would use other people’s feelings about race in a purely instrumental way to amass political power”? I don’t think I’ve ever heard it used this way; and while I certainly recognize that words can have multiple standard meanings, I’m skeptical that the second meaning Prof. Althouse suggests is indeed standard.

He’s wrong.

Consider a Southern politician who routinely played on the racist feelings of his constituents in order to win re-election.  Using “code words” and “dog whistles” in his ads to get racists to come out and vote for him.  We most certainly do consider such a person a racist, regardless of how he feels about blacks.  And if that’s not “somebody who would use other people’s feelings about race in a purely instrumental way to amass political power”, then words have no meaning.

If you want to argue that the description doesn’t apply to Harry Reid, go right ahead.  But you can’t honestly claim that it’s an invalid use of the word “racist”.

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