The Politics of Language, Identity, and Race

The rhetoric of racism is unfair to all US citizens, poisoning the atmosphere for democratic debate

THE political right would have us believe that the only racism of any consequence existing in the United States today is the ''reverse racism'' perpetrated against white Americans. This, of course, is nonsense. The left, on the other hand, is too quick to label as ''racist'' any action that impacts minority communities in a manner it deems detrimental.

If proper restraint and leadership aren't shown on both sides, the barriers to solving this country's multifaceted and complex race problem will continue to be raised ever higher.

For example, we hear some liberal critics of Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan wonder aloud whether he's a racist. This criticism is based primarily on Mayor Riordan's recent firing of transportation chief Franklin White and his strained relationship with police chief Willie Williams, both African-Americans, as well as the absence of blacks in his inner circle. Many conservative supporters of the so-called California Civil Rights Initiative, meanwhile, denounce affirmative-action programs as nothing more than ''reverse racism,'' a term tending to suggest to white Americans that they are being subjected to systemic discrimination comparable to that suffered by African-Americans in the era of segregation.

Each of these is an example of rhetorical excess that grossly oversimplifies this nation's complicated race problem by reducing every issue involving race to the other side's racism.

What exactly is racism? Overly intricate scholarly definitions are of questionable value here, since the underlying concept of race is itself an imprecise social construct. Rather, common sense is instructive: Racism must mean either animosity toward a class of people, or belief in their fundamental inferiority based on their race. Using this standard, it's clear that nobody has come forward with any evidence that Riordan is a racist; in fact, his longtime philanthropic efforts on behalf of computer literacy in South Central Los Angeles schools suggest quite the opposite. And even those who rail against ''reverse racism'' would have to concede that affirmative action has never been based on hatred of whites or belief in their inferiority.

The overblown racism rhetoric is problematic for several reasons. First, it's unfair to one's fellow citizens. Likening affirmative action to the despicable Jim Crow regime is to trivialize black Americans' historical deprivation of basic rights; and to those white Americans who genuinely believe all men are created equal and who have always supported civil rights, ''racist'' is perhaps as hurtful a slur as exists.

Second, such rhetoric poisons the atmosphere in which important public-policy issues need to be debated in a democracy. Affirmative action should be supported or opposed based on the rational consideration of all the issues involved, not because the less well-informed voter has had his passions successfully aroused by inflammatory terms such as ''reverse racism.''

Finally, it cheapens the word ''racism,'' prompting the middle of the electorate to become ever more skeptical about all claims of racism. Genuine racism still exists. It needs to be exposed and confronted wherever it's found, and it doesn't do the cause of equality any good to purport to put a Richard Riordan in the same bag as a Mark Fuhrman.

This is not to say that only those who are open about their racism - Klansmen, racial supremacists, racial separatists - are deserving of the ''racist'' label. More than a few ideological racists have made a conscious, tactical decision to temper their statements and conduct outside the company of fellow bigots, and have become skillful in the public use of more subtle code language designed to appeal to racial biases of constituents.

Nonetheless, given the incendiary nature of racial issues and the vulnerability of the societal fabric, it's imperative that people of goodwill exercise restraint and discretion in this area - and, most important, leadership.

As a society, we would be better off if we all toned down our rhetoric, and instead gave each other the benefit of the doubt in the absence of evidence of actual racism. Those who disagree with Riordan's personnel decisions or with President Clinton's support for affirmative action should vocally dissent - but let's all be more judicious in the use of inflammatory language, to set an example of responsible citizenship and to keep from undercutting the very cause we support.

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