As long as I can think of someone more racist, I’m not racist at all

My *favorite* assignment in the Rhetoric of Racism course is having students look at a text (or practice) about which there is an argument (ideally a text they think is racist) and explain why there is a disagreement.

There are basically eight ways people argue that a text isn’t racist:

1) a text isn’t racist if it doesn’t make a big deal about race;

2) texts are either racist or not racist and so if there is any way in which this text criticizes racism, then it can’t be racist;

3) it’s just a “feel-good” text and you’re over-reading;

4) it isn’t racist because what it says is true (in other words, the person saying the text isn’t racist is racist);

5) racists are people who explicitly and self-consciously hate everyone of every other race, and only racist people say racist things, so if the person created the text isn’t someone who never ever associates with or who never says anything “nice” about any member of any other race, then the text can’t be racist (also known as the “some of my best friends are…” defense);

6) the author didn’t intend to be racist (so it’s only racist if the individual who created the text engaged in actions s/he knew to be racist);

7) it doesn’t have the marks of hostility toward another race (the tone isn’t over-the-top, it doesn’t use racial epithets);

8) it isn’t racist because there are other texts that are more racist, or it doesn’t endorse the most extreme versions of racism, or the person knows of people who are more racist (what I’ll call the “Eichmann defense”).

This is also a list of how racism is legitimated—these are the ways that people allow racist practices to continue. They’re all complicated to talk someone out of (although there are ways), and here I want to focus on two of them: 4) and 8), which often co-exist. These are the ones that really muckle my students, and they are really interesting.

I think the two of them share the assumption that calling a text racist is a personal attack on, not just the author(s) of the text in question, but anyone who likes it. The underlying logic is: racists are evil, evil people are entirely not-good, people who like something racist are racist, so calling someone racist, or saying something they like is racist, is saying they are entirely evil.

That logic is a good example of what Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca called “philosophical paired terms.” The logic maps out like a question on a standardized test “Dogs are to mammals as parakeets are to ____.”

And, therefore, since good and evil are binaries (something is entirely good or entirely evil), then, if you can imagine something more evil, you must have some good, and so can’t be entirely evil, and so you can’t be evil at all. Therefore, you must be on the “not racist” side of the equation.

Most of us (perhaps all) engage in judgments comparatively, so that, as long as we are more [whatever] than our peers, we feel good about ourselves. Clearly, 8) relies on that move—as long as you aren’t as racist as someone else, you can feel good about your attitudes.

Interestingly enough, Adolph Eichmann relied on that argument a lot. In the interrogations, he several times condemned people for a Streicher-kind of anti-Semitism—part of trying to persuade his Jewish interrogators that he wasn’t anti-Semitic. He also continually tried to represent his job as okay because it wasn’t as directly death-dealing as the people who actually pulled the triggers or applied the gas.

If someone else was more guilty, then he wasn’t guilty at all.

This move is sometimes characterized as “whataboutism” but it’s actually different. Whataboutism is sheer tu quoque—it’s an attempt to shift the stasis of the argument away from what I did to some competition as to which group or individual is better. It’s almost always an admission that the people making the argument are engaged in sheer factionalism (there are complicated exceptions). So, for instance, defenders of Trump said Clinton did it too (a fallacy). But, some critics of Bill Clinton pointed out that he claimed he was a feminist and supporter of women’s rights, so his sexually harassing women was a violation of feminist principles. That’s a legitimate and important argument.

People who claim that the GOP is morally superior to the DNC can’t logically use the “Clinton groped women” argument at all because it shows that they think both parties are just as bad—and they’re claiming theirs is better.

“Whataboutism” works by accusing the out-group of doing the same thing the in-group has recently been outed for doing. But this move doesn’t accuse the out-group of anything—it just points out that there is a worse version (perhaps even a worse in-group version) of this behavior.

Eichmann defended himself as not anti-Semitic because another Nazi was more extreme. During slavery, slaveholders defended their treatment of slaves on the grounds that there were other slaveholders who were worse (they also engaged in tu quoque, but that’s a different story); pro-segregationists posited the KKK and violent segregationists as worse than they; the people I know who drink the Rush Limbaugh/Fox News flavor-aid all name somein-group pundit too extreme for them.

That someone may be more racist doesn’t mean you aren’t racist. Both you and they might be racist.

Talking about racism means, I think, getting the argument away from whether people are racist, whether their intentions are deliberately racist, and whether racist/not racist is a binary.

[Image screenshot from here.]


On the precious little snowflakes who want to ban _To Kill a Mockingbird_

We have all read about the precious little snowflakes who want great pieces of literature banned because they feel that their group is attacked by some piece of literature generally considered by scholars to be great. This is a rallying point on the part of the Right-Wing Outrage Machine (RWOM), about how effeminate and sensitive students are being created by the faculty of political correctness who go on to insist that students not be allowed to read a book. That effeminate group is offended by something about the book, perhaps a word, more commonly the representation of a character who might be taken to represent their group. Perhaps the character is the only member of that group represented, or perhaps even every member of that group is represented as ignorant, violent, and criminal. The argument, according to the RWOM, is that these people say that you can’t have literature in K-12 classrooms that makes some of the students feel bad about their group, and the RWOM) is clear that they think that is a bad thing to do.

This claim—that people who object to great pieces of literature on the grounds that it makes them feel bad about their group—is an important plank in the platform of RWOM—that “liberals” are too precious to have their concerns taken seriously. “Liberals” are simultaneously sensitive and authoritarian—they can’t stand criticism of their group, and they will silence anyone who criticizes them. Thus, “liberals’” views on policy issues can be dismissed—they don’t understand that democracy is about being willing to be tough and listen to criticism of our in-group.

So, this issue, as far as the RWOM is concerned, isn’t just about the book—about whether “liberals’” concerns need to be considered at all.

And, for the RWOM, To Kill a Mockingbird (TKAM) is a case in point. There are people who object to this book being taught in K-12 because it portrays their group unfavorably. And the RWOM is univocal that those people are idiots, whose views on politics are so impaired (soft, weak, sensitive) that the people who make those arguments shouldn’t even be considered in political discourse.

The argument about TKAM, then, isn’t just an argument about that book—it’s an argument about who is should even have a voice in democratic political discourse. Democracy, as the founders said, is about disagreement. The principle of democracy is that a community benefits from different points of view. The RWOM argument about trying to censor TKAM is pretty clear: the people who want it banned from high schools are weak people who don’t understand democracy. It isn’t just that their views are bad, but that they are such weak and fragile people that their entire group should not be considered when we are thinking about policy.

Banning the book is “caving in” to people who want it banned is stupid.  Banning TKAM is a war on learning. The National Review asserts that the records suggest that all attempts to ban the book come from people who don’t like books with the “n word” in them (that isn’t true, but it is one of the reasons often given).

“But a different sin concerns today’s anti-Mockingbird crowd. In fact, the last time Mockingbird was challenged solely for its depiction of sexual intercourse, rape, or incest was in 2006 in Brentwood, Tenn. Since then, all five challenges — in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2012, and 2016 — have involved parents or children made uncomfortable by the use of the “N-word” or the book’s depiction of racism.”

That National Review article condemns, in no uncertain terms, people who want the book banned because it makes them uncomfortable. So, as far as the National Review is concerned, banning the book is, prima facie, evidence of your entire political group being an idiot.

The RWOM is unusually unanimous on this point: people who object to teaching TKAM because it hurts their feelings are fragile little snowflakes whose views can be dismissed from consideration on the grounds that they are…well…too fragile. And they are clear that this isn’t a partisan issue: “But to consider To Kill a Mockingbird racially divisive is exactly backwards. The book is invaluable both for introducing students to the reality of America’s racial past and for exposing its injustices.” As in the above cases (both minor and major media), they were unequivocal that they were operating on a principle of education: that, as the National Review says, “Eliminating the hard stuff eliminates the reality.”

In other words, they aren’t taking this position because of partisan politics: it’s a principle that they hold universally.

For the sake of argument, let’s treat that as a principle. I have often argued that the RWOM makes arguments that present themselves as thoroughly, totally, and deeply principled, but are actually rabid factionalism. They were opposed to pedophilia till a pedophile was the GOP candidate for Senate; they wanted Clinton impeached for groping till they had a groper in chief. The RWOM says that their stance on TKAM is principled. Is it?

And here it’s useful to distinguish tu quoque from an argument from principle. If a person really cares about a principle, they will condemn anyone—in-group or not—for violating that principle. If concern about the principle is just a handy brick to throw at the outgroup, then, when it’s pointed out that they are violating a principle they claim to be sacred, they will say, “The out-group does it too!” That’s tu quoque. It’s a fallacy.

More important, it’s an admission that the principle didn’t matter. If I say, “You are bad because you pet squirrels,” then I am making an argument that has the major premise “people who pet squirrels are bad.” If I later defend someone who pets squirrels, I have violated the logic of my own argument. I am putting faction above principle. I don’t think someone is bad for petting squirrels—I think out-group members are bad for doing that, but not in-group members.

So, is the RWOM flinging itself around about sensitive snowflake lefties on the basis of a principle about democracy and the need to read unpleasant books? Or is this about faction?

Most of the articles I could find on the right were about the Biloxi, Mississippi controversy, when a school board decided that the book would not be required reading in eighth grade English classes, and I couldn’t find any major right-wing media who endorsed banning the book. So, this might look as the RWOM is acting on principle.

But there is some sneaky partisanship: snowflakes are lefties, and people who want to ban the book are fragile snowflakes—a term that has become a synonym for social justice warriors. So, condemning the specific policy point of wanting TKAM banned isn’t just a condemnation of that policy point—as far as the RWOM is concerned, the stance of various groups about banning TKAM can be used to condemn the entire group.

The RWOM is so drunk on outrage about the fragile lefties who want the book banned that they make objection to the book, on principle, a sign of being partisan: “I wonder if any of the Biloxi school district’s administrators know how to read.” Obviously, anyone who wants it banned is an idiot, regardless of party.

And it’s interesting to me how the metaphors work in this argument—the people who want the book banned from classrooms are girly (weak, fragile, frail, sensitive) while the people who want it taught are masculine (strong enough to see criticism of America), anti-racist (they univocally endorse Atticus Finch’s stance), and, unlike flaccid lefties, not people who demand “to soften education, to remove any pain or discomfort.” They are firm, strong, and standing tall. (The tendency on the part of the RWOM to use metaphors of hardness for their view and softness for the opposition is both sad and hilarious.)

Were this a principled stance—if the people who have worked themselves into outrage about Biloxi are acting on principle and not just partisanship–then the National Review would fling accusations of flaccidity and girlyness at anyone who objected to TKAM on the grounds that it criticized their group. Do they?


There are two, very different ways, this book is challenged.

First, there is the argument it is racist, and that’s complicated. That argument is public because it gets to school boards—the first thing a parent does when objecting to a book is go to the teacher, then the principal, so going to the school board means the teacher and principal are holding their ground.

So, what, exactly, are the arguments that TKAM is racist?

Well, for one thing, it uses the ‘n word’ a lot. And here I will say that I frequently teach material with racist epithets in it, and I make sure they know it on the first day of class. I believe, firmly, in the notion that students should be warned about what they’re getting into, and students who don’t want to read anything with racist epithets shouldn’t take the class. That isn’t because there’s anything wrong with students who would rather not read a lot of appalling racist things, but because they have a right to make choices as to whether they will read them. So I try to be clear about just how awful the reading will be.

My courses are not required; my students are college students. I thoughtfully design my classes so that students can choose to skip a fair number of readings a semester and still get a good grade on the “keeping up with the reading” part of the grade because I know that some of the readings may be unhelpfully provocative, and they can miss up to two weeks up class with no penalty. So, students who are “triggered” by readings can make strategic choices about readings and attendance. High school students don’t have those choices.

The use of the ‘n word’ in TKAM is complicated, as it is in comedy, and high school students aren’t very good at that kind of complexity, and it is used in the book in a way intended to inflict damage. Granted, one can (and, I think, should) read the book as condemning that usage, but reading the book that way involves understanding other minds and perspective-shifting, and not all high school students are there. In other words, as anyone remotely aware of scholarship in rhetoric, reader-response, or, well, basic teacher-training knows, whether a particular class can understand the complicated relationship between the narrator and the events being narrated is something only the teacher of that class could know.

But, let’s side aside the notion that audiences are different from one another and that people receive texts in different ways (really, that only means setting aside sixty years of research, so not that much).

There is another argument, mentioned above. Malcolm Gladwell has made this argument best, and I would simply add that there is a toxic and racist narrative about the Civil Rights movement in our world. That narrative is that people were racist—meaning they irrationally hated everyone who wasn’t “white” and knew that they hated everyone and knew it was irrational. So, a racist person got up in the morning and said, “In every way and every day I will irrationally hate all other races.” As long as you didn’t say that (if, for instance, you said to yourself, “I will only rationally hate all other races”), you weren’t racist.

This is the classic move of feeling good about your decisions because you could imagine someone who was behaving worse. Cheating on this exam by glancing over is okay because you didn’t get the whole exam ahead of time like someone might. Cheating That Race on the rent is okay because you didn’t try to evict them for their race. Adolph Eichmann justified his racism because he wasn’t like Julius Streicher.

What did Atticus Finch do? He, against his will, defended a black man whom he knew to be innocent in a case he knew to be entirely the kind of case Ida B. Wells-Barnett had already named years before. And, throughout the book, he insisted that the racism that would put Tom Robinson to death was one that could (magically?) be cured if people were… what? nicer? less redneck?

Finch acknowledges that the system is SO racist that Robinson telling the truth will tank his case. Robinson mentions that he was nice to the young white woman because he felt sorry for her. And Finch flinches. That moment is why this movie, and the book, are racist.

He knew he lost the case at that moment because he had a racist jury. So, does he try to do anything about their racism? Nope.

Instead, the moral center of the tale says that you need to be nice to racists and hope they’ll be a little bit less racist.

That’s racist.

I love the book. I love that one of my sisters called me “Scout” for a while because I looked like Scout. The movie and book rocked my world, and helped me to see how racist my community and culture were. It was a great book. Now it’s racist.

In its era, it wasn’t. A major issue in 1960 was that “good” people accommodated the KKK, lynchings, Citizens Councils, and that juries couldn’t be counted on to do the sensible thing. So, something that said that the KKK is not actually okay, and that juries that endorsed state-sponsored terrorism were bad was making a useful argument.

We’re way beyond that. There are various problems with TKAM in our era. Atticus Finch is a white savior, his whole stance is the progressive mystique, and the basic message of the story is that racists are rednecks, but we should all submit in a civil fashion to racist justice systems while privately bemoaning that we can’t get a better outcome. (Too bad about Tom!) To be clear, had more people in the South been like Finch in 1960 the world would have been a better place. But, in 2017 we don’t need to make heroes of people who believe that racism is a question of individual intention and feeling, and who think there are good people on both sides. There aren’t. There weren’t. Atticus was wrong about that.

And a text that can make white students feel that racism is over because it isn’t as bad as it was then, and that they would totally have been Atticus Finch (even though they do nothing that involves the same level of risk his actions involved) doesn’t do any kind of anti-racist work. It might even (albeit unintentionally) endorse racist beliefs, insofar as it makes all racism an issue of personal feeling.

This isn’t 1960, and what Finch proposes (and does) isn’t enough for where we are now. That’s another way that people can argue it’s racist—that it can make people feel that we just need to be like Finch and racism will end (or worse yet, that racism did end). So, the argument that the book is racist isn’t a stupid argument, and it certainly isn’t one that assumes some inability to handle difficult or unpleasant material—on the contrary, it’s grounded in the notion that TKAM is simplistic. And, so, as far as the Right Wing Outrage Machine goes, I am a precious and fragile snowflake because anyone who makes the kind of argument I am making is a snowflake.

But, let’s consider fairly the RWOM argument that lefties are weenies who want to silence free speech. Granted, the RWOM never engages the argument I made above—a nuanced and complicated argument about TKAM. Their argument is (as I hope I’ve shown) the false argument that anyone who objects to TKAM being taught in K-12 is a weeny who doesn’t want to hear criticism of their in-group.

If you are intellectually generous, you can find an implied syllogism in the RWOM outrage about TKAM: Lefties are people whose views can be dismissed because they oppose texts like TKAM on the grounds that it offends their feelings about their in-group.

That’s a potentially logically argument, and argument from principle: anyone who objects to TKAM on the grounds that it offends their feelings about their in-group is promoting a political agenda we should dismiss.

Recently, I spent the day with high school teachers from various places in Texas, and the issue of TKAM came up, especially their being told they couldn’t teach it. I was familiar with the cases when it came to school boards, and was willing to defend the case that it wasn’t a useful book for teaching about racism because we’ve moved beyond when aversive racism was the major issue, but that wasn’t the main complaint for any of them.

Every one of them said that the book was pulled because parents of white students complained that it made white Southerners feel bad about their past. They complained to the principal, and the book was pulled.[1] That’s the second reason the book is pulled, and you can see it in the ALA list of reasons the book is challenged.

So, I’m sure, now that I’ve said that racist white Southerners feel hurt about TKAM the RWOM will, because it’s a principle about criticism, insist that TKAM be taught. Who is the snowflake here?

I’m sure, since the Right Wing Outrage Machine is all about principle, they’ll now look into this issue.

I’m also sure I have a unicorn in my garden that poops gold.


[1] Here is the interesting point. Yes, parents who didn’t want TKAM taught because of the n word, and because of complicated issues about its racism, went to school boards. Presumably they didn’t first go to the school boards; they went to the principal and didn’t get anywhere, so they kept taking it up the ladder. Parents who didn’t want their white students to have to confront white racism went to the principal, and got their way. In other words, people who wanted to protect the fragile feelings of white Southerners didn’t need to go to the School Board—they could count on principals protecting the feelings of their previous snowflakes white students who didn’t want to hear that segregation might have been bad. Parents with more complicated issues had to go to the School Board.




What it means when someone says “Calling something racist is anti-white”

Every once in a while, someone will claim that condemning racism is anti-white. That’s racist. By its own logic.

But it’s a kind of normalized racism, a racism so deep in the structures of thought that a person saying it wouldn’t feel what they think of as racist (that is, hostility to all other races). They think that condemning racism is itself racist because they think that racism is “hostility to another race.” Since condemning racism is condemning whites (see below), and condemnation is hostile, then condemning racism is being hostiles to whites. Q fucking ED.

In addition, the underlying assumption is that, if you’re white, you should be entirely “loyal” to your in-group. For authoritarians, in-group loyalty means refusing to criticize the in-group in any way. If you are condemning racism, you are condemning whites (an interesting admission that whites engage in actions that look pretty racist to people), and so you are disloyal to whites.

So, that argument is assuming 1) there are races; 2) the races are in a zero-sum relationship (concern for a non-white race is hostility to whites); 3) whites engage in racist actions; 4) you shouldn’t draw attention to those actions because that helps non-white racists; 5) helping non-white races hurts whites.

In other words, that “criticism” assumes that people should be hostile to all other races, and it defines racism as hostility to other races.

It’s a bad definition, but that doesn’t really matter here—what matters is that, by its own logic, it’s racist.