'Racism' is not a stable single belief but a difficult-to-define set of uses

At a recent confereirce, I was challenged by a questioner with the statement that ‘all white people are racists’.29 That statement treats ‘racism’ as a thing that belongs to a category of people, ‘whites’. It derives from the Platonic view of language: ‘racism’ is a simple ‘thing’ or ‘idea’ that either abides or does not in a set of people. The research results deny that white people are racists within such a theoretical frame. But a use-focused theory of language cair suggest its grain of truth. White people are currently more prone to be racists than other people because the racialized group to which they are assigned has, at least for the last few hundred years, been on the top of the hierarchy. All people socially categorizable as white therefore have one latent interest in articulating racism. And there are contexts in which that interest could imaginably be manifested as a set of word usages definable as ‘racism’.

Nonetheless, from a use-based theory of language, that interest is not the only potential interest white people might bring to bear in relationship to race. They also might have a perceived interest in fairness, or their own interests might be better served by living in a world where all those around them are prospering and contributing to the common good, rather than where they are at the apex of a tattered pyramid, or they may have deep relationships with people assigned to other racial categories, or they might belong to a group where discursive norms reward displays of anti-racism, etc. And, on the other hand, people of color also face situations in which a statement which might be understood as ‘racist’ selves their interest (at the least, when contending with other minority groups for resources), though they probably face fewer such contexts.

If we think about any person’s ‘racism’ in this interest-based fashion, we would expect that people who are measured as Tow in racism’ are those who are more aware of interests other than the value of the hierarchization of their race, and those interests drive their talk and other actions in many contexts, especially on surveys. In contrast, people who regularly measure as

‘high in racism’ have high priority interests in racial hierarchy. In that case, we’d expect them to use genetics to bolster their racism whenever the prestige of science as a source of truth would be valuable.

On this account, racism is not a fixed yes/'no ‘true belief’ hidden in (some; ‘all white’) people’s souls. Beliefs and attitudes about race are instead a conflicted set of options that are available to almost everyone, but with varying degrees of accessibility and strength.30 People are not being deceitful when they deploy some options in some statements and other options in other contexts, but rather they are responding to the context and producing a statement from the repertoire of available cultural symbols that is useful to their interests in that context. Through time, some options can become predispositional for some people, either through the strengthening that arises from mere rehearsal or through the solidification of contextual incentives. Treating racism as this kind of interest-driven plurivocity—and thus, highly durable for some people, but perhaps only weakly available for the right kind of prompting among others—accounts for the totality of the available data.

This shift in models of the nature of language leads to a shift in our sense of which public appeals against racism we should foreground. The currently favored strategy of claiming that ‘genetics is racist’ concedes something to the racists that is strategically unwise, not to mention incorrect in the scientific sense. Given the social currency of science with regard to physical phenomena, it is strategically wise to side with the scientists who read genetics as empirically inconsistent with racial categorization among humans rather than reinforcing the racists’ mantra that scientific genetics supports racism. The potential contribution of scholars knowledgeable about discourse will then become identifying ways to increase the incentives and conditions for people to manifest their interests in non- or anti-racism more than their interests in the hierarchies of race, rather than arguing against ‘genetics’.

Such a shift may also require recognizing that the interests of scholars of language in anti- geneticism have been in part due to our positioned interests in the academy, where natural science has become powerful, and where it serves humanists to promote the importance of our own causal accounts (‘it’s (only) discourse all the way down’). Perhaps these interests, as academics, have led us to choose bad strategies for reducing racism. For academic humanists committed to the past fifty years of theorizing about discourse, living with this recognition probably requires a bit more probing on regnant theories of human language use.

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