It is time to kill the concept of “the racist.” You know the meme I'm talking about. The “racist” concept, derived from the racism-as-prejudice view, generally paints a picture of individuals who harbor rage and hate toward the Other. Most versions of the “racist” depict individuals who have little education, are not cosmopolitan, come from working class backgrounds, and reside in the South or at least in working class neighborhoods somewhere else in America. Unfortunately, social scientists in general have reinforced this concept with work, commentary, policies, and actions—since the concept is ultimately a very useful defense of their own souls on questions of race (“poor whites are ‘racist,’ but we, liberal, middle-class, educated whites, are not”).
In just this way, the concept of “the racist” is an obstacle for the proper study and appreciation of the import of racism itself, because it allows us to heap our attention and blame on a small piece of the larger problem (a piece which is itself a reductive stereotype)—rather than understanding racism as the system that structures racialization and racial inequality in societies all over the world. Killing the “racist” conceptually will require a few things.
First, we must acknowledge that once the world was racialized and racism emerged as a social structure, all members of racial polities—states or other political entities—were racialized. Racialization, defined by scholars Michael Omi and Howard Winant as the extension of racial meaning to a group, is an ongoing, never-finished process. “Whites,” “blacks,” “Latinos,” “Asians,” “Native Americans,” “Arabs,” “Jews” and other racialized groups are always “in the making” (the words of scholar E. P. Thompson) and, accordingly, the content of their racialization—the content of what it “means” to be “Arab,” for instance—can change. Segments of groups or entire groups can, given particular conditions, move up or down the racial ladder—the former is the case of some Asians and Latinos (see my work on the Latin Americanization of racial stratification) and the latter is the case of Arabs in the post 9/11 era—a situation made worse by Trump’s election.
Second, and most importantly, we must appreciate that racialization is not an independent force. It exists as part of a social order that has incorporated racism to justify genocide, colonialism, and extreme labor exploitation. For instance, when Whites were killing “Indians” and taking their land, the culture described them as “savages” and heathen in order to make it morally and socially easier to massacre them. Once racism becomes part of social order, the culture and practices of the system reflect and reinforce racial domination.
In this way, even those who presumably viewed Native Americans favorably, such as Thomas Jefferson, ultimately recommended things such as lending them money they could not pay back in order to take their land. To be clear, these practices themselves, just as they are justified by racism, maintain a racial order that favors the dominant racial group. And at least some of those practices that reproduce the racial order are enacted by, or require participation from all Whites, which is yet another reason to kill the concept of "the racist" as a distinct, separate, blameworthy White.
Third, although all individuals in a society such as ours are racialized, their racialization varies by class, gender, and sexual orientation. Hence, all Whites are racialized as Whites, but middle-class and elite Whites can shield themselves from their racialization, in part by projecting it onto their poorer brethren. This is what I think most White liberals and progressives do—and what most White social scientists endeavor to show—that is, even though racism is inherent in the very existence of Whiteness, they labor to signify that they are not “racist,” instead characterizing racism as a disease afflicting poor, undereducated Whites harboring authoritarian tendencies. For example, in this last electoral cycle, we had story after story in the media about the “racists;” maps showing where they reside and all sort of commentary vilifying the Trumpistas.
Mind you, my take is not that we should give working-class Whites a free pass on questions of race—after all, despite their real class pain, they have always done much better than their non-White counterparts. My take is rather that all Whites, not just poor or working-class Whites, are racial subjects and, as such, participate in various, class- and race-inflected ways in the reproduction of racial order. (To be clear, all members of a racialized social system are racialized. I am focusing here on Whites as they are the ones somewhat perceived as beyond racialization.) Voting for Republicans was deemed as “racist,” but voting for the Democrats does not exculpate White liberals from racism.
Lastly, to kill the “racist” (the concept, folks) we will have to do some serious politics with Whites. I think the multiple fractures and possibilities of the White working class—the most vulnerable segment of the White populace—suggest that we must put the bulk of our political efforts toward transforming their views, practices, cognitions, and emotions to advance social and racial justice in America. This does not mean ignoring the other White folks (after all, politics is about working with as many people as one can to change the world); rather, it means assigning a new and higher level of priority to our work with working Whites, whom we on the left have often lately ignored to our detriment.
I do not claim this will be an easy thing to do given working Whites’ objective location in the social order. They do in fact receive a slightly better social deal than their non-White counterparts. More significantly, as part of their racialization, as a group they have been led to believe that they are in some way better than non-Whites. (Some of this at least resides in the conviction prevalent among most Whites that what they get in life comes from the fact that they, unlike nonwhite folks, are hard-working, moral, religious folks.) Hence, working to challenge and disrupt their racial sentiments will require substantial effort, teaching, and listening—finding commonalities and developing solidarities that do not exist at this point in time.
So: Let me sum up what we need to do to kill the “racist.” First, we have to talk more about racism as a system and avoid the term “racist.” Second, we must refuse to separate Whites clinically between those afflicted with racism and those free of racism. This entails making the difficult argument that all Whites are racialized subjects and thus participate in systemic racism in various ways—this includes “good Whites” and anti-racist Whites. (I personally know many liberal and anti-racist Whites who are in desperate need of good kick in their racialized ass.) Third, we, the wretched of the earth and our allies, have to work on a new race-class politics that focuses on the White majority and its possibilities—the most vulnerable segment of the White team is the one with the most fractures and ambiguities, something that it is not new in American history. (For the record, I do believe that retooling our racial politics can be done without ignoring liberal-progressive Whites.) Lastly, those of us in the academy or in the media must work hard at challenging students, colleagues, journalists, and anyone who will listen about the futility of talking about “the racists.”
So comrades, time to get on with this hard work. If we do not, the Trump moment will take us back not just objectively—but also theoretically and politically. What’s at stake is not just renewed oppression for folks who aren’t White, but an enlargement of the very concept that distracts us from real, important political labor. What’s at stake is a generational opportunity to create an accurate conversation about race and win meaningful progress.
Eduardo Bonilla-Silva is chair and professor of sociology at Duke University, and the author of Racism Without Racists: Colorblind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America.