Throwing Poisonous Verbal Darts: What is Racism? What’s a Racist?


You cannot turn on a device that delivers news or read a traditional newspaper without seeing the words, “racist” and “racism” tossed like poisonous darts reminiscent of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. “You’re a racist”……thwack! You are supportive of racism”, zip-ping! In recent years the definition of racist and racism has been changed for some who won’t accept the fact that victims of a system where dominance is a factor, should require no explanation.

As an Ithaca College graduate class of ’79 we matured at a time when it was clear that as defined, “Racism is the belief that some races are better than others, and the actions that can happen from those beliefs.” This was and continues to be the standard dictionary definition for racism.

We are now in an age where saying something with repetition, on enough platforms, muddles   language and is an orchestrated attempt to redefine what words mean. Case in point is the attempt at redefining what is racism, and what does it mean when you call someone a racist?

Nationally, President Trump proudly proclaims “I’m the least racist person you’d ever see” while simultaneously using the language of racists.

Those in elective office have had the nerve to use functional equivalency the justify their actions, or better yet. Lack of action or resolve when it comes to the issue of race. Locally, Republican Congressman John Katko has conveniently cocooned himself in the cloak of blaming both sides in a conflict where one party has a sling shot and the other is holding a semi-automatic weapon.

Failure to speak out and clearly, has protected those without the spine to challenge a sitting President who can create political hell for a member of Congress.

The sword swings wildly as each side has taken to their corners in how language is used in this hyper-racialized period, we find ourselves in.

Progressives and Democrats have been tossing their own weaponry as they’ve held press conferences and media events that blatantly accuse individuals and institutions of either being racist or embodying racism.

On the local level Democratic Party candidate for District Attorney has been quite clear in accusing the current District Attorney of being a racist. Weaponizing comments of D.A. William Fitzpatrick, taken out of context while he appeared on a radio talk show.

At Keller’s press conference what was clear, was who wasn’t at the event. No grass roots organizations have publicly supported Keller’s accusations of racism against the current District Attorney. Most in the videos of the event were, um, white. As a journalist I’ve never seen so many white people yell racism at the top of their lungs. Where have these individuals and institutions been over the last twenty years when African Americans have cried out like bleating lambs?

Calling someone a racist has become as common as offering someone a mint or opening a door for a stranger. So, not unlike our fabled Chicken Little; the sky is falling scenario is played over and over again.

Therefore, like stereotypical “girl fighting” the arms and hands are in constant motion landing on any target that happens to be in range. “you’re a racist”, and the response, “No, you’re the racist” as the aimless flailing continues, let’s not get into the hair pulling!

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “No one wins in a dog fight” and it appears as though we’re in a dog fight.

We need to refresh ourselves on what defines a racist, and what defines racism; and then take action to eliminate it. But first we have to understand the meaning of words.

Merriam-Webster since 1828 has been one of arbiters of language and definitions has an interesting perspective on racism. Surmising that attempts to explain it to someone may be futile.

rac·ism

/ˈrāˌsizəm/

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noun

noun: racism

  1. prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.
  • the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.

Institutional racism (also known as systemic racism) is a form of racism expressed in the practice of social and political institutions. It is reflected in disparities regarding wealth, income, criminal justice, employment, housing, health care, political power and education, among other factors.

The History and Dictionary Meaning of Racism

Racism appears to be a word of recent origin, with no citations currently known that would suggest the word was in use prior to the early 20th century. But the fact that the word is fairly new does not prove that the concept of racism did not exist in the distant past. Things may have words to describe them before they exist (spaceship, for instance, has been in use since the 19th century, well before the rocket-fired vessels were invented), and things may exist for a considerable time before they are given names (t-shirt does not appear in print until the 20th century, although the article of clothing existed prior to 1900).

Dictionaries are often treated as the final arbiter in arguments over a word’s meaning, but they are not always well suited for settling disputes. The lexicographer’s role is to explain how words are (or have been) actually used, not how some may feel that they should be used, and they say nothing about the intrinsic nature of the thing named by a word, much less the significance it may have for individuals. When discussing concepts like racism, therefore, it is prudent to recognize that quoting from a dictionary is unlikely to either mollify or persuade the person with whom one is arguing. – Merriam-Webster