Where are all the “real racists”?

Est Reading Time: 5 min

Karl Ernst's anthropology drawings as an example of scientific racism and the classification of people into 19th century racial concepts

Last week, the Sydney Morning Herald published a turd of an article titled How racist are you? by Mark Sawyer. It was so screwed up and misguided that I thought it’s a perfect thing to pick apart. It inadvertently does a great job of highlighting some of Australian society’s many failures on race.

So who’s a racist? Not you, of course. Certainly not me. Hey, maybe none of us.

It starts off so promisingly: by noticing the fact that the vast majority of people don’t consider themselves racist. When coupled with the undeniable evidence of racism in Australia, this could be used as an important springboard to thinking about how racism plays out on a systemic level and how we can actually improve this country. Instead, Sawyer draws the opposite conclusion — that there really are almost no True RacistsTM left so we should stop with the heinous labeling.

It may pay to look at the bigger picture. After all, aren’t we living in a era when evil is an outmoded concept, when there are no bad people, only bad acts? On that basis it seems counter-intuitive and frankly crazy to label people racist on the basis on one or two remarks.

Again, he seems to be channeling Jay Smooth’s classic video that everyone must watch. After all, the labeling of someone as racist almost always ends up getting the conversation derailed into debating what was “in their heart”, which of course lets people off the hook for things that actually harm others. But again, his rationale is completely backwards. We should not call people racists not because that can detract from the improving of racist institutions but because racists don’t really exist. Because to be a “racist” you apparently have to be consumed with the literal and conscious hate of some races to the exclusion of everything else. Yep.

Yes, Australian country towns once banned Aborigines from swimming pools. From this came the Freedom Rides led by Charlie Perkins. And the treatment of indigenous Australians by white settlers and government authorities remains unfinished business. But how many people alive today are honest to god racist? You know, willing to stand at the school gates like a southern US governor in the 1950s and ’60s and say non-white children will not pass? Refuse to shake the hand of a non-white person?

There you have it. If you can bring yourself to shake the hand of a non-white person, you’re apparently not a real racist. Anything less is just “stupidity” as he refers to it throughout the article. I know that in most arguments about racism someone will eventually point to a dictionary definition of racism in order to argue that something’s not racist. Note: if you’re informing your arguments about complex social phenomena by appealing to the dictionary, you’ve proven yourself unable to participate. Imagine an argument about science that assumes the dictionary contains all the info we need to prove someone wrong. But this is especially true about racism cough cough Richard Dawkins.

Anyway, Sawyer doesn’t just use the dictionary definition. He pretty much makes out with it for the duration of the article, to the point where it’s even more useless and exaggerated than usual. From being soaked in his love-spit. That’s the kind of ridiculousness it takes to ignore how you can be a racist while shaking plenty of hands with non-white people.

Certainly it is much easier then to turn on some middle-aged white bloke for saying something, well, stupid. For seemingly endless days in May, CNN’s television coverage was obsessed with the Donald Sterling controversy. The billionaire owner of the US basketball team the Los Angeles Clippers was rightly denounced in all quarters for moronic comments about black people. He now has to sell the franchise and will end his days as a pariah. Isn’t that enough? […]Only because there are dollars at stake did Sterling even matter. Otherwise that old man’s thoughts are irrelevant to everyone but him and the nurse with the bedpan.

Ok, now it gets important. Sawyer genuinely thinks that even explicitly seeing African Americans as a subhuman other is not racist enough to be called racist in his book, just stupid and moronic. The idea completely lets Sterling off the hook since stupidity here is being used to mean ignorance, an innocent mistake, an “indiscretion” or failing to see the problem with your actions. Whereas I think any analysis of Sterling’s comments that refuses to see the deliberate malice is ridiculous.

The other thing about Sterling that I’ve seen a lot of actually good pieces talk about is how focusing on his hate speech IS the problem. Since he’s a billionaire with a track record of incredibly racist actions — but apparently until you actually call non-whites inferior nobody gives a shit. So no, it’s not enough to strip Sterling of his sports team while patting ourselves on the back for acting. Not without looking all his other stuff (see this post for an example of a great discussion). Even if he weren’t a billionaire, his thoughts are still not irrelevant because they do form part of a cultural fabric that legitimises bigotry. But that’s apparently too wishy washy for Sawyer to let us use the term racism. After all, hasn’t the billionaire suffered enough?

My contention is that people can say racist things because they are afflicted, temporarily or permanently, with stupidity, but that doesn’t make them a racist. Why? Because I don’t believe there are that many true racists. These would be people obsessed with the supremacy of their race to the exclusion of any other topic. Sure they are out there. But their numbers are negligible.

Yep, a journalist publishing an op ed in a major Australian newspaper can write this with a straight face. Actually I imagine Sawyer cackling haughtily as he wrote this but I can’t prove it. Once again, the vast majority of institutional racism is now being attributed to a lack of intelligence and the straw racist is constructed. I leave the reasons for why Sawyer might want to draw these distinctions — for us to talk less about racism and not to use the term, with its powerful connotations — as an exercise for the reader.

I’d wager that the overwhelming majority of us, no matter the colour, are roughly as ‘‘racist’’ as each other. In other words, not really racist at all. It’s just that we sometimes say the stupidest things.

Of course. Nobody’s racist because everybody’s racist. Because we’re all one and we all have prejudice, massive institutional racism doesn’t exist. Brian Sinclair, a homeless double amputee who died in an emergency room because staff thought he just wanted a warm place to sleep for the night died because of stupidity — but don’t you fucking dare call it racism. Kumbaya.

And instead of mentioning that you shouldn’t read the comments on the article, I’ll propose a corollary to Lewis’s Law: comments on any article about racism in Australia prove racism in Australia (x100).