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The vain, counterproductive myth that there’s no way most Americans can be racist

Being careful with the label doesn’t change anything.

Cleveland, OH July 19, 2016: Outside the Republican National Convention, a protestor holds a sign reading "Hate Gives Identity"

Public discussions of racism are notoriously frustrating, but there’s one especially aggravating related trend that took off during the election season and that I’d love for people to commit to eliminating in 2017: a push for vanity sizing.

Yes, vanity sizing for racism. The original term applies to the way clothing manufacturers have gradually adjusted their sizing in a way that appeases the growing number of large-bodied shoppers who, because of societal shame around weight, would rather see a label that says 6 than one that says 16. As the Washington Post’s Christopher Ingraham wrote in 2015, after what started as an effort at size standardization in the 1950s, “Clothing manufacturers realized that they could flatter consumers by revising sizes downward,” and have continued to do so as Americans become larger. In other words, if a “bad” label starts to apply to too many people, changing it to apply to fewer people means everyone wins.

Of course, nobody thought this relabeling would motivate people to drop weight. It simply made shoppers who’d embraced a smaller-is-better mentality feel better. That subtle manipulation was harmless, and flattering customers is always good business.

But I’ve noticed people pushing for a similar approach for a label that’s unrelated to shopping and size: “racist.” In journalism and political analysis, I keep encountering arguments that labeling a large number of people in this country “racist” is unacceptable. But these assertions aren’t based on a debate about the definition of the term or on data on views or actions. Rather, they seem to hinge on the idea that broad allegations of racism are simply too unflattering to too many people and thus must be changed.

It’s a push for vanity sizing for racism, and it’s ridiculous.

The push for vanity sizing of racism in America

This has come up recently in conversations around the racist views that were expressed in unusually bold ways by President-elect Donald Trump during his campaign: most infamously, his assaults on the character of Mexican Americans and promises to ban Muslim immigrants and subject those who are already American citizens to increased scrutiny.

However, criticizing those who said they supported these views, or demonstrated with their votes that they were willing to accept them, caused a bit of a frenzy over who deserved to be called racist.

Think of the swift and negative reaction to Hillary Clinton’s September 2016 statement that 50 percent of Trump’s supporters could be put into “the basket of deplorables ... the racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic — you name it.” She ended up apologizing for painting the “Make America Great Again” fans with too broad a brush.

And in fact, the criticism of her comment wasn’t that “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, and Islamophobic” were inaccurate terms, but rather than it was unacceptable to apply them to such a large group. (Responding to these criticisms, Clinton apologized not for the characterization but to the percentage — half — of Trump voters she applied it to.)

Why was half of Trump voters too much? What percentage would have been acceptable? No one seemed to be able to say.

The Federalist’s Ben Domenech wrote after the election in response to broad criticisms of voters who supported promises of racism by voting for Trump: “There is no excuse for painting 60+ million Americans as morally corrupt, whether your place is on the right or the left.” How many could one fairly characterize this way? It wasn’t clear.

Around the same time, the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza tweeted, “The assumption that ‘Trump voter = racist’ is deeply corrosive to democracy.” He added, “There is nothing more maddening — and counterproductive — to me than saying that Trump’s 59 million votes were all racist. Ridiculous.” The idea of labeling so many people “racist” evoked an intense, and common, emotional reaction, based on the negative societal weight the label carries, that the term would ever apply to so many people.

Similarly, when the New York Times’s Nicholas Kristof warned in the wake of Trump’s election against intolerance for conservative views on college campuses, the Times’s Opinion account tweeted his column with a question for readers: “Do we really want to caricature half of Americans as racist bigots?” The implied answer: “Of course not! That’s way too many!”

Whether it is accurate to describe half of American voters as bigots is a question that people who study attitudes and behaviors can, and should, debate. But what we want to do when it comes to characterizing our fellow citizens (or what is upsetting) isn’t a part of any useful analysis.

There are plenty of legitimate debates about how to define the word “racism” and to whom it should be applied (not to mention to argue for richer and more specific language). Does it only fit people who self-identify as racist? Those who openly express personal animus and hate?

What about those who aren’t specifically hostile to members of racial minority groups but who think whiteness is a key component of America and the standard against which everyone and everything should be measured? People with unconsciously held biases? Those who have sincerely held beliefs about racial inferiority? What if these beliefs blame “culture” instead of genetics?

How about people who support racist policies — or are simply willing to tolerate these things when they’re part of a larger package that’s seen as attractive? Is people’s racism nullified by their own declaration that they don’t, for example, have a racist bone in their body?

These are fair questions. But however one answers them, the argument that a large number of Americans can’t be racist should be based on evidence that they don’t fit a particular definition, not on simple squeamishness about the broad application of the word.

There’s also a separate conversation to be had about whether the intense negative and defensive backlash to the word makes it counterproductive to apply to anyone. But the point is there is definitely no rule of language, logic, or history that says “racist” can only apply to the margins of society or a small percentage of people. Such thinking presupposes that racist attitudes or racism — however one may define them, and whether one thinks it’s wise to call them out — only exist on the fringes. But none of the people who insist on vanity sizing for racism — who push for ripping off a label that has negative associations and replacing it with something else simply because it’s being applied to too many people — explain why.

And just as vanity sizing didn’t change shoppers’ physical sizes, insistence on being precious about who’s labeled racist does nothing to change the impact of racism — however you define it — on the ground.

A reminder: We just elected an unapologetically racist president. Racism, along with sexism, was the strongest predictor of support for him. Racial inequality and bias affect day-to-day life for nonwhite people in just about every sector of American life, from education to hiring to health care to housing, in ways that have been studied and proven time and time again.

Elected officials along with scores of everyday Americans have been committed for years to making explicitly racist attacks against President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama. There’s concrete evidence that police departments and courts in cities like Ferguson and Baltimore have made it a practice to trample the constitutional rights of black citizens.

The white nationalist alt-right is having a heyday and pushing for the acceptance of racist views on college campuses. Teachers report that schoolchildren are antagonizing each other with racist and xenophobic views. A television news anchor who made headlines with her horror over the idea that Santa Claus could be black and her insistence that racist emails by government employees are totally normal has a new and more prominent role at NBC.

It is reasonable to at least consider the idea that it might require racism — however you define it — on the part of a significant swath of Americans to explain all of this happening.

But in another striking example of vanity sizing, even a journalist who conceded that most Americans may be racist went on to argue that this required rethinking how bad racism was. Business Insider’s Josh Barro, in a series of September tweets, mused, “I think if we're going to (reasonably) define racism quite broadly, then we have to think of it as a bad personal trait, not a horrible one. ... If most people are racist, and most people are not horrible, then many racists are not horrible.”

Let’s unpack that: He’s saying that if most people are racist, racism can’t be that bad because we can’t go around saying most people are horrible. But wait — is it actually impossible that most people are horrible? Last time I checked, there wasn’t such a ceiling. While it’s perfectly fair to believe that most people aren’t horrible, that’s by no means something we “have to” believe as a society.

And it’s misleading to suggest that there’s agreement here, especially in a country that has historically been in many ways, well, horrible, for people who aren’t white, in ways that are fueled by other humans. Does being a delightful neighbor or a great husband cancel out the “horrible” label that might come with being a bigot? We should admit that this depends on one’s priorities and perspective — things that may in fact be shaped by race.

Placing hard limits on how many people the term “racist” can apply to is as misguided as depending on the number on an outfit’s tag for self-esteem. Clothing manufacturers’ adjustments that made what was a size 8 in 1958 fit measurements smaller than a size 00 in 2011 may have made shopping more palatable, but they didn’t actually cause anyone to shrink. In the same way, shifting the language around behaviors and views that are labeled “racist” or “deplorable” or “horrible” might feel like a relief from a difficult moment in American history, but it doesn’t do anything to change the underlying issues.

As the vanity sizing debate proved, adjusting labels so that “bad” ones apply to fewer people is seductive. But even for people who associate thinness with health and virtue, it’s a superficial solution — it doesn’t change what we see when we look in the mirror.

We should all resolve to stop this vain, avoidant practice and focus on critiquing the beliefs and behavior that inspire the label “racist” instead of changing the rules so that the label doesn’t apply.