Saying something intelligent about racism is far from easy these days because of the welter of definitions that abound in the media. I’m going to simplify things for you after a little preamble concerning how the words “racism” and “racist” get used and abused. Pretty much everyone thinks that being racist is bad, but how they define the term is all over the map. You’ll often hear people say, “I am not a racist, but . . .” which they then follow by an overtly racist remark. What’s that about? I think that in that context “racist” is akin to “bad guy.” That is, “racists” are “bad guys” and I am a “good guy.” So, once I assert my standing as a good guy, I can follow it with a racist statement.
In other words, to be a racist by this definition you have to act badly in certain ways. This would include such things as denying someone a job or housing based on skin color, lynching, and the like. Thinking bad thoughts doesn’t count. Stereotyping doesn’t count. As long as you curb your behavior, you are not a racist.
Then there is the question of what “race” is. Donald Trump is branded a racist because he doesn’t like a judge of Mexican heritage and because he wants to ban Muslims. Is Mexican a race? Is Islamic a race? I can go on. What about Jewish? Can we say that Jews and Muslims form a race, but Christians don’t? I can easily cut through the nonsense here.
Race is a biological term used in classification. Species can be divided into sub-species, and sub-species can be further divided into races. BUT . . . the terms sub-species and race are informal: they cannot be defined rigorously. In fact ALL biological taxons – kingdom, phylum, genus, even species – are not fully definable rigorously. They are conveniences that help us in evolutionary biology, but some, especially species, are more easily codified than others. Defining race is a lost cause from the outset. There are absolutely no biological markers. This fact is as true for humans as for plants and animals.
Let me give you a simple example. Barack Obama is hailed as the first Black president of the United States, yet his mother was White. True, a few pedantic journalists call him “half-Black” or some such, but mostly he’s identified as Black. This stems from a simple prejudice in the West that if you are in any sense not White (culturally defined), you are Black. Why isn’t he half-White? More to the point, why is he either White or Black? Why do these terms matter? Why is it either/or? This is the heart of the problem.
People want to use certain physical features, such as skin color, as ways of classifying people, probably because they are ostensibly distinctive and easy. They then load these features with all kinds of meaning. Skin color is the most common marker, which gives us the classic three races: Caucasian, Mongoloid, and Negroid. Then people set about further sub-classifications to be able to manage difficult cases such as Australian Aborigines or the Ainu. In the 19th and 20th centuries you could find all manner of textbooks on the races of the world, or the races of Europe, and the like, with galleries of photographs showing the archetypical members of these races. What was left out of these books was any mention of the fact that members of these supposed races were as diverse biologically as any random grouping of individuals. There is no biological marker that makes one person Negroid and another Caucasian – NONE.
We are forced back on the simple fact that race is not a biological term but a cultural one. Race is a social construct, an idea borne of convenience not of biology. Biological races do not exist. If you want to, you can talk about cultural races – groups of people who identify with one another as belonging to a particular group. Anthropologists often use the word “ethnicity” for such groupings. There you’re on safer ground, but not completely secure. Obviously groups can share language, religion, foodways, etc. that unite them, but these are not biologically driven. You are not born with a gene for speaking Chinese or Spanish. I’ll steer clear of the whole nature vs nurture pseudo-debate for now, but simply say that there is no biological basis for race.
My conclusion is also very simple, and leads me to define “racist.” By my definition you are a racist if you think races exist – at all. You don’t have to act in bad ways towards certain people to be a racist. You can be perfectly benign in thinking that although races exist, they should all just get along. It doesn’t matter. If you think races exist you are a racist.