Are Whites Stripping the Word “Racist” of Its Meaning?

By using the word too casually, are we forgetting what racism really is?

Even though we’ve got the Democratic primary for the New York City mayoral race out of the way (well … sort of), for some reason we can’t forgot about that awkward moment when the Big Apple’s outgoing boss Michael Bloomberg fumbled his way into the always-thorny issue of race.

In a New York magazine interview, the outgoing mayor called democrat Bill De Blasio’s campaign “racist,” then clumsily backtracked to suggest the candidate, whose wife is black, was using that fact in a bit of class warfare. The stickiness of the moment, as moist as a sudden September heat wave, seemed to define the primary all the way to its clumsy photo finish. That wasn’t such a bad thing considering Gotham’s electorate was up to its receding hairline with Anthony Weiner jokes.

But, the massive New York City political scene couldn’t help but weigh in on it, from De Blasio and his wife, to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who piped up to revive an otherwise bland public profile. However, what stood out wasn’t the reaction, but the very nonchalant, wave-of-hand way in which Bloomberg dropped the “R” word.

Bloomberg’s blunder and the visceral media reaction of mostly white detractors was another example of how comfortable white people have become with the term “racist.”  Whites are now very quick to give their two-cent condemnation of any colorful comment or act seen to denigrate people of color. The phrase “oh, that’s so racist” has now found its way into the broader national discourse, snuggling comfortably alongside other quintessentially American lines like “oh, that’s so … cool” or Seinfeld’s “that’s so … Franco.”

That’s where “racist” risks becoming trivial and unimportant. We seem to care more about what individual people say than what organized groups or institutions or systems are doing.

It’s not like Bloomberg is saying anything about ingrained poverty in New York City, or the fact that people of color for the most part can’t afford some of the highest rents on the planet. Nor did he offer any fresh insight into what to do about institutionally racist policies such as stop-and-frisk, or schools that are crumbling along racial lines.

Somewhere along the way, “racism” became a bauble on the coffee table rather than a recognition of deep, systemic problems.  That’s a much more complicated talk. Instead, “racist” is now a punch line, used sometimes to get a good laugh and other times to belittle someone else.

For example, there’s a firestorm in Australia right now about one part-Aboriginal Big Brother contestant calling another South Korean-born contestant “racist.” But, in the wake of major elections down under, you’ll hear little noise over the fact that only two Indigenous Senators have ever served in Australia’s Federal Parliament since its formation 112 years ago—with none serving in the country’s House of Representatives. Yet Australia’s indigenous population is growing at a faster rate than its white population.

We’re getting bent out of shape over sensationalistic, emotional things people are saying. Newscasts want more context on the comment, but no one wants the uglier, messier context on the haves and have nots. Sure, words hurt. But, being perpetually blocked from progress by organized forces beyond your control hurts much more. Why not talk about how racist that is?

CHARLES D. ELLISON is a regular contributor to The Philly Post, a veteran political strategist and Chief Political Correspondent for UPTOWN Magazine, the Washington Correspondent for The Philadelphia Tribune and the weekly Washington Insider heard every Sunday at 9:50am ET on WDAS 105.3 FM.  Reach him via Twitter @charlesdellison.