The Difference Between Racism and a Racist

With all that this national Democratic primary race has come back again and again to the issue of race, there have been some undeniably deep wounds created in the process. There are a lot of hurt feelings going around, especially among those people in the Clinton camp who believe they’ve had their core values questioned. In the interest of perhaps bridging the gap between Clinton and Obama supporters, it is worth noting that there is a difference between racism and a racist.

Geraldine Ferraro does not consider herself to be a racist. This much is – to the Clinton campaign’s enduring chagrin – painfully obvious. And after all, Mrs. Ferraro has been a long-standing, good Democratic/Liberal soldier. I am sure that, if a bill came to the floor that sought to redress the injuries of black Americans, she probably voted for it. If a minority sought office where there had never been a minority, I’ll bet she encouraged them. Whatever the interpretation of her words about Obama, I am sure Mrs. Ferraro quite believed that she was celebrating the age of opportunity into which we may hope we are now passing.  It is certain in the way she went out again and again to defend herself that she was genuinely perplexed by the offense taken to her statement.

Indeed, I am sure Geraldine Ferraro is not a racist, and neither are most people racists who have been accused of making offensive racial statements. David Duke; Strom Thurman; these men are racists, and it’s actually a fairly high bar (or low, if you prefer) to pass if you’re looking to qualify. But just because you don’t walk around with Nazi symbols on your jacket does not mean you know everything there is to know about what offends people of other races and ethnicities. Just because you have not gone out of your way to disenfranchise someone of a different ethnic background does not mean that you have not unwittingly done so somewhere along the line, nor that you are incapable of doing so in the future.

Because racism – like sexism, like age discrimination, like religious discrimination, like a lot of things – is born more often than not out of the simple, everyday ignorance of which we are all guilty.  Sometimes, it’s genuine ignorance of fact, other times, it’s boneheadedly-clumsy speech as in the David Schuster “pimping” comment or Bill Clinton’s Jesse Jackson monolouge.

And in either case, it perpetuates harmful stereotypes or assumptions.  However unwitting an act of racism may be, it does harm.  In either case, it cannot go unaddressed.

But to be called out for saying something racist is not the same as being called a racist.  Had the Clinton campaign or Mrs. Ferarro chosen to take the criticism and moved on, the charges of racist statements would doubtless have been less damaging to the campaign.  To instead defend yourself as not being a racist just misses the point.