The Politics of Language, Identity, and Race the Rhetoric of Racism Is Unfair to All US Citizens, Poisoning the Atmosphere for Democratic Debate

By Andy Zelleke and Phil Wang. Andy Zelleke, a. California attorney, and Phil Wang, a research associate Harvard School of Public Health, are co-ing a book on race relations. | The Christian Science Monitor, February 29, 1996 | Go to article overview

The Politics of Language, Identity, and Race the Rhetoric of Racism Is Unfair to All US Citizens, Poisoning the Atmosphere for Democratic Debate


Andy Zelleke and Phil Wang. Andy Zelleke, a. California attorney, and Phil Wang, a research associate Harvard School of Public Health, are co-ing a book on race relations., The Christian Science Monitor


THE political right would have us believe that the only racism of any consequence existing in the United States today is the "reverse racism" perpetrated against white Americans. This, of course, is nonsense. The left, on the other hand, is too quick to label as "racist" any action that impacts minority communities in a manner it deems detrimental.

If proper restraint and leadership aren't shown on both sides, the barriers to solving this country's multifaceted and complex race problem will continue to be raised ever higher.

For example, we hear some liberal critics of Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan wonder aloud whether he's a racist. This criticism is based primarily on Mayor Riordan's recent firing of transportation chief Franklin White and his strained relationship with police chief Willie Williams, both African-Americans, as well as the absence of blacks in his inner circle. Many conservative supporters of the so-called California Civil Rights Initiative, meanwhile, denounce affirmative-action programs as nothing more than "reverse racism," a term tending to suggest to white Americans that they are being subjected to systemic discrimination comparable to that suffered by African-Americans in the era of segregation.

Each of these is an example of rhetorical excess that grossly oversimplifies this nation's complicated race problem by reducing every issue involving race to the other side's racism.

What exactly is racism? Overly intricate scholarly definitions are of questionable value here, since the underlying concept of race is itself an imprecise social construct. Rather, common sense is instructive: Racism must mean either animosity toward a class of people, or belief in their fundamental inferiority based on their race. Using this standard, it's clear that nobody has come forward with any evidence that Riordan is a racist; in fact, his longtime philanthropic efforts on behalf of computer literacy in South Central Los Angeles schools suggest quite the opposite. And even those who rail against "reverse racism" would have to concede that affirmative action has never been based on hatred of whites or belief in their inferiority.

The overblown racism rhetoric is problematic for several reasons.

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