Wednesday, July 17, 2002
"Racist" as Noun vs. "Racist" as Adjective

In this entry yesterday, in response to the following comment by Lynn Hendy, president of the property owner's association in a well-heeled resort community that's overwhelmingly of the black persuasion
This is a historically black community.... I'd like it to stay that way. White people can go anywhere. But how do you say that without sounding racist?
Andrew Sullivan wrote
Actually, Lynn, you can't say that without sounding racist. When you say that, you are a racist.
Actually, Andrew, you can't say that and be very accurate, at least not unless you use a definition of "racist" in which exhibiting any single smidgeon of racist behavior is the defining attribute of being a racist.

But racist as a state of being depends on a lot more than just an isolated comment. It's not something that can be ascertained from a single comment, even in the context of trying to maintain a community as all one race or another. The comment is clearly problematic: even the speaker acknowledges that. But to take that single comment beyond even the context that it's made in as evidence that the speaker is a racist person just seems wrong to me.

The simplest way to put the distinction is that "racist" as an adjective is a lot more likely, to me at least, to be an accurate usage than "racist" as a noun is. To the degree that we can focus on what people say and what people do and appropriate words to describe that (adjective), and that we can avoid trying to pin labels on what people are (noun), I think we can improve communication between people with different points of view. Whether a comment is racist or has racist overtones is a lot more tractable of a subject than whether or not a particular individual is racist. Less in-your-own-face explosive, too.

Self-serving example: The other day, in this blog entry, I griped about Charles Johnson using what I thought was a homophobic spin to his comments about the idiotic things George Michael had been saying. That he used what I think is clearly a homophobic framing doesn't mean that Charles is a homophobe. How the hell would I know whether he's a homophobe or not? Since most people aren't homophobes, the presumption ought to be that he's not.

Similarly, outside other evidence that wasn't presented, why should anyone believe that Lynn Hendy is a racist?