The Associated Press symbolically inverts the presumed racial hierarchy, while Merriam-Webster engages in newspeak

In a June 19, 2020 editorial, AP changes writing style to capitalize “b” in Black, the Associated Press announces that it will double down on the racist tradition of essentializing blacks by elevating the word to a formal noun. The racial designations are now “Black” and “white.” Confirming that its move is politically-racially motivated, the AP “expects to make a decision within a month on whether to capitalize the term white.”

In a related matter, according to CNN, A Missouri woman asked Merriam-Webster to update its definition of racism and now officials will make the change. Kennedy Mitchum was troubled by the practice of those with whom she argued to cite the dictionary definition of “racism” to prove they weren’t racist.

Curating this before it disappears

Merriam-Webster defines racism as “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.” That is the definition of racism. However, because that definition did not allow Mitchum to leverage the notion of “systemic racism” to sustain a charge of racism against her opponents (vague definitions are better to argue with from an ideological standpoint), she wrote to Merriam-Webster and demanded her definition be substituted.

Peter Sokolowski, an editor-at-large at Merriam-Webster, told CNN that their entry also defines racism as “a doctrine or political program based on the assumption of racism and designed to execute its principles” (that’s good, too) and “a political or social system founded on racism,” (this definition lacks identification of necessary implementing machinery). Sokolowski then said, “I think we can express this more clearly to bring the idea of an asymmetrical power structure into the language of this definition.” Ah, the idea of an asymmetrical power structure. That’s what Mitchum wanted. That’s what AP’s change in capitalization assumes.

The change in AP’s editorial policy means to convey, according to the AP, “an essential and shared sense of history, identity and community among people who identify as Black, including those in the African diaspora and within Africa” (apparently the AP doesn’t like the Oxford comma). That’s a lot of people who don’t know each other. The move seeks to formalize the lumping of a myriad of ethnicities, groups with different languages, traditions, and so forth, into a monolithic racialized group. This is the work of pan-Africanism. (I am assuming that the editorial board at the AP are intelligent and intentional actors. If not, I can still say that the move functions towards this end.)

“The lowercase black is a color, not a person,” AP explains. It follows that the uppercase “Black” is a person. Presumably, unless whites are to be defined differently than blacks in the system of race thinking, the lowercase white is a color, not a person. If blacks have to have capital “B” so they’re persons, then are white people not persons? Isn’t leaving them as a color and not persons dehumanizing? To what extent, we many wonder, will these considerations enter at all into the heads of AP’s editors? We should, in any case, assume they should.

Why would the AP need a month to think about whether whites get to be persons, too? Don’t “White people” have “an essential and shared sense of history, identity and community among people who identify as [White], including those in the [European] diaspora and within [Europe]”? Ah, but can this “history, identity and community” be anything but racist? Can it be anything but racists the other way around?

Either capitalize both or capitalize neither. Me, I will capitalize neither. Race is not a proper noun. It is a racial category that really needs to go away, not become more formalized. I was infuriated when TruthOut, in 2016, in copyediting an article of mine, differentially capitalized the racial terms. But, I thought, “Well, this is a woke publication.” But now my iPhone autocapitalizes “Black people”—but not “white people.” Should my technology be a neutral platform? Shouldn’t AP be a neutral wire service?

* * *

Both “racism” and “racialism” as terms appear in the first decade of the twentieth century and are synonymous. Racism (or racialism) is an ideology in which it is assumed that dividing the human species into subgroups around superficial phenotypic differences (which merely reflect ancestry, since offspring inherit their parents’ genes) reflects a deeper unseen biological or constitutional reality that represents a natural hierarchically. This hierarchy is organized on the basis of ideal types (lumping of phenotypic characteristics) or indicated by group averages (for example, IQ). A racist believes that whites, blacks, and other racial groups differ in cognitive ability, behavioral proclivity, occupational aptitude, and moral integrity. 

As such, the concept of race commits the fallacy of misplaced concreteness, i.e. the reification of abstractions using arbitrary classification with no basis in sound empirical generalization. The upshot is that there are no actual races. It is an invalid construct manufactured via a false abstraction. Thus racism (or racialism) manufacture race.

As I have explained in previous writings, the idea of race in science emerges from the synthesis of animal husbandry, plant breeding, and evolutionary biology (natural history) in the 18th and 19th centuries and was debunked many decades ago. It was, like many myths, based on a facially plausible inference. But, like other myths that make naturalistic claims, the inference collapses upon closer empirical examination. 

In contrast to race realists, who believe there really are races, I am what you might call a race skeptic—I do not believe there are races because I see no compelling evidence for believing such claims. But I am more than a skeptic. Because I know that there is a destructive ideology that constructs race, I am for abolishing the construction altogether. The most stubborn form of racialization in the current context is foundational to the work of progressives.

There is a version of racism that roots in tribalism where essentialist claims are vaguer. Some other etiological myth explains the perceived differences in this style of racism. These present with a religious-like character. For example, in religion, there is a belief that God created the different racial types.

To take another example, the progressive ideology of antiracism, there is a myth of social power that is supposed to work beyond consciousness to elevate the status of some groups while diminishing the status of others. You hear this in the rhetoric of “white privilege” and “systemic racism.” These are quasi-religious constructs.

This mythology imagines power asymmetries (which are asserted without concrete evidence) falsely inferred from grouped differences that are then said to justify organizing some racialized groups culturally, politically, and socially, while condemning other groups for doing so. This understanding finds a slogan like “black power” to be qualitatively different than “white power,” i.e., good against bad, because it assumes that the former is justified and legitimized by the racial hierarchy it supposes exists. As I pointed out in the my previous blog entry, it is all very circular.

One of the ways the neoracialists gloss over ideology is through academic elevation of the normal concept of institution from a concrete and formal structure of law and policy to an abstraction sociologists call a “social institution.” This is what allowed Stokely Carmichael, along with political scientist Charles Hamilton, to declare in the mid-1960s, at the very moment that the problem of institutional racism was solved by its dismantling, that institutional racism was the problem that needed solving. They coined the term in the 1967 book Black Power: The Politics of Liberation. (Carmichael had popularized the term “black power” a year earlier.) Institutional racism was, according to them, “less overt, far more subtle” in its workings. As such, it was a useful mystification, a glittering generality, allowing the propagandist to assert its existence without any empirical rigor.

Carmichael and Hamilton’s construction is obviously wrong. To be sure, a concrete system that operates on the basis of racial designations, that is any empirically identifiable structure of formal institutions (law, policy) that advances/rewards some individuals while limiting/punishing others on the basis of race, is a racist system. For example, Jim Crow segregation in the US and the Apartheid system in South Africa are historic examples of racist systems. These systems were constructed to provide individuals designated as white with preferential treatment in housing and occupation. A current example of institutionalized racism is affirmative action, wherein individuals designated as black enjoy preferential treatment in education and employment. Absent these institutions there is no system of racism, therefore no systemic racism.

The accusation “racist” is being hurled about a lot lately. It follows from what I have argued that a racist is a person who believes such things are true, namely that there are races, that their members differ from each other in some regular way, and that the members of some racial groups should have more or have less good and bad things based on their racial designation.

If a person does not believe such things are true, then that person is a nonracist. That does not mean the person does not engage in racial thinking. We must recognize that there is a popular recognition of race in our society. Indeed, race thinking is a global phenomenon. We are taught race thinking from very early in life. It is, moreover, reproduced in demographic information. One cannot pretend they do not think racially even if he wishes it were not so—even when he knows it is not so. But this is not racism. Racism is as I defined it above.

What about antiracism? An antiracist is a person who supposes the existence of a racial system with embedded power asymmetries and then struggles to subordinate the perceived oppressor in order to correct history. This moves the thinking beyond merely racial into racially-oppressive action.

For the record, I am a nonracist. I reject both racism and antiracism. The attempt to claim that nonracism is an impossible position is a theological claim, not a scientific claim. The vast majority of people are likewise nonracist. The United States is not a racist society.

* * *

When associated with imagined communities—as opposed to a material reality like social class or a biological reality like sex—the notion of “social power” risks committing the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. This fallacy denotes the false move of hypostatizing a conceptual apparatus as an actual part of reality. It’s sloppy and lazy thinking, to be sure. But there are other reasons influencing the error. And the error carries toxic effects.

Let me explain this with an autobiographical account. My opinion on the question of systemic racism changed when I tightened up my thinking. Maybe I can help others with this story.

As readers of my blog know, I am an atheist. I grew up in a Christian culture but the religion never took hold of me. Therefore, with respect to Christianity, I have never considered myself a heretic or an apostate because I was never baptized. A heretic is a person who speaks against his religion. A apostate is a person who leaves his religion. So, in that space, I have always been an infidel. I cannot regret not believing in something that is not real.

Because I was brought up in antiracism and even participated in it—indeed, I was as an academic on the inside as the cult became a religion—I do have regrets. I did fall for theology of antiracism. I have come out of it, I am happy to announce (as if that wasn’t obvious already). I started out as a heretic and now I am an apostate. I now know what it feels like to leave a religion. It feels good.

But it also feels bad because it’s embarrassing when you reflect on the words that once fell out of your mouth. It is moreover difficult because all those who want you to keep believing in antiracism because they have put it central to their lives. They become extremely disappointed in you. They wonder what happened to you. They even even abusive in their disillusionment. They think you have become degraded in your thinking even when you are clearly subjecting your belief to the same skepticism that they themselves apply to, say, religious belief. They believe you have betrayed them. They expected that you would always be who they thought you were. The left has become religious-like in doctrine and intensity and this reaction is a typical manifestation of that attitude.

There were many events that help me self-deprogram (9-11, Christopher Hitchens, Sweden 2018, etc.). I will tell the full story one day. But, for now, here is one of those moments. It bears directly on what I have written above about definitions.

I was lecturing to my students in Foundations of Social Research on common errors in thinking. This was early in the semester. I was on the PowerPoint slide concerning the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. I was talking about how scientists build elaborate models to use as heuristics to tentatively explore the world around them and how that method runs the risk of hypostatizing elements of the model, and even the model itself, as the reality it’s attempting to grasp. Scientists become seduced by their grand ideas. They also get sloppy. They lazily take shortcuts. Via one or all of these avenues, they wind up treating an abstract conceptual system as the concrete reality they are striving to ascertain. This is the problem of reification.

I had given this lecture many times. But this time it hit me: When I talk about systemic or institutional racism I am doing exactly what I am telling my students not to do—I am reifying a conceptual apparatus. I am eliding the fact that the institutions of racism—the real, concrete institutions, i.e. the law, policies—were dismantled when I was a little kid. I’m in my fifties, yet here I am in my classes talking about racism as if it is still this overarching system shaping our everyday lives. I am also committing the error of mystification. And the ecological fallacy.

Eschewing methods of determining the intentions of human beings, indeed, not even bothering to try, I was essentially finding people categorically guilty of a crime for which they had not be adjudicated. I had been using abstractions—demography, social institutions, social facts, etc.—as if they have some actual power to do something. I had imaginary people—personifications of abstract groups—dangling from wires. Here I was denying agency, ignoring concrete behavior, actual situations, and the beliefs people hold, assigning to every individual an abstract statistical average that throws the reality of their lives into a tangled briar patch of jargon. I was guilty of confusing inequality with inequity.

Then another thought occurred to me: Because people act on the basis of the things they believe, because they react on the basis of so-shaped perceptions, these imaginary reified structures I am conveying from a position of authority might influence people to think and act in ways that are destructive to solidarity, democracy, equality, liberty—all the humanist ideals I proclaim as my values. Here I am, a Marxist, obscuring the material structures of exploitation and deprivation, giving legitimacy to cosmological thinkings by committing the ecological fallacy, i.e., drawing inferences about individual thought and behavior deduced from statistical data drawn from groups to which those individuals are supposed to belong.

I then starting looking at claims I had been making about systemic racism. Obviously, it is wrong to suppose that I can know anything about a person because he is white. He could be anything. It wasn’t like he was a devotee to a ideological system like Islam or Nazism. I cannot substitute for him a group average since that would be only a sophisticated form of racial stereotyping. Intersecting demographic categories didn’t make things much clearer, I could plainly see. Age? Sex? There are only aggregate facts.

In a recent blog, I used an example used by psychologist Valarie Tarico—the notion that a queer female East Indian Harvard grad with a Ph.D. and E.D. position is more oppressed [has less social power, etc.] than the unemployed third son of a white Appalachian coal miner. Tarico’s example exposes the absurdity of the claim as straightaway obvious. The Oppression Olympics is a ridiculous proposition. Yet actors in our institutions are making policy out of this.

I next considered the assumption that disparities mean bias and how one might test that assumption empirically, since you can’t ask every individual their views. One way of doing this would be to test propositions using group level data in a way that permits reasonable inferences about context. The most obvious was lethal officer-civilian encounters, since it was motivating #BlackLivesMatter, a group I was suspicious of from the git-go. As it turns out, I didn’t need to do that work. It has already been done (see my review The Myth of Systemic Racism in Lethal Police-Civilian Encounters). If the proposition is put in the form of a testable hypothesis, the claim of systemic racism is easily debunked.

In Teaching for diversity and social justice: A sourcebook (Routledge), racism is defined this way: “The systemic subordination of members of targeted racial groups who have relatively little social power in the United States (Blacks, Latino/as, Native Americans, and Asians), by the members of the agent racial group who have relatively more social power (Whites). This subordination is supported by the actions of individuals, cultural norms and values, and the institutional structures and practices of society” (88-89).

This is not a definition. It’s assumptions reveal it to be propaganda. It arbitrarily and eternally locates individuals in oppressor/oppressed and perpetrator/victim categories based on perceived race and imagined hierarchies of social power. What is the evidence that whites have more racial power? If it is because there are statistical differences between the groups, then (a) those differences cannot prove themselves (the proposition therefore remains untested); (b) the categories arbitrarily racially organize individuals race (this is hypostatizing race). The entire exercise disappears concrete individuals whom we can no nothing about based on skin color into abstract demographic categories where grouped averages are claimed to speak for individuals.

This is the great error of sociology. It results from the attempt early in the development of the discipline to graft the methods of natural history onto the study of a qualitatively different domain of social phenomena (what is called “positivism”). It became, as C. Wright Mills put it, enamored by its own grand theatrical structure. This error is repeated because the discipline of sociology still refuses to establish itself upon the materialist conception of history. It is like evolutionary biology has never accepted the natural history approach of Charles Darwin.

And so sociology has become corrupted by ideology. The definition of racism given in Teaching for diversity and social justice: A sourcebook is part of a political-ideology of antiracism that finds its roots in New Left thinking, shaped by Critical Theory, Mao Zedong thought, and French poststructuralism/postmodernism, and represents another manifestations of the essentializing action of racial thinking. Why it has become the operational definition for those in power, as well as in the streets, is because it is disruptive to proletarian class consciousness the actual subjects of exploitation and oppression in the material mode of production we call capitalism.

Antiracism enjoys the material support of corporate power because it undermines class solidarity. Everybody is talking about white privilege today because the culture industry, using the legitimating power of academic jargon, has effectively injected it into popular discourse.

* * *

“This revision would not have been made without your persistence in contacting us about this problem,” Merriam-Webster editor Alex Chambers said in the email to Kennedy Mitchum. “We sincerely thank you for repeatedly writing in and apologize for the harm and offense we have caused in failing to address this issue sooner.”

Translation: we are using your email and your race to cover the corporate project to change popular thought in a direction that serves the interests of corporate power. We did not before recognize the propaganda tactic you alerting us to.

The AP means to invert the racial hierarchy, while Merriam-Webster is openly engaged in newspeak. That is damning evidence of the power of the cultural managers who shapes was thought.

As Marx and Engels write in The German Ideology (1845): “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it.”

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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