“That’s Racist” – Now a Term of Endearment!

So, I wrote last week about being called a (borderline) racist at Fuller Seminary because I questioned the sophistication of burgeoning Pentecostalism in the Global South.  Well, I was happy to discover yesterday, via NPR, that saying “That’s Racist!” has gone from a serious accusation to a commonplace quip.

Check out Neta Ulaby’s report:

Fourteen-year-old Gus Rachels and his friends use it to call out people overly sensitive to race issues. Regina N. Bradley, who teaches classes in African American literature at Florida State University, says she thinks kids are using “that’s racist,” to establish that they’re not — but even the college students she teaches get confused about the difference between race and race issues. Saying “that’s racist” is sometimes a way to get out of difficult discussions about race, she says — which is still a sensitive topic.

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  • I think it’s important to make a distinction between racist language and action and a racist person.

    When we think about “racists” it’s easy for the KKK and segregationists to come to mind. We are not like *those* people. “He is a racist” implies a character judgement.

    Instead, perhaps, it’s helpful to analyze words and actions–rather than people–as racist. It’s racist when individuals with “foreign sounding” names do not receive job interviews while candidates with identical resumes do. It’s racist when white kids defacing a car in public are laughed at while black kids sleeping in a car have the police called on them (ABC News).

    Racism informs the oft-quoted meme that “black people” or “the black church” caused Proposition 8 to pass. Racism (and white supremacy) are at play when conferences feature all or mostly white presenters (likewise, sexism in male-dominated spaces and heterosexism in straight-dominant spaces).

    At the same time, really well-intentioned folks say and do racist things. *I* do racist things, sometimes without even thinking about it.

    It is possible–necessary and important–to call-out racism when it happens while also recognizing the humanity of the actors. “Hey, what you said/did is messed up and racist” need not be the same thing as “You are an awful, irredeemable human being on par with the klan.”

    When friends, especially people of color, call me out on my racism, I’m honored that they consider me worth their time for correction. I’m not a lost cause.

  • NPR is now reporting for the very first time in history that cavalier racial memes are in the new dew of first flush and have never previously existed? – that since Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “uncle tom” became a common household meme in 1852 that “uncle tom” as a precursor to cavalier household and throw-away racial memes is forgettable and ignorable by NPR because “uncle tom” as a meme was a prelude to such a forgettable and trivial piece of history as – the Civil War? This is news? We need NPR to report this earth shattering development of bandied racial memes?

    What NPR seems not to acknowledge (this cadre of journalists certainly knows this – is just not acknowledging it – they can’t be otherwise this stupid) is that with a mere linear increase in the spread of a meme, users and hearers suffer an exponential increase in exposure to their misuse and abuse. A simple metric of engineering that a linear increase in working parts produces an exponential increase (parabolic and catastrophic with memes) in opportunities for break downs of the whole system.

    But, this exponential increase in the throw-away and cavalier uses of the “racist” meme is never an excuse for dismissing in whole cloth the meme. In truth, exponential potentials for abuses of any meme require exactly the opposite attitude. More careful scrutiny to discern the valid and proper uses of “racist.”

    Tony, I don’t think that you are racist. You could examine yourself via conventional means – 1) introspection, 2) feedback from trustworthy friends, and, 3) submitting yourself to hard testing to double check against biased introspection and against biased friends – say take the implicit attitude test, TJTA and MMPI as measures to test collateral issues, and then, by all these means in a grand Mozart symphony of agreement, you could declare and confirm that you are free of racial bias. I don’t think you’re racist. I would not be surprised if clinical measures exonerated you. I think you’ve taken a courageous stand on tough issues. As your calling out of Wallis.

    But, the issue is not your interior character.

    Nor your subjective state of bias.

    Nor your aura as public persona.

    None of these are relevant.

    The issue is whether one specific comment (or series of comments in a speech) in a specific and particular ecology (the Fuller Lecture – forget cosmic crap, and even Wild Goosing friends) stimulated a discernment in one or more in the population of that single ecology – a valid felt-sense that your theology or an ad hoc comment has a racist effect?

    Motive, intent, character, implicit attitudes, and the aura of your public persona, are all irrelevant when isolating on racist effects. There is no common sense (Tom Paine like), biological (ethological), economic, sociological, legal, or any other disciplined assay of “racism” that parts from tests of effect. As with the economy, “it’s the effects, stupid” (I’m not calling you stupid). Just see.

    You are more than entitled to your criticism of the thin-ness of Pentecostalism. And you probably have not started to scale the spectrum of Pentecostal dysfunctions and defects. In theology. In praxis. Your criticism is moderate. And kind. And any Pentecostal who is a learner (remember the old distinctions between open and closed fundamentalists?) would take your modest criticisms to heart. But, even this is not the issue.

    The problem that your theology (not you – your theology) is facing – for life – is the catch-net of irreducible uncertainty and unavoidable injustice (see e.g., the standard study, Hammond, K. R. “Human judgment and social policy: Irreducible uncertainty, inevitable error, unavoidable injustice.” New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).

    Please notice the phrases – unavoidable injustice – inevitable error – irreducible uncertainty. In your ABD status with high attention to relations and relationality, the sensibility reflected in Hammond’s work should be baseline.

    Unavoidable injustice – inevitable error – irreducible uncertainty are patient and professional measurements for Hammond. No double-dumbed-down (because it came through a young son) nor any cheap NPR ramblings about throw-away racial memes can dismiss the other side, the serious side, of the coinage of memes.

    The problem for your theology (qua theology – this is not about your character) is that the exponential abuse of memes is not the only exponential feature you face. As Pentecostalism grows linearly in number (and other camps die), you face another exponential increase in the audience that your theology is poised to offend on more categories than racism. Because on all categories of human “isms” (racism, class-ism, gender-bias, low level education, blue collar at best vocations, and so on), all of these are pregnant in Pentecostal demographics. Pentecostals come from just the niches that your theology will piss off. I’m talking stats here. Not ad hoc exceptions of those who like your stuff. Unless you want to be the very one who proves the NPR comments true by promoting the whole atmosphere of cavalier memes? I don’t think you do. The linear (in number) growth of Pentecostalism forces you to face an exponentially increased audience of opportunities to offend. This exponential feature from one audience alone, Pentecostals, is exactly the reason for – unavoidable injustice – inevitable error – irreducible uncertainty – in the effects (effects, effects, effects) of your theology.

    Is your theology racist in effect? Unavoidably so.

    Is your theology racist in effect? Inevitably so.

    Is your theology racist in effect? Irreducibly so.

    Can a cheap ad hoc story by NPR make it otherwise?

    If you want. I’ll leave that to you.

    Do you want to investigate the problem?

    Or have you arrived at your fixed theology, with nothing left ABD, save to stand pat defending a thesis?



  • I feel that it is unfortunate that the term racist, has become the property of the “black/white” community. As an Asian American who pastors a church that deals with Anglo/Brazilian conflict, it is a daunting task to help people understand and face their underlying racial prejudice, because they’re convinced that race is only a black/white issue. The fact is that the global North has never had to face its racism, whereas the south was forced to.

  • Alex

    Happens all the time in teaching.

    “No, you can’t leave class five minutes early.”
    11-year-old: “That’s racist!”

    In my experience, the kids find it funny out of ignorance more than anything. That and “I’m gonna sue you!” are the two most common.

  • Joshua Jinno (Alex too) –

    Very nice. Good heads-up’s on ownership. Provocative for me. Include Native Americans. It’s not like academic or heady theologians or non-white pastors spend a lot of time reading Vine Deloria’s “God is Red,” or George Tinker’s, “American Indian Liberation: A Theology of Sovereignty,” as daily devotional readings. When I do casework on hardscrabble reservations in extreme rural poverty (not all reservations have casinos!), I sure don’t see Native Americans lounging around and reading Tony Jones’s, “The New Christians” …

    … which for many of them would nothing more than the same old Christians..

    I guess that we need to take ownership of what is Owning us …

    Cheers, Jim

  • … Tony (and others), I don’t know the blogging etiquette of all this. Still in a learning curve. A bit confused since etiquette seems site-specific. Going by feel. I’m trying to do a sort of lateral hand-off – in respect to protect your’s and other good blogs where my lengthy posts amount to rude blow-out … while still following here and there as I can, experimentally … it’s not about traffic, I don’t want it, and am semi-closed anyway …

    See e.g., http://randomarrow.blogspot.com/2011/06/owning-tony-joness-racismnot-racism.html.

    Maybe blogging is another riff on who redacts JED & P’s?

    Clueless, sure beats me …


  • Kathy Smith

    my sons, 21 and 23, do the same thing…