Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Epithet Inflation: The Case of "Racism"

Reading news stories about the Shirley Sherrod case, I was struck, not for the first time, by the way in which current usage of the word "racism" demonstrates epithet inflation. Ms Sherrod's initial response to a white farmer who wanted her help, as she reported it, was to give him less help than she would have given to a black farmer. On further thought she decided that that was a mistake, did her best for him, and apparently ended up friends with him and his wife.

Suppose, however, that she had not changed her mind. What she would then have done could legitimately be labeled discrimination, although not (to my mind) a very serious example—most of us are more willing to help people we identify with than people we see as in some way different or alien. Racism is lynching, burning crosses, spitting on people—hating people because of their race. Helping people a little less than you would help them if they were of your race doesn't come close to qualifying.

Once a label is firmly identified as bad, it is always tempting to apply it a little more widely. And a little more widely still. And ... . In the case of "racist," the process has gone even further than this incident illustrates, to the point where it can mean nothing more than "someone whose views about race I disagree with."

17 Comments:

At 11:33 AM, July 21, 2010, Blogger Michael Duff said...

Consider how the whole spectrum of relative evil has slipped. We don't really talk about the impact of violence and theft anymore.

Compare the amount of moral indignation you get for using a racist word with the amount of moral indignation you get for stealing $10,000.

Even violence, vandalism and burglary are shrugged at, more or less. Our first instinct is to make excuses for the perpetrator.

We don't make moral judgments about celebrity lifestyles like we used to. We don't hold people to their word or expect any kind of systematic work ethic.

Racism hasn't just come to dominate our concept of ethics, it's largely replaced it. It may be the only real "sin" left on the books.

 
At 12:36 PM, July 21, 2010, Blogger David Friedman said...

Apropos of Machael's comment ... .

My daughter reported some time back that at Oberlin, the signs asking students not to steal dishes from the dining hall explained that doing so was a bad idea, because such things ended up in landfills. "Do what's right for the environment."

 
At 2:10 PM, July 21, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A line of argument I'm seeing around is that the issue with the Sherrod incident is not so much what happened 24 years ago, but the reaction to it displayed by Sherrod and, even more so, her audience over the course of the entire speech. Supposedly the story of blowing off the white farmer and subsequent discussion of keeping assistance within the black community (I forget the exact euphemism she used) drew enthusiastic applause throughout the speech. Imagine if the group was composed of any other ethnicity...

At any rate, she was fired over it, so it must be bad, because surely the White House wouldn't take such a drastic action in an ill-considered, knee-jerk fashion without first having a firm grasp of all relevant facts?

 
At 3:06 PM, July 21, 2010, Blogger David Friedman said...

"Supposedly the story of blowing off the white farmer and subsequent discussion of keeping assistance within the black community (I forget the exact euphemism she used) drew enthusiastic applause throughout the speech."

Have you seen the full video? I haven't, but from the descriptions I have seen, her point was not that blowing off the white farmer was correct (indeed, she didn't say she had blown him off, merely not done as much for him as she would have if he had been black) but that she realized it was wrong, and went back and did what she could for him--with the result that he didn't lose his land, and he and his wife ended up as friends of hers. As you may know, the wife has been quite vocal in her support.

What is the source for the version you gave?

 
At 7:58 PM, July 21, 2010, Blogger David Friedman said...

The video of the Sherrod speech is webbed at:

http://swampland.blogs.time.com/2010/07/20/the-full-shirley-sherrod-speech/?xid=rss-topstories

I think it's pretty clear that she is arguing against black racial prejudice--using an example where she gave into it at first, and then recognized her mistake--not defending it.

And I didn't observe any enthusiastic applause for the idea of keeping assistance within the black community--an idea which she was arguing against.

 
At 1:48 AM, July 22, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Myth of the Myth of Shirley Sherrod

 
At 2:08 AM, July 22, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very brave that you only share your observation about overuse of accusations of "racism" when the "victim" is black. Imagine if an analogous situation played out with a white bureaucrat. He wouldn't be getting his job back, that's for sure. I mean you didn't even see fit to comment on the NAACP outrageously calling Tea Parties racist. That's what led to Breitbart posting the video.

 
At 4:29 AM, July 22, 2010, Blogger Michael Duff said...

Makes me reconsider the typical complaint, "Kids aren't learning values in school anymore."

But kids are being taught values in school, and they're learning them very well.

They're being taught to trust authority, despise racism, and protect the environment. These values are deeply ingrained in the younger generation now, held as deeply as religious convictions used to be.

 
At 10:07 AM, July 22, 2010, Blogger David Friedman said...

"Very brave that you only share your observation about overuse of accusations of "racism" when the "victim" is black. "

Perhaps you should have read to the end of the post? Where I wrote:

"In the case of "racist," the process has gone even further than this incident illustrates, to the point where it can mean nothing more than "someone whose views about race I disagree with.""

That particular overuse isn't generally aimed at blacks.

 
At 8:02 PM, July 23, 2010, Anonymous Eoppen said...

I don't feel an ounce of sympathy for this woman. For decades, whites have had to walk on eggshells whenever dealing with blacks, lest the dread cry of "Racist! Racist!" go up, and his career go down the drain. Look at Mark Fuhrman...despite a lot of evidence from his daily life that he was no racist, he got his career destroyed over having used "the N-word" (gods, I detest that sappy euphemism) years and years before.

Well, the shoe's on the other foot this time! Pinches, doesn't it?

 
At 8:58 PM, July 23, 2010, Blogger David Friedman said...

Eoppen's comment comes down to:

Members of group A have been unfairly attacked as racists by members of group B. So there's nothing wrong if members of group B get unfairly attacked as racists by members of group A.

I have no idea whether Eoppen is a racist, but on the evidence of his post he is a collectivist. He bases his moral judgements on groups, not on individuals. One black does something wrong, so it's fine if a different black, who didn't do anything wrong, has something wrong done to him.

 
At 1:45 AM, July 24, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The woman is clearly a collectivist. But since she's black I guess that's ok. How do you feel about Jewish collectivism David? Should the ADL be abolished? AIPAC?

More about Sherrold

 
At 9:36 AM, July 24, 2010, Blogger David Friedman said...

"This woman is clearly a collectivist."

On the contrary. One of the points she is making is that the fact that some whites mistreated some blacks in the past--including killing her father--is not a reason for her, a black woman, to refuse to help other whites. Just the opposite of the point that Eoppen was making.

 
At 1:01 PM, July 24, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

She was fired by an administration that mistook her for a worse racist than she actually was. The Obama posse overestimated the extent of Sherrod's animus for whites. She turned out to be merely a mezzanine-level racist.

Neither is Sherrod's story one of "redemption and cross-racial friendship," as Newsweek put it slightly less hyperbolically than did MSNBC's frontman. Shirley Sherrod's is a tale of the triumph of low expectations and black racial exculpation in contemporary America.

Here is a USDA worker, whose pay and perks are provided by wealthier Americans – given that this country has the steepest, most progressive tax system among all Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development countries. Yet she disdains the very "haves" who've funded her existence and facilitated her "life's work." By her own admission, Sherrod arrived each day at work eager to toil for the betterment of nobody but blacks.

{snip}

A nice enough lady, Ms. Sherrod then divulged how she performed the tasks (the rich had paid her to do) even when it came to this dejected white farmer.

The acme of ethics in American: a black woman who has graduated from hard-core to soft bigotry.

 
At 1:02 PM, July 24, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Shirely Sherrod doesn’t seem to have a been a good bureaucrat -- she didn’t help the “superior”-talkin’ white farmer, even if she later felt that this was “wrong” -- and she has dedicated her life to something, one would think, Lowry opposes -- securing for blacks federal goodies, suing companies and the federal government on behalf of blacks, and securing for herself life-time employment as a black advocate.

 
At 6:38 PM, July 24, 2010, Anonymous Andrew said...

Imagine if the Tea Party were black:

http://ephphatha-poetry.blogspot.com/2010/04/imagine-if-tea-party-was-black-tim-wise.html

 
At 6:55 PM, July 24, 2010, Anonymous Andrew said...

One more:
http://www.theroot.com/multimedia/what-if-they-were-black

 

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