What Exactly Is Racist?

Two recent examples spring to mind, because they are representative of the complexity of this kind of issue in a world of such staggering social and cultural change. Here’s a quote from the UKIP member of the European parliament, Godfrey Bloom, on the perils of foreign aid:

How we can possibly be giving a billion pounds a month when we’re in this sort of debt to bongo bongo land is completely beyond me.

That’s a weird formulation – aid is not debt. But the context reveals that the man’s main ire is directed at the European Union, and not just at developing countries:

Mr Bloom, who pointed out he has a Polish wife and Kashmiri staff, said that his comments were not racist. Asked by the BBC where “bongo bongo” land is, Mr Bloom referred to “Ruritania” – a fictional country in Europe that formed the setting for three novels by Anthony Hope.

Does that make him a racist or just a xenophobe? This hilarious interview – dissecting the origins of the term “bongo-bongo-land” – suggests both to me:

But I’m not sure I’d be able to prove that point beyond a reasonable doubt. Sometimes, a racist expression is so foul and unrelated to any broader context that it merits no debate – like this tirade from Eagles player Riley Cooper. The trouble is: racism is often also interwoven with all sorts of other factors. It collides with legitimate resistance to fast cultural change, xenophobia, generational attitudes, and legitimate questions, such as immigration policy, in which one side should not be deemed irrational because of an implied racist motivation. Take this explanation of Smith’s broader point:

When a country has a trillion pounds of debt and we’re cutting our hospitals, our police force and we’re destroying our defense services, that the money should stay at home and people who want to give money to worthwhile charities…what I would argue is that is for the individual citizens. It’s not for the likes of David Cameron to pick our pockets and send money to charities of his choice.

That may in some way be a reflection of racism, but it is also a legitimate political argument. And it’s hard to tackle the latter if you are constantly wrapped up in debates about the former. Then there’s the complex interaction of tradition, culture and social change. So this sure looks like racism on the surface:

But this context – a detail from a similar event in 1994 – is also important:

T.J. Hawkins rolled out the big inner tube, and the bull lowered his head, shot forward and launched into the tube, sending it bounding down the center of the arena. The crowd cheered. Then the bull saw the George Bush dummy. He tore into it, sending the rubber mask flying halfway across the sand as he turned toward the fence, sending cowboys scrambling up the fence rails, hooking one with his horn and tossing him off the fence.

What might be seen as racist in one context – because the president is black – may not be in another. What some may see as a legitimate reclaiming of sovereignty from European bureaucrats can also be motivated by bald “bongo-bongo-land” racism. This is not either-or. And if it’s not either-or, we have to make a decision as to whether to hunt for these manifestations of racism or ignore them and get on with the actual arguments at hand, regardless of their psychological motivation. I favor as a purely pragmatic measure not jumping on every incident like this to yell racism – not because it is never racist, but because that charge cannot truly be proven without peering into opaque human souls, because it diverts potentially constructive debate into moral posturing, and because it is crowding out our discourse with gotchas that don’t really advance substantive debate.

And now I’ve written an entire post about whether certain people are racists. See how the cycle continues?