Why Some Progressives Make Unjustified Accusations of Racism

Accusations of racism are rife in American political life these days. The Make America Great Again slogan is claimed to be racist. According to an op-ed in the New York Times, the wall that President Trump wants built at the border is a symbol of racism, if not an overtly racist act.

These claims are so implausible as to be irresponsible. And that is not because of my enthusiasm for red MAGA caps or for walls. A better slogan would be Make American Even Greater. It is already great. That’s why so many people of so many different races, ethnicities and nations want to come here even illegally. But this slogan was meant to appeal to voters, principally in the Rust Belt, who felt left out of the prosperity of the last decades—and who did not vote Republican in the last few elections, but might switch. Targeting these voters showed a shrewd focus on the marginal voter who could carry Trump to victory, not any evidence of racism.

And while I think illegal immigration must be stopped not least because it corrodes respect for the rule of law, I am not at all sure the extent to which a wall is the effective way to do it. But even more effective ways would also stop people who are disproportionately Latino from coming illegally to the United States. The population of the world’s poor that can get here illegally without getting over the natural barriers of oceans is largely Latino. The reasons for focusing on the southern border are related to geography and wealth, not race.

What is the reason for this doubling down of rhetoric? One explanation is simple. Given slavery, the original sin of America, a charge of racism remains a political trump card. In this regard its function is not essentially different from calling one’s opponents Nazis, such a frequent trope in comments on the early internet that it created its own “law” that observed how such accusations regularly stopped all rational discussion. My impression is that the calling out of this practice has decreased its prevalence. Would that we create similar norms to decrease ill-founded accusations similarly poisonous to rational discourse!

But another explanation for the ever-expanding accusations of racism is that the Left (and it almost always is the Left that makes such accusations) is trying to change the sense of “racism” to connote something like “a policy position that opposes progressivism.” We live in turbulent times and social upheaval has distorted settled meanings of words before. Thucydides described the phenomenon more than 2,000 years ago:

To fit in with the change of events, words, too, had to change their usual meanings. What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member; to think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward; any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one’s unmanly character; ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action.

One reason that progressives would like to redefine racism is that many of their own preferred policies are race-conscious. For instance, admission and hiring at the modern elite university—a progressive bastion—is as a matter of policy influenced by considerations of racial and ethnic identity. Race-consciousness also marks progressive policies that want to shape housing and even taxation by considering its effects on defined racial and ethnic groups.

I am emphatically not accusing those who espouse these policies of racism. Often the argument for the policies is that to transcend racism, we need to be race-conscious—not that this argument is one I much agree with, either. But race-conscious policies do treat people differently because of race, which is also true of policies that are the paradigms of racism. It would be an advantage to the Left if the concept of racism morphs so that its paradigm cases are not those that reflect differential treatment. As George Orwell perceived, politics is a battle of language, not least because most people think reflexively and not deeply about public policy. Therefore even subtle shifts in the connotations  of words may pay political dividends.

Reader Discussion

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on January 29, 2019 at 11:07:10 am

[…] Northwestern University law professor John McGinnis explains why some “Progressives” are…. A slice: […]

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Some Links - Cafe Hayek
on January 29, 2019 at 11:35:34 am

Penetrating analysis, all the more so because it not only applies to american politics but to other places too. Here in Portugal the numbers of the black population are close to irrelevancy, except in Lisbon, but even there it is a little minority. And yet the racism card is played by the left whenever there is any incident with the authorities on any black majority neighborhood. And we got used to the anomaly of the use of the term fascism to describe any attitude of liberalism (the European meaning of the word, that is) in the economy or conservatism in social issues. So much so that, more than 40 years after the coronation revolution, still no political party describes itself as being rightist - they are all "centrist".

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José Meireles Graça
on January 29, 2019 at 12:47:31 pm

It would of course be possible to talk about the importance of sealing our borders to would-be illegal immigrants, and to appeal to people who've been left behind economically, without demonizing Hispanics, even the ones trying to apply for legal asylum. But that's not what Trump has done. Yes, progressives have strategic ends for calling right-wing populism racist. But in the case of Trump, and of his many followers not bothered by his rhetoric about Hispanics seeking better lives, they happen to be correct.

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Ken Wilson
on January 29, 2019 at 15:43:10 pm

I have to disagree. Being from Texas, I know for a fact that the massive number of immigrants, many from Mexico, has become an economic and legal challenge. Also having come from Texas, I know that Texas and Mexico will be forever linked by shared history and culture. For us, the fact that so many are from Mexico is irrelevant. The problems are much deeper than race. To be sure, the immigrants from Mexico are not doctors and engineers. They are often illiterate and lack experience with such amenities as indoor plumbing and auto insurance. They certainly don't care an iota about immigration law. I have witnessed third generation immigrants whose children cannot speak English and require extra classes. There is NO excuse for that.

They do not come here to be "American". They come to bring Mexico here! We Texans have tolerated this for many years and are paying the price for having a national government that refuses to do its job. As long as people come here legally and are willing to assimilate, then they are welcome. Otherwise, we want them gone. That's not racist. It's realistic if we want our State to survive.

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Tammy Blair
on January 29, 2019 at 16:01:41 pm

However, racism WAS the root of early Progressive efforts at economically hampering blacks (minimum wage laws) disarming them (first gun control laws) and reducing their relative fecundity (eugenics).

While today's Progressive agenda items may not seem racist (race-conscious the PC term?), racist outcomes are in fact achieved.

As Lincoln said, you can say a dog has 5 legs if you call his tail a leg, but that doesn't make his tail a leg...

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OH Anarcho-Capitalist
on January 29, 2019 at 16:06:04 pm

Regarding the federal government, it Constitutionally has control solely over the naturalization process - who can become a citizen, and under what rules. The Feds actually have no Constitutional authority to create immigration (or emigration) controls.

Presumably, that responsibility falls under the 10th Amendment and is left to the states to administer.

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OH Anarcho-Capitalist
on January 29, 2019 at 16:16:37 pm

My goodness! I don't run across many who know that, and it's refreshing! Now if we could only get our States to do THEIR job.

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Tammy Blair
on January 29, 2019 at 22:10:07 pm

In other words, the feds exercise NO control over immigration? China could put out a Request for Proposal from the governors of the 50 states, asking the price to permit unlimited numbers of Chinese people to arrive in their state--and from there, to have free run of the country--and neither the feds nor any other state could do squat about it?

A counter-intuitive system, certainly.

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on January 29, 2019 at 22:52:57 pm

Racism is a global power struggle, and rather than “America’s original sin,” it is America’s unique opportunity.
The opportunity was created when the committee of forms appraised the constitutional convention and wrote the preamble to the U.S. Constitution (the U.S. preamble).

It is a fantastic sentence in that it is an oppression-free civic, civil, and legal agreement that creates the fellow citizens’ dichotomy of willing individuals and dissidents. Also, it offers a clean break from colonial British common law and church-state partnership.

States excepting Rhode Island assigned 70 delegates, but only 55 attended and only 39 signed the U.S. preamble and its supporting articles, the 1787 U.S. Constitution. Thus 66% of the representatives of the 1774 Confederation of States created the possibility for a Union of states under the U.S. preamble. That’s 2/3, and the other 1/3 were opposed, some because of the U.S. preamble. Some preferred the confederation rather than a union.

The 39 of 70 for 12 of 13 states is 51.4%, not too different from Hillary Clinton’s 51.1% popular vote victory versus Donald Trump in 2016. Thus, the U.S. has never had unity, yet it has the opportunity to develop civic integrity.

The Greeks informed humankind that citizens can develop equity under statutory justice, a worthy if unattainable goal. The development evolves from statutory law and its enforcement. Citizens who agree to equity under law authorize the use of force to constrain fellow citizens who think crime and other dissidence pays.

In the U.S., the civic, civil, and legal agreement for equity under statutory law is the U.S. preamble. The agreement is available to fellow citizens regardless of race or gender. A better future is coming, because most fellow citizens want mutual, comprehensive safety and security so that they can responsibly pursue individual happiness rather than a way of living someone else limited.

Once 2/3 of U.S. citizens trust-in and commit to the civic, civil, and legal agreement that is offered in the U.S. preamble, the rest of the world will look to the U.S. to solve the race problem.

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Phillip Beaver
on January 29, 2019 at 23:29:50 pm

McGinnis offers an essay about "racism" and the Orwellian battle over language. Ironically, he neglects to give content to his essay by telling the reader what he means by the term. McGinnis tells us that certain claims of racism are so implausible as to be irresponsible, but hides the yardstick by which to evaluate his claim.

A better slogan would be Make American Even Greater. It is already great.

Apparently McGinnis has finally read Stephen Colbert’s America Again: Re-becoming the Greatness We Never Weren't (2012).

[T]his slogan was meant to appeal to voters, principally in the Rust Belt, who felt left out of the prosperity of the last decades—and who did not vote Republican in the last few elections, but might switch. Targeting these voters showed a shrewd focus on the marginal voter who could carry Trump to victory, not any evidence of racism.

Here at last McGinnis gives some clue about what “racism” means to him: If the Trump campaign acted strategically for the objective of winning, it could not be accused of “racism.”

A plausible definition. And by that definition we’d say that Nixon’s Southern Strategy showed no evidence of racism, because it was also strategically focused on the objective of winning, employing the tactics described by the strategy’s architect, Lee Atwater:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”

Hey, the strategy worked, so it would be inappropriate to describe it as racist, right? Yes—according to McGinnis’s usage.

But clearly, people in good will might use the term differently, and conclude that the act of pandering to people’s racism, even subtly, warrants the label “racist.” Others might apply the label “racist” to any campaign that has the effect of stirring the audience’s racial animosities or fears warrants the label racist, regardless of the speaker’s intentions. Still others might use the term to refer to a campaign that has the effect of subordinating people based on their race, even without any animus. Etc. In short, the fact that people might use the term “racism” differently than McGinnis does not demonstrate bad faith.

[Invoking racism] is not essentially different from calling one’s opponents Nazis….

I find it useful to evaluate the dynamics that led to the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany, and to compare it to contemporary dynamics. Likewise, I find it useful to evaluate whether a policy has a disparate impact on people of differing races, whether a policy employs race-conscious remedies, whether racial animus may motivate a policy’s proposer, and whether it may motivate a policy’s proponents. In short, I find it useful to consider various ideas related to the terms Nazi and racist.

That said….

McGinnis (and others) make a fair point that the term Nazi generates much more heat than light. And everyone knows this. So it becomes hard to read the term applied to a contemporary context without concluding that the author intends to cast aspersions. The same dynamics is overtaking the terms racism/racist/bigotry/bigot. Given the wealth of alternative and more precise terms—disparate impact, race-conscious, animus—I cannot help but feel sympathy with McGinnis’s view that any contemporary application of the term warrants a review of the speaker’s motives.

Bryan Garner coined the term “skunked words” to refer to words that trigger such visceral reactions in readers of differing perspectives that the writer cannot find a safe manner to use the words. In these situations, the wise writer simply avoids the terms. I think we’re there.


[A] charge of racism remains a political trump card.

As we tussle over language, I think we may need to find a substitute term for “trump card.”

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on January 30, 2019 at 18:11:35 pm

The national government claims authority to exercise control as a result of several legal cases. This is essentially a usurpation and only proceeds because the States have failed to push back constitutionally. But there was a time in history when the States did, in fact, control immigration. The State would determine what "kind" of immigrants they needed (i.e., carpenters, mason, etc.). When they had enough, they would put more stringent limits on immigration. Could that be a problem? I suppose it was at times, which led to the legal cases and usurpation of power by the national government. We will never know if federalism could work on the issue of immigration because the national government took over. Either way, there are likely all kinds of possibilities for how it could work. But...considering that the united States was founded as a constitutional republic, one should consider that each of the 50 States was supposed to be essentially a nation-state that could, if necessary, protect itself from immigrant invasions. With the national government refusing to do the job, the States are left in dire straits.

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Tammy Blair

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