“The NFL Protests Are a Perfect Study of How White Supremacy Works” reads the headline on a recent article at the Root. Which is confusing if you think of “white supremacy” as an apartheid system like Jim Crow, and “white supremacists” as angry people running around in sheets and hoods. The Root's looser use of “white supremacy,” to describe something considerably less explicit than advocating a race war, has become increasingly common.
The term was popularized by academic race theory, where it seems to have largely replaced previous terms of art like “institutional racism” or “systemic racism.” Now it is migrating out of the ivory tower and into everyday discourse, puzzling the millions of Americans who are used to an older, narrower meaning.
It’s easy to see why writers and academics find the term appealing. “Institutional racism” conjures up images of beige-carpeted offices and rows of desks; “systemic racism” sounds like some sort of plumbing problem. “White supremacy,” on the other hand, packs a visceral punch that commands the reader’s attention. Because they’re describing something that needs attention, it’s useful to have a phrase that does the job.
Nonetheless, using “white supremacy” this way is a mistake. It leads to confusion in the national conversation, because opposing sides are using a critical term in very different ways. It hampers our ability to discuss the phenomenon that the anti-racists actually want to discuss. And ultimately, if we continue to use it this way, it will lose the very emotional resonance that made it an appealing substitute for more clinical terms.
The redefinition of “white supremacy” is part of a broader tendency to take words with narrow meanings and a highly negative connotation, and redeploy them in much broader ways. Take the use of the word “misogyny.” The word literally means “hatred of women”; politics transformed it into “someone who believes that women are not men’s social and intellectual equals.” But recently, that definition has broadened to include, for example, people who do not support the right to an abortion, people who do not think that women should serve in combat, or Google engineers who think that maybe fewer women than men are interested in high-level STEM careers.
If you strongly disapprove of these political views, it’s tempting to conflate them with hatred of women. Unfortunately, when you use “misogyny” in this way, you do not get people to take lesser forms of sexism more seriously. In fact, you run the risk that people might stop taking actual misogyny so seriously.
It’s the inverse of what Steven Pinker has dubbed “the euphemism treadmill,” where we try to find nicer words for something we don’t think is very nice, and find that the new words quickly take on all the old connotations. So “toilet,” turns into “bathroom,” then migrates onward to “rest room.” Only we still know there's a toilet behind that door, and whatever words we use about it, our feelings don’t change.
This is why attempting to change how Americans feel about illegal migrants by changing the terms we use to describe them is a project doomed to failure; whether they are “illegal aliens” or “undocumented immigrants,” the political realities remain the same. People who feel negatively toward “illegals” feel just as negatively toward “undocumented immigrants.”
The invective treadmill works in a similar fashion, only in reverse.
The lexical activists seem to hope that by using strong words to describe diffuse structural and social problems, they can tap into the moral outrage that society feels toward men who deride female equality, or toward those who prate of race war while strutting around in swastika armbands. The idea is apparently that if we put the racial inequalities perpetuated by the criminal justice system on the same moral plane as lynch mobs and segregated lunch counters, people will have to attack the former with the same vigor we would use against any attempt to bring back Jim Crow.
This overestimates the power of words. People make a stark moral distinction between sins of omission and sins of commission; between policies that disadvantage some group inadvertently, in the process of pursuing some other goal, and those that are expressly aimed at oppression; between the petty tribalism that all humans engage in, and the advocacy of genocide. You are unlikely to erase these moral distinctions by rewriting the dictionary.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, I found myself confronted by a curious problem: Many of my readers simply didn’t take it seriously when I pointed out that Donald Trump was, if not an outright racist himself, at least happily pandering to people who were.
“The media calls every Republican racist,” my conservative readers replied. “They said it about Mitt Romney, they said it about George Bush, so what’s different about Trump?”
They were right. Other columnists had accused Romney and Bush of being racist and pandering to racists. I pointed out that Trump's racist appeals were different, and much worse, than anything that earlier Republican presidential candidates had been accused of. But it didn’t do any good. The media had cried wolf to condemn garden-variety Republicans; labels like “racist” had been rendered useless when a true threat emerged. We shouted to no avail as Trump coyly flirted with hardcore white supremacists, something no mainstream party had done for decades.
Indeed, it seems to me that critical race theorists have gone to “white supremacy” precisely because the increasingly broad uses of the word “racism” have made it less effective than it used to be at rallying moral outrage. The term still packs some wallop, but less than it once did, because it is now defined so broadly that a Broadway musical could sing “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist.” White supremacy, on the other hand, is still clearly understood as beyond the pale.
But if we indiscriminately apply the term to everything from the alt-right white nationalist Richard Spencer, to anyone who thinks that football players should stand for the national anthem … for how long will white supremacy still be considered beyond the pale? What happens if people accused of racism start shrugging off the epithet -- or worse, embracing it? And when another Richard Spencer comes along, how will we convey how dangerous he is?