If there was a Word of the Week award, “racist” would win this week. After Donald Trump said repeatedly that a federal judge was treating him unfairly in a civil suit due to his Mexican heritage, Republicans, Democrats, and pundits across the spectrum accused him of making racist remarks – if not actually being a racist himself. Everyone from Paul Ryan to Hillary Clinton condemned the comments. Republican strategist Nicolle Wallace said on MSNBC that no worse accusation could be thrown at someone, and no one else on the panel offered the slightest murmur of disagreement.
Really, though? Worse to be called a racist than a rapist? Worse to be called a racist than a murderer? Racism is worse than pedophilia?
The word has taken on a talismanic sort of power that defies common sense. We’ve been forced to watch Republican leaders and Trump supporters hem and haw over whether or not the billionaire’s remarks mean “he’s a racist in his heart,” whatever that means. Who could possibly make such a determination?
There was a time not long ago when racism had a much different, much more obvious definition. It basically meant that you hated people because of their skin color.
But that changed quickly. Today, racism is very much in the eye of the beholder. We’ve seen it used to explain why the GOP refuses to hold confirmation hearings for President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee. We’ve seen it used to explain why a grand jury refused to indict a Ferguson police officer. And we’ve seen it used again and again to explain Donald Trump’s popularity.
When stretched to these absurd lengths, how can we keep pretending that being a “racist” is the ultimate low point for a human being?
Over the past few years, we’ve seen many celebrities banished from mainstream society for racist remarks. Paula Dean, Hulk Hogan, and Donald Sterling are among those who probably wish they could go back in time and take back their careless comments. We judge these people from our personal mountaintops, unwilling to contemplate what would happen if all of our private conversations were released to the public.
No, we shouldn’t start a movement to normalize and/or celebrate racism. Obviously.
But let’s at least recognize that this word carries a power that’s out of sync with reality. And let’s recognize that the people giving it that power are not always pure in their motivations.