Since Saturday, the mass shooting in Buffalo has rarely left my mind. Ten innocent people killed at a supermarket in a predominantly Black neighborhood. Out of 13 people shot, 11 were Black. According to law enforcement, the man accused of shooting them, Payton Gendron, was motivated by racist hate. Erie County Sheriff John Garcia didn’t equivocate when he said, within hours, that it was a “straight up racially motivated hate crime.” Nor did Mayor Byron Brown when he said on Sunday that “this individual came here with the expressed purpose of taking as many Black lives as he possibly could.” It’s impossible not to be reminded of the 2015 massacre at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, S.C., and, sorrowfully, we have no reason to think something like that won’t happen again.
Clearly, racism is not over in the United States.
I have reason to suppose, however, that there are more than a few who think that I am not aware of this. A heterodox thinker on race, as I and others are sometimes called, is often accused of thinking, “There’s no racism.” Or as more temperately inclined folks sometimes say to me, we underplay racism and seem not to understand that it’s still out there. As such, I as well as similarly minded Black thinkers such as Glenn Loury, Coleman Hughes, Wilfred Reilly, Orlando Patterson and Thomas Chatterton Williams are dealing in an alternate reality.
Much of this kind of impression is due to our questioning of how sweeping the use of the word “racism” has become, and I’d like to clarify, at a juncture like this, why I take issue with most strains of what is today called antiracism, despite the reality of racist violence.
The key difference is between outright bigotry and the more abstract operations of what we call “systemic racism.” Yes, there is a synergy between the two. But as the difficulty in our conversations about racism attests, there is a wide gulf between personal prejudice (Racism 1.0) and the societal and sociohistorical operations that render Black physicists, for example, rare relative to Black people’s proportion of the population — Racism 2.0, sometimes even termed “white supremacy.” In an alternate universe, those two things might not go under the same name.
On Racism 1.0, the lamentable thing is that I see no reason it will ever completely vanish, at least not in our lifetimes. Studies have revealed that a degree of fear and distrust of “the other” exists in our species, for better or worse. Call it conservative of me, but I see little point in hoping that human nature will entirely change. Educated Westerners, especially, have already acquired a more robust habit of self-monitoring for racism than perhaps any humans in history. In our country, this habit noticeably gained traction in the 1960s. Some argue that white Americans need to go further, plumbing more deeply for subtle racist assumptions in their hearts. I understand the desire for it but wonder just how realistic that expectation is at this point.
I assume, with regret, that there will always be racists among us. As long as our gun laws make it easy to obtain assault-style weapons, there will be people, some mentally imbalanced and some just plain evil, who decide to commit mass shootings. There is no reason the hatred in people like this will mysteriously step around racism; the question would be why such people would not often be motivated by it. We live with this horror.
However, there isn’t enough of a nexus between this grim reality and disparities between Black people and white people — in, for example, wealth and educational opportunity — to gracefully put both under the general heading of “racism.” That is, we increasingly apply the term in reference both to violent hate crimes and to the fact that, for example, in the aggregate, Black students don’t perform as well on standardized tests as some of their counterparts. But while we tend to use the term “racism” for both things, it isn’t readily obvious to most how both prejudice and a differential in performance are versions of the same thing, referred to with one word. One of the thorniest aspects of today’s race debate is that we have come to apply that word to a spread of phenomena so vast as to potentially confuse even the best-intended of people.
As such, to be aware of a case like the Buffalo tragedy cannot be taken as making inevitable one’s support for antiracist initiatives such as reparations for slavery or taking funds away from the police in a given city. There may be arguments for such proposals, but the existence of outright bigotry and racist violence is not one of them.
Thus, I am chilled to my socks by what happened in Buffalo while also opposed to the ideology that challenges mainstream standards as “white,” sanctions the censure and dismissal of those who fail to adhere to fashionable tenets of antiracist doctrine, and condescends to Black people by encouraging exaggerated claims of injury. My position comes in full awareness that there remain people in our society who deeply despise Black people and Blackness.
There will always be those who see cases like this one, shake their heads and dismiss someone who sees things as I do with the thought: “And he thinks racism is over — yeah, right.” I can’t fix that, but I suspect I can get a little further with those who think heterodox Black thinkers are reasonable but still underplay the effects of racism. I don’t think we do. I am respectful toward, but skeptical of, potential arguments holding, for example, that acknowledging Racism 1.0 requires accepting the precepts of Racism 2.0. But I hope this newsletter shows, in line with the theme of a recent one I wrote, that my leeriness about how well that kind of argument could hold up is based on neither ignorance nor malevolence, but opinion.
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John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He hosts the podcast “Lexicon Valley” and is the author, most recently, of “Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America.”