A few days ago, columnist Richard Cohen got in a lot of hot water over comments he made in the Washington Post. He said...
"Today’s GOP is not racist, as Harry Belafonte alleged about the tea party, but it is deeply troubled — about the expansion of government, about immigration, about secularism, about the mainstreaming of what used to be the avant-garde. People with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York — a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children. (Should I mention that Bill de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, used to be a lesbian?) This family represents the cultural changes that have enveloped parts — but not all — of America. To cultural conservatives, this doesn’t look like their country at all."
I don’t know whether Mr. Cohen is a bigot. I do think that his comments are poorly thought through and monumentally insensitive but I don’t believe he was saying that seeing Mayor-Elect de Blasio’s family forced him to repress his gag reflex. I don’t know that he’s necessarily homophobic either, though his comment that Chirlane McCray "used to be a lesbian" was kind of bizarre. He says that all he was trying to do was to explain to the rest of us how Republicans, and especially the Tea Party see the world, and I think he's probably telling the truth. He’s saying that people with “conventional views” still want the world to look like it did in the 1950s (or maybe the 1850s) and they’re dismayed and even angry when it doesn’t. According to Mr. Cohen, this doesn’t make them racist, and understanding their context can help us to see that.
If this is the case, I think he's about as wrong as he can be.
Mr. Cohen's comments are a good illustration of how confusing a word "racism" is. There are really two things we can mean when we says it: personal racism and institutional racism. The two are related but they are not the same. When we say that someone is personally racist, it's the same as saying they're a bigot. This is the sort of person who hates anyone from a different racial group, or at least considers them inferior. When we talk about institutional racism, we're saying that there are laws, economic forces, social attitudes, etc. that keep non-white groups in America trapped in high-crime neighborhoods, failing schools, food deserts, and lives of hopelessness and poverty. Institutional racism is a lot harder to spot than personal racism and is a lot harder to deal with. You don't need to be a bigot to participate in institutional racism, you just have to perpetrate the attitudes things that keep people of a different race down.
That's where the confusion starts. A lot of the time, people say "that's racist" meaning "you're participating in institutional racism" but what others hear is "you're a bigot." If they don't hate people of other races they will naturally feel hurt (as Mr. Cohen did when people called his column racist.) If you're not a bigot, and someone calls a view of yours "racist" you're likely to respond that the person who said it is falsely accusing you.
I suspect that's what happened here. Harry Belafonte said that he saw a lot of (institutional) racism in the Tea Party. Richard Cohen countered that no, the Republicans aren't (personally) racists. I suspect this was an honest mistake on Mr. Cohen's part, though there are some political commentators (like Anne Coulter and Glen Beck) who seem to deliberately misinterpret any mention of racism.
In any case, the column is a good illustration that racism is alive and well in our country. If someone does gag at the thought of a multi-racial family, that's personal racism. If someone harbors no hatred for people of other races, but longs for the good old days when you didn't have mixed race families, or black presidents, etc. that's institutional racism. In both cases, there has to be change before we can be a just and compassionate society with true equality.