The word "racist" is necessary but devalued. We need more rigour and realism in applying itby David Goodhart / May 21, 2005 / Leave a comment
Elections are a time for the use and abuse of political language. As immigration is a bigger issue in the 2005 election than in any for a generation, one word that is, predictably, flying about is racism.
The r-word has, of course, become devalued through overuse and inaccurate use, a portmanteau term of abuse. But it remains a necessary word, one we cannot do without. This is a brief plea both for a more rigorous use of the word and for a broader vocabulary to capture the spectrum of feelings and opinions that are often indiscriminately and damagingly bracketed as racist.
So what should racism refer to? There are two “strong” forms of racism. One, following the dictionary definition, is based on the belief in the inherent superiority of one race over another—Jews over Arabs or vice versa, for example. A second, sometimes related, racism is based on antipathy to a particular race. A person need not hold that other races are inferior but may simply prefer his or her own race and dislike either all other races or some particular race. It is possible to be a sinophobe but a philosemite, for example, or to dislike Indians but to like black Africans.
With both of these racisms there is usually, but not always, a very high awareness of race, racial purity and the racialisation of difference—sometimes even a belief that, as Disraeli famously wrote, “race is all.” In developed liberal democracies based on an idea of equal citizenship, these strong racist views are anathema in mainstream politics. The British National party more or less openly takes the second position—a white separatist position—wanting a white Britain without racial mixing, but its rhetoric also slips over into white supremacism and thus the first form of strong racism. Much of the worst street racism in Britain—the name-calling and attacks—is led by strong racists with some variation of the two beliefs above.
There is also a third form of racism which is much weaker but also more pervasive than the first two, and which is more accurately called racial prejudice—that is the tendency to make an automatic connection between race and certain moral or behavioural traits. Until quite recently, and certainly throughout the time of the British empire, such connections were considered part of common sense. Since the mid-point of the 20th century—roughly since the Holocaust, the end of colonialism, the civil…