Rebranding Racism: How the American Left can combat racism more effectively

By Madeline Wyatt.

From the War on Drugs to the War on Terror, the American Left has an impressive record of losing political semiotics to conservatives. In keeping with this tradition, the Left has yet again failed to effectively market efforts to eradicate racism in such a way that is coherent and cogent to a divided American constituency that is suffering from endemic ‘White guilt’ and ‘White fear.’ The former is anxious by the inadequate action of the Left to address racial inequality while the latter is anxious about the extreme action of the Left to create racial equality. In spite of the perceived dichotomy, the two poles are nonetheless united as one: they are distinctly distressed by the power of their race. While the apologists are disturbed by the importance of their skin color out of guilt from the sins of their ancestors, the white supremacists feel threatened by the perceived decrease in power of their whiteness —most ironic, however, is that both are engaging in yet another form of reductive imperialism wherein their emotions are posited at the core of racism as opposed to the struggles of those whom racism truly impacts. 

While the United States is an admittedly difficult country to appeal to, the Left has done itself no justice in its efforts to repair the racial divide. Perhaps most pertinent to the racial division is the very definition upon which it is founded: racism. By and large, the issue with racism in America isn’t so much that we don’t agree that it exists at all, so much as it is that we fail to agree on a singular definition of the term. The Left has been attempting to argue the existence of racism using a definition that conservatives didn’t even know existed. To the Left, racism (alongside all the other phobic ‘-isms’) is what sociologist Margaret Andersen would describe as a “matrix of domination,” where racism is a system of power that will determine one’s agency in society. In contrast, the conservative conception of racism is primarily centred on a sense of racial superiority. Here, the individual is racist, not the system. 

Because the intent of this article is dealing with terminology, it is first necessary to define what power is. It is simply not enough to maintain an abstract definition. Power must not be confused with agency. Agency is simply the capacity to act independently in a system. Power, however, if we are to follow preeminent German sociologist Max Weber’s definition, is the ability to exert one’s will over others’s actions. While there are numerous modes to influence the actions of others, in the late-stage capitalism of the U.S., the most determinant method of influence is arguably economic: wealth begets wealth, and without wealth there is nothing to beget. Weber argued that in addition to Marx’s notion of economic power, political power is inherently economic as evidenced by the military industrial complex. Arguably, in the U.S. specifically, economic power can be generalized to be political when taken with American campaign finance laws, super-PACs, and lobbying. 

As Black Americans have been historically oppressed because of slavery and segragation, they themselves rarely—if ever—had an opportunity to accumulate wealth in the way that their white counterparts could. Black Americans largely lack power (economic and political) because there is no will without wealth to exert it. For the first time in statistical American history, the White percent increase in poverty is greater than any other racial group. American capitalism is driving millions into the lowest echelons of society—regardless of race. As the weight of economic oppression begins to weigh on all races, the Left must capitalize on the disaffection of the poor and route it as an instrument for change. Simply promoting economic equality for Black people as an antidote to White guilt does not fundamentally change the system of oppression itself, the foundation of which is built on privileging wealth. It is therefore that the Left must center their rebranding of racism on an oppressive classist economic foundation instead of white guilt and historical injustice. 

More hazardous to efforts to combat racism is that the Left’s preferred terms for racism is either ‘institutional racism’ or ‘systematic racism,’  which, while often used interchangeably, do in fact have nuanced definitional distinctions. According to the Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre, institutional racism is better understood as a subcategory of systematic racism, in that systematic racism requires no racist individual intent while institutional racism refers more to the discriminatory actions of individuals operating under  the direction of a prejudiced society or individual. In keeping with the American conservative’s accusation that liberals are out-of-touch coastal elite yuppies, branding racism as institutional or systematic remains largely abstract for swathes of America: it is an incredibly academic term, and conservatives in more recent decades have shown a persistent aversion to academia. 

From a specific linguistic perspective, and on an abstract level, using the term ‘institutional’ carries unintended connotations. While ‘institution’ is generally defined as the social organizations ordering society, a more appropriate definition arises from Samuel P. Huntington, where he defines institutions as “stable, valued, recurring patterns of behavior.” By this definition, institutional racism is not a latent power structure, rather, it is an effectual system methodically targeting non-Whites. But that isn’t quite right. If we are to use the definition of the Alberta Civil Liberties Research centre of institutional racism, institutional racism cannot be classified as ‘stable’ when it is dependent on the whims of others. In the case of America, governing institutions are in a near constant state of change due to congressional term lengths and executive bodies changing personnel depending on the president. In fact, President Joe Biden is set to assemble the most diverse executive cabinet in American history. But institutional racism is dependent upon an individual’s actions, so does this mean that institutional racism has been solved in society? The obvious response is a resounding no, and it is because of the persistence of socioeconomic inequality borne of slavery and Jim Crow laws. The term institutional racism is at best an erroneous presentation of racism in America as it is too abstract, and even in abstraction, it still fails to properly encapsulate and address American racism.

The other preferred term—systematic racism—fails for similar reasons as institutional racism. Systematic racism does not require individual intent or action: it exists in and of itself. Systematic racism as a term is problematic in that it implies that any attempt other than complete destruction of the system and society at large is futile in combating racism. If the default reaction to progress in America is clinging to the status quo, the Left lacks an appropriate branding of racism.   

It should be noted that in this article I almost exclusively use a Black/White racial dichotomy of power, and while there are many other marginalized racial groups in America, the “Social Justice Warriors” preaching anti-racism have by and large ignored them. People prefer to help those who are visibly struggling, if only to ease their pity and discomfort and veil the misery of those visible to them—but most tragically, this tendency most harshly impacts the original victim of America: Native Americans. Out of sight out of mind. Because we cannot see them, we do not feel their pain. This is conceivably symptomatic of a larger issue in America, where privileged Americans prefer to remain ignorant until the problem is in the streets forcing them to look at it in horror. 

Perhaps, more horrifying is when we realize that the abstraction of the Left’s institutional and systematic racism instead helps obfuscate the day-to-day realities people face as consequences of racism. It is yet another instrument through which politicians can resist taking direct action on racism: because the system is inherently racist, they argue that they cannot resolve it barring total destruction of the system—and the overwhelming majority of Americans have no interest in starting society afresh. It very simply is yet another example of propagating the status quo. These brandings of racism packaged it cleanly and placed on a shelf for safe keeping, people knowing it exists but no longer caring because they did their obligatory performative protesting. It has become like climate change: we know it is happening in real time, but because we are not exposed to the realities first-hand, we brush off our complicity in the problem. 

If the Left is sincere in its desire to combat racism, it must explore alternative methods outside of their preferred “systematic” and “institutional” racism. This is not to say that the Left’s arguments regarding the existence of these things is false—quite the opposite, in fact—but American politics has always been a game of semiotics, and the Left needs to rebrand in order to better fight racism. Americans have always responded best when an issue is driven with an economic framework in mind. And while institutional racism rightfully includes economic inequality, the Left needs to focus on the economic aspect of it and needs to rebrand accordingly. The Left finally has an opportunity to make meaningful progress on racism borne of historical policies and actions, and they must market their fight carefully in order to effectively create change.

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