A neat fact about language is that the meaning of a word can evolve. My favorite example in this regard is the word “bad”. As every native speaker of English knows, there is the negative sense of the word “bad” and there is the complimentary sense of the word “bad”. If I say to my best friend “I love you, man. You are so bad,” there can be no doubt about it: I am complimenting my friend.
I have no idea how the word “bad” came to have a very positive sense. But there can be no doubt about the fact that it does.
Now, one day the term “racism” may be such that when one says something like “There is a surprising amount of racism taking place at so-and-so institution,” one has to ask for clarification. Is ethnic group Alpha being racist towards ethnic group Beta? Or, is that ethnic group Gamma is being racist towards ethnic group Beta? And so on. But at this point in the history of the United States, we do not need that sort of clarification when a person says that racism has occurred. Hopefully, we will get there. But we are not there yet. Racism is typically understood to be about whites towards blacks. Indeed, there are blacks who (wrongly) insist that blacks cannot be racist.
So when Barack Obama claimed that racism is still in our DNA, there is no reason whatsoever to suppose that he is simply making the general claim that there are human beings of every ethnicity who succumb to racist behavior. No, there is every reason to believe that what he meant is that racism is still a part of the very character of whites generally with respect to blacks. And Obama is way too smart to not have supposed that his words would be thus understood.
And it is precisely that understanding of Obama’s words that I found most despicable, especially in light of the extraordinary support that the whites of Charleston (South Carolina) gave to blacks after the killing by Dylan Roof of 9 black members of the AME Church. To make such a claim about whites in the face of such an extraordinary show of support by blacks by whites bespeaks a despicable degree of moral callousness on Obama’s part. 100 years ago, such support by whites in the face of the wrongful mistreatment of blacks would have been entirely unthinkable. Whatever else is true, there has been considerable moral progress. And not to acknowledge that progress reflects a horrendous degree of moral callousness on Obama’s part.
Even if—as someone claimed—Obama was talking about the capacity for racism on the party of all human beings, it is nonetheless the case that he should have acknowledged the considerable moral good that was being displayed by whites with regard to the killing of the 9 blacks of the AME Church that occurred. His failure to do so is absolutely inexcusable. If 10 very capable swimmers stand by and watched folks drown, but one person jumped into the water and, at great risk to herself or himself, saved the life of three people, surely the moral good that the one person did should be tremendously acknowledged whatever else folks goes on to say about those who stood by and watched folks drown.
To conclude, I am reminded of a marvelous remark that was made in the novel The Color Purple. It is said that a good listener listens not only to what a person says but also to what a person does not say. For instance, a very clear sign that a person is modest in terms of having considerable economic means is that the individual says virtually nothing about having the means to buy all sorts of expensive gadgets. Likewise, a scholar is modest when she or he says very little, if anything, about her considerable professional standing. For example, the late-John Rawls was a tremendously modest person. One could say next to him day after day after day and not hear him say a word about being the author of one of the most important books in contemporary moral and political philosophy ever to be written, namely A Theory of Justice.
And that is well worth acknowledging even if there is still progress to be made. Imagine that a foreign student wrote an absolutely brilliant essay on moral responsibility. However, there lots of grammatical errors in the paper. Of course, I should help the student to overcome her or his grammatical shortcomings with English. But clearly, my doing so should very much be in the shadow of my conveying to the student the tremendous excellence of the argument of her or his essay. This point holds mutatis mutandis with respect to Obama and the matter of racism, given the truly majestic response on the part of whites in Charleston (South Carolina) to the evil committed by Dylan Roof.
© 2015 Laurence Thomas