It is time to replace the word “racist” with its more accurate predecessor, “bigot.”
The word “bigot” derives from 16th century Europe’s clash of Gauls and Visigoths. “Racist” is a passive Latinism, which George Orwell in 1946 derided as “a kind of euphemism” in which “a mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow.”
Orwell said, “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.” A demagogue’s instinct demands frequently changing the subject. As he shifts targets from an entire race to nations large and small to a Hoosier judge to a worldwide religion, confusion reigns.
“Being a Mexican is indicative of one’s nationality, not his or her race,” Edward Veilleux of Maryland wrote in a June 13 letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal. He said of bigoted behavior that “characterizing it as racist is inaccurate and, no doubt, politically motivated.” The letter-writer is right. “Racism” was an anthropological phrase in “racialism” studies in 1930s Europe. The Kerner commission report revived it in 1968.
Appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson to the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, 11 members, chaired by Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner, examined the urban riots of the 1960s. The commission was bipartisan, as was its staff, mostly younger and more idealistic, reflecting 1960s attitudes. In that decade of unintended consequences, a frequent response to assassinations and turmoil included the penitent phrase, “We are all guilty.”
The report’s conclusion was bold and ambitious: “White racism is essentially responsible for the explosive mixture which has been accumulating in our cities since the end of World War II.”
“Racism” defined an inborn habit, not active hostility, a secular sort of Original Sin. The word was tepid, even feeble, but less judgmental. It spread guilt broadly. Amid arguments about desegregating schools or housing, opponents were seldom called “bigots.”
Fear of The Other has animated human history, certainly early America’s. Alexander Hamilton was an immigrant but his Federalist allies often shunned newcomers. In “Alexander Hamilton,” Ron Chernow cites Harrison Gray Otis, a Boston congressman. In 1798, Otis “set a strident tone when he declared that America should no longer ‘wish to invite hordes of wild Irishmen, nor the turbulent and disorderly parts of the world to come here with a view to disturb our tranquillity.’ ” The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, anti-German riots in 1917, the internment of thousands of Japanese Americans in 1942 — all received active support from Americans accurately called “bigots.” Slavery (a genuinely Original Sin) persisted after Lincoln in Jim Crow laws, relics of the Confederacy. William Faulkner addressed “Lost Cause” nostalgia in 1951: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
No one can change the past; no one can euphemize bigotry.
The present requires a vigilant regard for truth. Calling a multi-insult repeat offender a mere “racist” surrenders truth and logic to the rancid cliche, “politically correct.” A bigot is a bigot.
Martin F. Nolan, who covered nine presidential campaigns for the Boston Globe, wrote this essay for the San Francisco Chronicle.