DO I THINK RACISM STARTED IN 1966?
A correction on my Atlantic piece, since many think I don't know about slavery while others are just fetishizing the dictionary.
I made a mistake.
I wrote this in the Atlantic:
“Racism began as a reference to personal prejudice, but in the 1960s was extended via metaphor to society.”
Many have taken me as meaning that the concept of societal, as opposed to personal, racism started in the 1960s. They have taken me as saying that because it’s what I wrote.
I wrote sloppily. What I meant by “in the 1960s was extended” is that it was then that this meaning of racism became common coin.
Make no mistake that I mean that I made a mistake. I wrote “was extended,” which implied that the change in meaning happened then.
What I meant, though – though I did not express it properly – was that this “extension” was a matter of what became common coin, emerging from previous usage of racism in the “societal” definition.
So – I did not mean that no one had ever referred to “societal racism” before 1966. I meant that this conception of racism was not what anyone would have assumed you would know until 1966.
And I stand by that, despite that I did not express myself clearly enough in how I put it in the Atlantic.
The same goes for equity and social justice, as I treated them in the Atlantic piece. The issue is not whether we can see equity contrasted with equality in the past in some highbrow treatments, but whether more than a few intellectuals had reason to attend to the difference until roughly last summer.
Or, the issue is not whether certain people have examined what “social justice” as opposed to “justice” means among themselves unknown to the rest of us. The issue is that the utterance of the term “social justice” right now has a different meaning and resonance than it did as recently as last spring.
The formal intellectual history of the term “social justice” has not a thing to do with that resonant sociohistorical reality. If you can’t feel the difference between what “social justice” signifies today and what the same term signified in, say, 2015, then you, and not me, are missing something.
I reiterate that my wording in the Atlantic piece was unideal. But I also specify, in the wake of that, that I was referring not to when the terms societal racism, equity and social justice were first used by whoever did so in whichever obscure corners, but when those terms took it on the road and became part of how most of us talk about the relevant issues. My interest is when these terms became common coin as opposed to intellectual jargon.
Upon this, we need some analogies.
Television became central to the American experience around 1950, but had been exhibited at the World’s Fair in 1939. Yet few would have a problem with me dating the reign of TV in the American Zeitgeist to around 1950.
If one wrote that the electric guitar took over American pop music in the 1950s, few would consider this statement to be in error because the instrument was invented in 1932.
Color films became common in America in the late 1930s, but the first color film was in 1902. The first McDonalds was in 1940 – despite that McDonalds wasn’t standard American experience until a good 25 years later. The first Toyota sold in the United States was in – wait for it – 1957, rather than, say, 1972. Most of us first learned of sexual harrassment as a concept in the early 1990s, but the term was first used in print in 1972.
So. I made a mistake in how I phrased matters about societal racism. But usages of societal racism (or even something close) or of equity and social justice before 2010 do not quash my point that the way we feel those terms now is distressingly multifarious.
Rather, I assumed that all understand that there is a difference between when something emerges – i.e. wet, from the pupa, known to few – and when it is, as linguists put it, actualized. As in, when it becomes what we often call today “a thing.”
You can find emergence easily. But actualization is, frankly, more interesting and also just more important.
Living room full of Civil Rights activists, mid-twentieth century. Let’s join one, Twilight Zone style, in 1958, and try to engage someone about “societal racism.” Maybe one person back in a corner, of a Marxist bent, would know that term and harmonize with you, elated that you knew the term at all.
Then, fast forward to that same living room – possibly the very same one – in 1968. You wouldn’t need to “try to” engage someone about societal racism – they’d “engage” you at length.
This is what I meant. I did not express it effectively, and hope this post clarifies matters. Our usages of these words as concepts intended right now for general society are massively vague and grievously challenging.
In sum, the issue is not just when someone used a term in a certain way, but when it jumped the rails into common coin. I must say that those who smoke out usages of the terms I mentioned before the 1960s do not qualify for me as takedowns. They matter not. I refer to terms as used in REAL LIFE. To be a junior social historian, you must attend to what ordinary people actually felt — not what is on the pages of formal books and statements by hypereducated persons.