We're all sinners, the preacher tells us. We get what that means, don't we? Why then don't we understand the idea that we're all racists? Why does that bother people so? I've been listening to Critical Race Theory for the last 25 years, so saying that everyone is afflicted by racism seems more tedious and trite to me than truly offensive. Is it useful — is it helpful — to approach problems this way, that's what I would ask. But I've been living in a hothouse — among the lawprofs. Out there in the larger social and political world, people feel quite offended and genuinely threatened at the suggestion that their ideas and beliefs have any relationship to racism.
James Taranto got Salon's Joan Walsh to "regret" her application of the term "racist" to the Tea Party.
"Racist" is a personal insult, and it's almost as impossible to prove it as to disprove it. It's not a terribly illuminating term, either: If you call me a racist, you haven't really described anything I've done that's objectionable. You've just somehow designated me, and my so-far unchallenged arguments, outside the pale, so to speak.Taranto resorts to the dictionary — the Oxford English Dictionary (hello! we're Americans!) — to tell us what "racism" means. It's a restrictive definition that preserves the strong pejorative. This is like restricting "sin" to the truly terrible things that other people do, which allows you to maintain a pious sense that of course you are one of the good people. The sinners are those other people. It is possible to think of racism as a much more pervasive phenomenon that we should all contemplate in an honest and self-critical way.
But using the term to assault your political opponents is different. You're not being self-critical. You're still saying there's something terrible about those other people. There could be a serious and valuable inquiry into widespread and largely unconscious racism in American society, but the cheap use of the term "racist" for political gain pushes that inquiry out of reach. What is useful? What is helpful? Maybe it is to wield the restrictive OED definition and lambaste anybody who doesn't stick to it.