Who's a Racist?

08/08/2013 11:32 am ET | Updated Oct 08, 2013

After the Trayvon Martin killing, there have been numerous discussions of race. But now we have to move on, to discuss and redefine a far more potent term: "racist."

People concerned with racial issues must get the public to adopt a new definition of racism. If we're going to see progress, we have to get Americans to buy into a revised and different understanding of that term, and hence what is acceptable in American society.

This is vitally important, and changes like this have occurred, and been milestones. I remember back in the sixties when good Northern people, folks who roundly and sincerely denounced Jim Crow laws and those who enforced them, still used the "n" word. Not often, but the taxonomy ran like this: most of the colored race are "negroes", good hard-working people. The small, rough element were referred to with that other word. This wasn't bigotry, they would have cried in shock, just language describing the complexity of a rich community. Yet, in time, this ugly usage would be recognized for the bigotry it truly represented, and no longer used.

That is what we have to do again. We badly need a new, commonly accepted definition of what it means to be a racist. Right now the term is used widely, but without a common meaning, becomes a term of dispute that divides us, rather than a universal term of derision and a moral judgment.

Look at how this term has evolved and then become static. Technically a "racist" is someone who believes that people of different races have different genetic qualities and that these races are ordered in terms of qualities and desirability. This is universally true for members of any group, high or low in the pecking setup.

As a social science definition that works well describing the imperialists at the turn of the century, but has far less relevance today. Though they are still around, people who hold this outlook are few in number, and relegated to the extreme margin of society. This is not how most Americans define a racist.

Instead, the most common image of what a racist looks like is clear. He is a Southerner, probably in law enforcement, with a fat gut and mirrored sunglasses, who is committed to white superiority and black inferiority. Think Sherriff Bull Connor, or even better, Rod Steiger in In the Heat of the Night.

There are tremendous problems with this stereotype. For one, it comes from the sixties and seventies, is static, and does not take account changes in American society and culture since then.

But it is also very, very dangerous. If that is the definition of a racist, its dated, narrow image lets off the hook many people with unAmerican, yet far less virulent beliefs and actions.

Some examples: Calvin Coolidge was the epitome of the New Englander. A Vermont native, he was sparse with his pennies, his words, and his administration of the federal government. He was the antithesis of a Southern blowhard.

Yet, in his 1923 State of the Union address, he declared, "America must be kept American. For this purpose, it is necessary to continue a policy of restricted immigration." Immigrants, in other words, are unAmerican. This sounds quite bigoted to me, but cannot be labeled as such under the standard conceptions listed above.

Representative Steve King of Iowa has also gotten in trouble lately for his comments on immigrants. But he would dismiss charges that he's a racist, claiming that the evidence supports him. And so does the present definition of the term. King is from Iowa, not Alabama, doesn't use the n-word, doesn't fit the stereotype at all.

Look at the most controversial example of them all. Is George Zimmerman a racist? It is doubtful if he has ever thought about a formal racial hierarchy, or doesn't belong to any white supremacist organization. So when progressives label him in this fashion, for many Americans the term does not fit, and they condemn the left for using inaccurate, hysterical language.

Thus, one of the most important things we can do to improve race relations in this country is to not just hold town hall meetings on CNN, but to advocate for new definitions of terms, get these widely accepted, and on that basis revise moral guidelines on which to judge conduct.

So for starters, here's my shot. First, drop "racist" and "racism" for "bigot" and "bigotry." The former terms are quite specific and can be faulted for inaccuracy. The later encompass a much wider range of behavior.

Next, a bigot is someone who holds negative stereotypes of all members of a group, regardless either of evidence or of individual conduct. Just lumping all members together under a few nasty, false descriptors. Any group, any race, any gender or religion.

Thus, it is critical to get something widely accepted in the popular culture, get people to adopt this as the national standard, then label behavior for what it is.

Put it this way: if this definition was in widespread use, there would be no debate as to whether King or Zimmerman was a bigot. And wouldn't we be better off for that?