Funny thing, racism. Many believe it is widespread within society, but it is almost impossible to find anybody who openly or even consciously subscribes to it. ‘Racist’ ranks alongside ‘paedophile’ and ‘murderer’ amongst the worst things somebody can be called, but people often have great difficultly explaining exactly what ‘racism’ is.

You can see this confusion reflected in the controversy currently surrounding UKIP. On the one hand there are those who argue thatwe should now regard UKIP as a racist party, pointing to their posters, slogans and more outlandish candidates as evidence.

On the other hand there are those who are more reticent about describing UKIP as racist. These people recognise how damaging it is to dismiss all concerns about immigration with this highly charged and controversial term, and understand that calling UKIP racist is not likely to persuade fewer people to vote for them. Indeed, it exhibits exactly the kind of modern, metropolitan sentiment that so many UKIP supporters resent being foisted upon them.

You’d think we’d have a straightforward answer: either UKIP is racist or it is not. But the reason we don’t is because we are deeply confused about racism. This confusion has at least two dimensions: intentions and institutions.

Take racist intentions. Assessing whether something is racist often requires us to seek to look inside someone’s mind and evaluate what motivated this or that instance of behaviour. Sometimes this is easy, but with racism it often isn’t. This is a triumph in a sense; it is because racism is now so socially unacceptable that almost everyone has purged themselves of any outward suggestion of racial prejudice.

But we still seek to judge people’s behaviour, even when there is little hope of concrete evidence of intention. And this sometimes leads to perverse situations. For example, in 2012 the FA concludedthat John Terry had called Anton Ferdinand a ‘fucking black c**t’, but mysteriously maintained that Terry ‘is not a racist’. Which raises the question: if that ain’t racism, what the hell is?

Regarding the institutions dimension, I imagine that most people regard racism as any prejudice or discrimination on the basis of race. This seems to make sense, but it doesn’t help to explain why there is a Black History Month and BBC Asian Network when white equivalents of these practices would be damned as racist immediately.

This gives the impression that racism only applies when it is perpetrated by white people against black or brown people. I guess this apparently white-directed discrimination further contributes to the sense of cultural siege many Ukippers feel they are under.

The answer is obviously that racism can never truly be assessed in isolation but requires one to look to history, context, and, crucially, institutions. Ask: Who are these people? What identities and experiences do they bring to their interactions with others? And how well are they served by the institutions of their society? All of these questions are relevant when it comes to making sense of any social interaction, but they can be elided by a crude understanding of racism as ‘any prejudice or discrimination of the basis of race’.

The use of the term ‘institutionally racist’ to describe the Metropolitan Police is instructive in this regard. It was intended to suggest that this particular charge of racism didn’t adhere to individual Met officers but to the structures and practices of the organisation in general. The idea is that the Met is set up in a way that (for the most part unintentionally) disadvantages non-whites. This disadvantaging is corporate, not individual, in nature.

Personally, I tend to not use the word ‘racist’. I find it rarely illuminates discussions and fear of it has meant that some things don’t get discussed in a free, frank and fair way at all.

However, if I was ever to use the term racist, I would save it for descriptions of social institutions and states of affairs, such as the fact that that half of the young male population of one race is unemployed or that the members of one race are grotesquely overrepresented in the prison population.

We have many perfectly appropriate words to describe some of UKIP’s crackpot candidates. Many of these words are of the four-letter variety. But a deeper question is how do you refer to someone who has done or said something you deem to be socially unacceptable, but who denies that they have the motivation associated with that social taboo, without wheeling out the often unhelpful term racist? Maybe we need a new word?


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