Where Did We Get the Idea That Only White People Can Be Racist?

May 15, 2015 |  Ashley Thorne, Peter Wood

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Where Did We Get the Idea That Only White People Can Be Racist?

May 15, 2015 | 

Ashley Thorne, Peter Wood

The recent rush to defend a black professor’s racist tweets is evidence of powerful self-deception about race.

An incoming professor of sociology and African-American studies at Boston University, Saida Grundy, tweeted, “Why is white america [sic] so reluctant to identify white college males as a problem population?” In his letter responding to controversy over these and other comments, BU president Robert Brown acknowledged that “Many have expressed the view that some of Dr. Grundy’s comments are offensive and/or racist.” Students then rushed to Dr. Grundy’s defense, using the hashtag #isupportsaida, saying that the professor’s words were not racist, just uncomfortable. A Howard University Ph.D. candidate, Lauren Chanel Allen, wrote in Quartz:

A few white students are upset that their bubbles were burst, and for five seconds they were forced to think about their race and privilege—and Boston University instantly condemns a Black woman for provoking this discomfort. For making them think critically.

Those defending Dr. Grundy have a double standard when it comes to racism. That double standard has been around for a while. It seems to have originated with the Black Panthers, who fought racism with more racism, which they felt was justified anger, not racism.

The twin themes “only whites can be racist” and “all whites are racist” appeared at the University of Delaware in 2007. The “sustainability” dorm-based indoctrination program at UD offered this aperҫu:

A RACIST: A racist is one who is both privileged and socialized on the basis of race by a white supremacist (racist) system. ‘The term applies to all white people (i.e., people of European descent) living in the United States, regardless of class, gender, religion, culture or sexuality. By this definition, people of color cannot be racists, because as peoples within the U.S. system, they do not have the power to back up their prejudices, hostilities, or acts of discrimination….’

This formulation was adopted by UD after consultation with Dr. Shakti Butler, a consultant who goes around advising colleges and universities to this effect. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), whose spotlight on UD led to the end of the residence program, archived a database of materials from it, including Dr. Butler’s “Diversity Facilitation Training.” Dr. Butler, incidentally, lists Boston University as one of her clients.

She is a popularizer, not the originator of these conceits. But the thing to note is that there is a whole sub-industry within the diversity industry that is devoted to advancing the idea that only whites can be racist. Dr. Grundy is just repeating a widespread meme that circulates among the radicals of the diversity movement. 

In January 1987, Socialist Worker published the article “The Fallacy of Reverse Racism,” in which the author wrote, “Blacks cannot be ‘racists.’ They are not in a position to oppress anyone—certainly not the majority white population of the U.S.” In 1991, Spike Lee said in a Playboy interview, “Black people can't be racist.” In 2013, Georgetown professor Michael Eric Dyson, who had previously said black people do not have the capacity for racism, said white people needed to die in numbers equal to black people in order for racism to end.

The idea that “black people can't be racist” is just a meme, not a coherent argument. It is easy to see why it appeals. The programs these folks want to defend and, if possible, advance, are inherently racist. That is, they divide people into primary groups by race; treat race as “essential”; and distribute public goods according to racial group identification and affiliation. This is purely and simply racism. Because it is so patent, its supporters must reach for excuses and work-arounds. The mainstream justification is like Justice O’Connor’s: yes, racial preferences are bad, and it would be great if we could get along without them, but we will have to make use of them for a while until we have reached an equitable society. Shakti Butler, Saida Grundy, and the other radicals reject this in favor of redefining racism in a manner that excludes the possibility of black racism. The usual step is to assert that racism must involve a structural privilege that an oppressed group can never have.

In a scene in the 2014 film Dear White People, one black character says to another, “Black people can’t be racist. Prejudiced, yes, but not racist. Racism describes a system of advantage based on race. Black people can’t be racist since we don’t stand to benefit from such a system.”

The psychological appeal of this idea is immediately apparent.  It invites racial minorities to valorize their own racism.  But it is an idea that withers if you look more closely. 

To call racism “a system of advantage based on race,” truncates the concept.  To break it down, racism is first of all a belief that “racial” classification is valid:  that classifying people by race captures some of the most important differences among people.  To this, racism adds the idea of ranking: some of those differences aggregately make the members of group X better than group Y.  Only then do we get to the possibility of “a system of advantage based on race.” 

Such social systems exist and are actually pretty common, but of course not all “systems of advantage” are based on race.  They may be based on lots of things—family wealth, birth order, or social networks, for example—that may overlap with racial categorizations but which are not racial per se.  This isn’t a minor distinction.  It is central to the question of how equitable our society really is.  Those who reduce everything to race or who make a practice of discovering racism hidden behind every disparity are engaged in what has become the most common contemporary form of racism in America. 

Define “racism” as group hierarchy in which only the “privileged” dominant group can be racist, and instantly this common form of racism is defined out of existence.

The portrait of American society as essentially a hierarchy of privilege based on race is false.   But that idea is the beating heart of the post-Ferguson protests. It was true at one time, but the American racial hierarchy has been dismantled legally, politically, morally, and socially. And to a fair degree economically. It has left, to be sure, remnants.  And of course it remains in memory as a cultural artifact, and for some a central and powerful one. 

Image: "Negro drinking at "Colored" water cooler in streetcar terminal, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma"


| May 16, 2015 - 2:31 AM

Most racists are black, such as Obama and his mentor Jeremiah Wright.


| May 16, 2015 - 9:30 AM

Count the minutes, sorry seconds, before personal attacks are levied against Ashley Thorne and Peter Wood. Guaranteed folks, get your money down now.

The legacy of this “meme” (which is being quite gentle to an academy that has already propagated it as fact) is that the “scholars” and receivers of such “knowledge” are too dumb - flat out stupid - to cope with the world in absence of this fraud. Try speaking to them. Contradiction is apparent, just not welcome.



Walter Stepp

| May 17, 2015 - 5:48 PM

Even if we allow that definition of racism to stand, it falls apart once we realize that there is no single system of power. Every society contains multiple systems and subsystems of power. A single university setting is one such subsystem. In that setting a Black professor certainly has more power than a white student. Therefore the statment made by the professor would be oppressive within that system of power, making it racist.

Robert W Tucker

| June 24, 2015 - 1:40 PM

“Where Did We Get the Idea That Only White People Can Be Racist?”

I do not know a single person who has this “idea.” The scientific roots of racism lie in the biogenetic survival value accorded by suspecting those who do not belong to our group or who look “different.” It is the duty of the rational mind to separate these pre-logical dispositions from our beliefs and actions. Few of us do it perfectly and the issue and its challenges affect all members of the human race.

If you examine the article’s title, you will see bits of straw scree lying at the foundation of the premise. In my opinion, it is small-minded and petty articles like this that detract from the important work done by the NAS.

lizzy wright

| July 26, 2015 - 1:03 PM

the idea that black america can’t be racist is indeed a fallacy. try to challenge that and you will be scorned. black america plays both the victim and the victor depending on which way the wind blows. accepting the labels while denying the whole of history has allowed them to play both sides. yes, what has been done to their race was tragic. yes, there still exists racism towards black american today. however, this does not mean that no one else in the whole history of the world has never been slaves nor suffered a caste system.
slaves still exist today. millions and millions of them. caste systems still exist today in many nations. people of all colors have been enslaved and placed in restrictive categories.

i am glad black america remembers their history, however, they are not special and not exempt from being racist. to not acknowledge their privilege while blaming white america for not acknowledging theirs’ is like a catch 22.

lizzy wright

| July 26, 2015 - 1:11 PM

if you don’t believe that a lot of black america can’t be racist, check out a site known as lipstick alley, a primarily african american message board, where they go out of their way to make it so. they do not want white people on that forum. look for threads dealing with white people and about race. you will see the racism towards white people, the message board will be lit with racist posts while proclaiming they can’t be racist because they don’t have power.

the curious thing is a lot of them will worship this or that celebrity. the forum boggles the mind but i believe it’s good that people know that being a racist is not about the color of your skin, it’s about your mind.

Robert W Tucker

| July 26, 2015 - 2:15 PM


You say, “. . .if you don’t believe that a lot of black america can’t be racist . . .”

Again, what is your evidence that knowledge of the obvious fact of racism among blacks is more or less widely disseminated that knowledge of racism among whites? To the very last person, black people with whom I have discussed this topic speak of the problems associated to racism among blacks.

I don’t know that anyone has attempted to create a statistical profile as to which racial/ethnic group leads in the proportion of its population that exhibits racial tendencies, nor would such an analysis (which, for reasons going to research design, could only be methodologically flawed), be fruitful in any broad sense. My suspicion, however, would be that neither of the two “groups” we are discussing leads in its population’s exhibition of racism.

Again, setting problematic operational definitions aside, what is NAS’s point in calling attention to this very obvious fact?

Reginald Mobley

| January 11, 2017 - 11:24 AM

I agree , people of any ethnic group can,and are in some cases racists. This is a a state of mind, based upon some truths, some personal events in the lives of some people,some taught hatred behaviors! Just down right ignorance


| August 12, 2017 - 9:51 PM

Black people cannot be racist in America, because we do not control the nine areas of people activity—Economics, Education, Entertainment, Law, Labor, Politics, Religion, Media, and War.

The aforementioned areas are media through which WHITE PEOPLE practice White supremacy (a.k.a. racism).

Yes, ALL white people are racist either through action or inaction.

Robert W Tucker

| August 13, 2017 - 12:20 PM

Proving me wrong on this inauspicious day, Jim informs us that all white people are racist by way of either action or inaction.

Apparently, the Jims of the world find it easy to dismiss decades of work carried out by tens of thousands of white elected officials, policy experts, lawyers, civil rights volunteers, and voters. In doing so, Jim provides cover for the “but blacks are racist too” entertainments of people like Thorne and Wood.

The roots of racism are biogenic and may have conferred survival value to our distant ancestors. The formalization and perpetuation of racism in a society informed by science is on our shoulders. There is no excuse for it.

Yes, blacks can be racist, as can Japanese, Jews, and Eskimos. In America, however, the patterns of racism are as clear as they are well established. Any scholar can learn from the empirical sciences that the dominant strand of racism in the US is advanced by an again growing segment of the white population against blacks and others. This dominant racist pattern, no small amount of it being perpetuated by white supremacists, is not trivial; it is quantitatively overwhelming.

In response, scholars like Thorne and Wood could choose to direct their influence where the moral wrongdoing is unarguably the greatest; or, they could choose to take potshots at one of the many one-off instances of racism demonstrated by a racial class that has and continues to be oppressed in this land since 1619. Thorne and Wood have chosen to focus their moral indignation on a one-off issue.

Jim is clearly not correct in his views but Thorne and Wood might consider taking a higher road in determining their views. This is what scholars do.


| August 13, 2017 - 8:02 PM

We have different definitions of racism; hence, we have nothing to discuss.