Racism, Hot and Cold

It’s hard for conservatives to talk about race. Maybe we could make it easier.

Liberal/conservative conversations about race often go like this one that happened on MSNBC at the end of March.

There is an incident (in this case Sean Spicer scolding a black female reporter, April Ryan) that shows lack of respect for a person of color. The liberal (in this case, Jason Johnson) places it in a larger context, a pattern of disrespect, and calls it out as racism. The conservative (Matt Schlapp) takes offense at the accusation and a shouting match ensues, ending any real exchange of ideas.

To an extent, I think this is a calculated tactic on the part of conservative pundits (or, at least, somebody calculated it at one point and others have imitated): There can be no discussion of patterns of disrespect based on race or gender. Any attempt to start such a discussion has to be shouted down.

Accordingly, any individual incident has to be presented as a unique occurrence and explained by the details of that particular situation. (Schlapp explains that Spicer “got feisty” with Ryan because he was under pressure to get through a lot of news that day.) Attempts to put a racial context around the incident have to be shut down. [1]

But whatever Schlapp or other talking heads might have in mind, it’s worthwhile to consider why their conservative viewers approve of this tactic and never see it for what it is: In conservative circles racism has a very specific meaning that usually doesn’t apply to the situation at hand. To conservatives, racism means conscious hatred, an intention to harm or humiliate a person purely because of his or her race. It isn’t that racism doesn’t exist, but it applies only to the KKK or the Nazis.

To Schlapp, then, it is absurd and outrageous to imagine that Sean Spicer is at his podium thinking “I’m tired of black reporters getting uppity with me, so I’m going to slap this one down.” That’s what Schlapp means when he says, “You don’t know what’s in Sean’s heart.”

But of course, Johnson had never claimed to know what was in Spicer’s heart, or to see conscious hatred there. He was pointing to a pattern of behavior both for Spicer and throughout the Trump administration, in which non-whites are shown less respect. There might be all kinds of reasons for such a pattern.

For example, what if Spicer simply sees blacks (or women) differently than he sees whites (or men)? [2] What if it’s his mental habit to interpret black actions more negatively, and to feel that harsher responses are appropriate? In that case, he might have been entirely unaware that he was treating April Ryan differently than a white White House correspondent like Peter Alexander or Jeff Zeleny, because even if Alexander or Zeleny had done the same thing, it would have looked different to him.

To the conservative mind, though, that’s not racism. If there is no conscious hatred involved, then it’s totally unfair to suggest comparisons to the KKK, as they feel racism does.

“So fine, then,” a liberal might say, “give me the word that applies to this situation and we’ll use it.”

But then you hit the root problem: There is no conservative term for the habitual and perhaps unconscious tendency to see people of another race differently, judge them more negatively, and react to them more harshly. In the absence of such a term, there is no way to point out the phenomenon and discuss it. You can’t ask about the elephant in the room, because elephant refers only to mastodons, who died out ages ago. There is no word for the big, gray animal swinging his trunk around, so any attempt to discuss him inevitably veers off in some other direction.

A conservative might respond that I’m describing an esoteric phenomenon of so little consequence that it doesn’t really need a name or a discussion. But that is completely unconvincing after eight years of the Obama administration, during which conservative media outlets repeatedly raised their audience’s outrage when Obama did things white presidents had been doing without incident for decades. I don’t claim to know what was in the hearts of the people who felt that outrage — I doubt that most of them were consciously aware they were applying different standards to Obama — but the pattern of observable behavior was clear and obvious. [3]

Likewise, this is the whole issue behind Black Lives Matter. It isn’t that people become cops because they like to kill blacks. (I mean, some small number probably do, but I doubt it’s typical, and I believe the system tries to weed those guys out.) But white guys can safely carry semi-automatic rifles through Target, while a black guy in Walmart gets gunned down for picking up a toy. Cops just see young black men differently, judge their actions more negatively, and respond more harshly. We can’t have a rational discussion of that issue because conservatives refuse to call it racism, but don’t offer any alternative term for it.

We could give them one.

I know this isn’t a new idea. In liberal circles, there is already a distinction between conscious and unconscious bigotry. We often talk about implicit bias, and there is even a test you can take for it on the internet. But every term I’ve heard smacks of some liberal bastion like psychology or academia. None of them would sound right rolling out of a conservative mouth. A conservative talking about implicit bias would impress his fellow conservatives about as much as a macho man talking to his locker-room buddies about relationships and commitment.

If we want a real discussion to start, what we need isn’t technical jargon appropriate for an academic journal, but some ten-cent words already in everyday use, taking advantage of some metaphor that ordinary people might come up with if they happened across the phenomenon on their own, without ever attending a course in racial studies.

Here’s a common metaphor that might work: Emotions have temperature. Hate and anger are hot. If you feel a vague aversion towards someone, you are cool to them, and if the aversion got stronger you might want to freeze them out.

If we apply that metaphor to racism, then the kind conservatives already acknowledge, the conscious hatred that Emmett Till‘s killers must have felt, is hot racism. When Richard Spencer calls for “ethnic cleansing” to turn American into a “white ethnostate”, that’s also hot racism.

Cold racism, on the other hand, doesn’t actively wish harm on people of color, but simply fails to factor in their interests or to weigh them as heavily as the interests of whites. Those who watched Eric Garner die saying “I can’t breathe” and felt motivated to make excuses for the police choking him — most of them probably weren’t feeling hatred or anger towards Garner, they were just failing to feel compassion for a fellow human being. The problem wasn’t their heat it was their coldness. [4]

The kind of racism that whites can live with and not notice — the kind that simply sees blacks differently and then acts in a way that feels appropriate to that harsher perception, without any awareness of personal animus — could be described as room-temperature racism. The room-temperature racist feels like he is the one acting normally, and doesn’t understand why others are getting upset with him.

That, I believe, describes Sean Spicer. An avowed white nationalist like Richard Spencer knows that race is an issue for him. But Spicer just believes he’s responding appropriately to what he sees. The details of the Holocaust (to bring up another recent example) just don’t stick in his head. Why, he probably wonders, are Jews so bent out of shape about that?

If liberals started consistently applying a temperature gauge to racism, I think most moderates would understand the metaphor without much explanation, and conservatives might eventually get it in spite of themselves. Some talking heads — the ones who are consciously looking to disrupt discussions of race — might keep reacting with outrage to any mention of racism, regardless of temperature. But part of their audience might realize that finding room-temperature racism in the patterns of Spicer’s responses isn’t the same as fitting him for a white hood. They might eventually recognize that there is a consistent phenomenon in the incidents that carry that label.

Elephants, they might come to understand, are not mastodons. Occasionally there is one in the room. Maybe there should be a conversation about it.

[1] Conservatives, in their usual pot-and-kettle way, claim that it is liberals who shut down discussions by bringing up racism. But this is true only if you begin with the premise that racism can never be discussed. Apparently, it is impossible for conservatives to respond to “That’s racist” with a skeptical “How?”.

[2] In this article I’m going to focus specifically on racism, but what I’m saying could apply to any form of bigotry. We could talk about hot and cold sexism, hot and cold nativism, and so on.

[3] In 2014, I documented a long series of examples, but two moments should stand out in everyone’s memory: State of the Union addresses have contained debatable statements for as long as I can remember, but no white president was ever interrupted by “You lie!“. And the entire Birther theory, which as late as last summer was still given credence by a majority of Republicans, demonstrated that a large number of Americans were ready to believe anything negative about Obama, regardless of evidence.

There are comparable examples of baseless conspiracy theories about white presidents — that George W. Bush was complicit in 9-11 or FDR was secretly Jewish. But all of them stayed on the fringes of public debate. None ever caught on like Birtherism or stayed viable in the face of clear evidence and repeated debunking.

Now, does that mean that Joe Wilson was consciously thinking, “I can’t let that nigger get away with saying that”? Am I implying that everyone who doubted Obama’s citizenship is a potential cross-burner? Not at all, but it is part of a long pattern of seeing blacks differently, judging them more negatively, and responding to them more harshly.

[4] When I google “cold racism”, most of the examples are of the form “stone cold racism”, which is a different thing. It’s the hardness of the stone that’s being evoked, not the temperature of the feeling.

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  • Anonymous  On April 17, 2017 at 10:18 am

    “But then you hit the root problem: There is no conservative term for the habitual and perhaps unconscious tendency to see people of another RACE (emphasis mine) differently, judge them more negatively, and react to them more harshly.”

    I would like to make an argument for discontinuing the usage of the word “Race” by both liberals and conservatives. RACE is a social construct and not a valid scientific term for differences in skin/hair/eye color or shape. Science can and does argue against the usage of a cultural and social value and equate it with the hard science that there is only the HUMAN RACE(species)

    Perhaps when we struggle to differentiate one another without using that term we will begin to understand ridiculous “racism” is and become more understanding and educated about cultural differences.


    • Kaci  On April 17, 2017 at 10:42 am

      I’m a scientist too. I get that race is scientifically useless concept and that there’s more genetic difference within “races” than among them. That doesn’t change the fact that white/Anglo/Western culture has used these phenotypic differences as a means of categorizing people as “other.” Science isn’t the only way people experience the world, and the social experience of race and racism is very real.

    • Alan  On April 17, 2017 at 11:48 am

      We’re talking about social creatures engaging in social behaviors influenced by their societies. The social construct of race is the absolute core of the discussion. The problem of racism is inherently bound up in that social construct. Taking the term off the table won’t improve things in the slightest; it will make things worse! If “race” isn’t a term anymore, then racism, which is dependent upon race, must no longer exist. The actual racism will continue to exist, and will be much more comfortable since there is no vocabulary for discussing the problem. It’s pro-racist newspeak.

    • weeklysift  On April 17, 2017 at 12:34 pm

      I agree with Alan on this. I get that race is a social construct, and discussed that in some detail in “Should I Have White Pride?” But not talking about it won’t deconstruct it.

  • GA  On April 17, 2017 at 10:43 am

    You weekly synthesis helps Mondays make sense. Many thanks for that.

    You’re absolutely right to point out the emotional nature of racism–I like the “hot racism” and “cold racism.” By having both hot and cold as real-world possibilities, it helps avoid shunting emotions (and racism) off into the land of “irrational behavior.” Emotions are always present in the flow of behavior. Linking emotions to racism makes us confront racism more directly.

    Bringing emotions in, too, may be helpful given the very strong headwinds that the implicit bias concept is facing: http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2017/01/psychologys-racism-measuring-tool-isnt-up-to-the-job.html

    Even better, we might think in terms of “racial habits.” By thinking of racialized behavior as a habit, we see it as learned behavior in a racist society. (This helps to take the causal nature of racism out of individual heads, which I think is helpful to get away from an overly-individualized approach.) I think this is what Matt Desmond and his co-author are up to: http://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/R/bo20069291.html

  • Anonymous  On April 17, 2017 at 11:16 am

    I would like to suggest “tepid” instead of “room temperature”. It is easier to say and already has a mildly negative connotation when referring to emotions or reactions. Of course, you may be going for the implication that “room temperature” is normal and accepted which “tepid” or even “lukewarm” lack.

    • weeklysift  On April 17, 2017 at 12:38 pm

      That is what I’m going for. “Tepid” or “lukewarm” would imply that it’s weak or ineffectual or half-hearted, which I don’t think is true.

  • Armchair Philosopher  On April 17, 2017 at 11:19 am

    Wow. Thank you so much for this excellent piece.

    I’m going to start using your terms. Cold racism is a better term than “soft bigotry”, which I’ve heard before. Cold implies indifference, while soft carries a nicer connotation.

    I’ll be sharing this piece widely.

  • Renee Fraser  On April 17, 2017 at 1:11 pm

    I don’t think it matters what we call it. I fear that any term we come up with will take on the same connotations as “implicit bias” and will be laughed off as a word made up by bleeding hearts to describe something that is not real. These are the same people who do not believe that voter ID laws are racist.

    • JJL  On April 17, 2017 at 8:57 pm

      Voter ID laws are intended to suppress the vote of people who tend to vote as Democrats. Race is a byproduct.

      • codecrow1975  On April 18, 2017 at 9:52 am

        The fact that the voter ID laws have race as a byproduct is room temperature racism. They aren’t actively trying to disenfrancise PoC, but they don’t care/notice that it is the byproduct. So, still racist.

      • weeklysift  On April 18, 2017 at 10:47 am

        I’ve got to believe that if some new voting rule resulted in disenfranchising enough whites to swing an election, something would be done about it.

      • JJL  On April 20, 2017 at 10:18 am

        And what about the Wisconsin law that targeted college students?

  • Abby  On April 17, 2017 at 3:20 pm

    ” a large number of Americans were ready to believe anything negative about Obama, regardless of evidence.” This, I think, also describes the sexism that was applied to Hillary Clinton. Basically, people were willing to believe any negative thing, including obvious lies, about HRC. Meanwhile, her white male opponent could say things that were verifiably untrue, and people would still believe him.

  • Lois McClendon  On April 17, 2017 at 3:56 pm

    This sounds too simplistic. Racism is not an emotion. It’s systematic and it is structural. Period. Don’t make it easy or simple

    • Alex  On April 17, 2017 at 7:01 pm

      I beg to differ.
      Racism IS an emotion. It is caused by an inferiority complex.
      The emotion, if left unchecked will morph into a character flaw.
      The character flaw will then inform and color all further thoughts and observations.
      The people with this character flaw then directed a nation be built, but the flaw was built right into it.

    • weeklysift  On April 17, 2017 at 8:32 pm

      I think that approach dooms us to defeat. If the only people we get on our side are the ones who think in terms of systems and structures, that’s never going to be a majority.

  • Janet Amaral  On April 17, 2017 at 4:09 pm

    Thank you for this insight. I have struggled with finding a simple way to explain this phenomenon with my in-laws without coming off as a pompous ass.

    But can I point out the irony of this statement?
    ” Any conservative talking to other conservatives about implicit bias would sound whipped, like a guy talking to his locker-room buddies about relationships and commitment.”

    Isn’t the phrase “whipped” simply the contraction of the term “pussy whipped”? Perhaps “emasculated” would convey the same idea without being a sexist perjorative?

    • weeklysift  On April 17, 2017 at 8:37 pm

      That irony was intentional. “Whipped” is how they would describe it themselves.

      “Emasculated” isn’t quite right, because it misses the sense of defeat, of being so beaten that you start imitating the people who defeated you.

  • Anonymous  On April 18, 2017 at 12:36 am

    Perhaps you could hone the irony a bit. That word whipped made me flinch. I was with you up to that point, There were no quotes around the word whipped. Generally it is used to insult men who might defer to or co operate with a woman,

    • weeklysift  On April 18, 2017 at 11:04 am

      OK, I revised to write the word out.

      But I’ll point out that the way it was used originally fits the definition you gave: The conservative talking about “implicit bias” would be insulted for deferring to liberals.

  • Larry Benjamin  On April 18, 2017 at 9:11 pm

    Coincidentally, several hours before reading this, I participated in Implicit Bias training at work. I agree with you how that term smacks of egghead intellectualism, and isn’t going to appeal to the people who need to hear it. However, I’m not sure “cold racism” will work either. If someone isn’t willing to step back and question why they are having a particular reaction to something, slapping a term on them is only going to alienate them further.

    Sometimes, a situation lends itself to asking “how would you feel if someone else had that same reaction to white people/Christians/old men/etc. to help the person imagine what it is like on the receiving end.

  • Josh Rehman  On April 20, 2017 at 2:21 pm

    Great article as usual, Doug. I wish you’d talk about some other error modes, though. For example sometimes liberals *really are* too sensitive, they overreact. And sometimes liberals even intensionally take offense, to score points with an audience. (The right has no monopoly on dishonesty, alas.)

    Perhaps most importantly of all, I’d love it if you zoomed out a little and discussed *what’s really at stake here*. Ultimately, what do statements calling out racism (of any temperature) hope to accomplish? I’d argue its *a change in the target’s behavior*. Which is an expression of control. It is the statement, “You have behaved badly, and incurred my disgust/disrespect/wrath. You must now admit your fault, and agree to conform to my standards of behavior. All of which tacitly submits you to my judgement, both now and in the future.” Is it any wonder that they balk at this deal? And most of the time, the person asserting this control isn’t even the wounded party!

    Let me offer a possible solution to confronting cold racism. Let the little stuff go – don’t do anything unless there is a pattern. And not a societal pattern, but a pattern from the offender. (This is hard since the victim “collects” small racism from multiple offenders, and it’s hard to keep them separate, psychologically!) Ask the victim if they want your help before giving it! Start any intervention by assuming the offender cares about the victim, and wouldn’t knowingly hurt them. Affirm with the offender that people are equal and deserve to be treated the same regardless of superficial attributes. Reaffirm that words can hurt, and then talk about examples of words that hurt.

    • Larry Benjamin  On April 20, 2017 at 4:30 pm

      That might be a good strategy in someone’s private life, but wouldn’t work when confronting these attitudes coming from politicians or media figures.

    • Anonymous  On April 20, 2017 at 7:00 pm

      Of course being told that one’s behavior is racist isn’t fun; no one likes to have their mistakes pointed out. But if someone is hurting you, it’s still reasonable to ask them to stop. If someone mistakenly grabs my bag because it looks like theirs, I’m not saying they’re a bad person, I’m just saying that their information was wrong and I’d like my possessions returned with a minimum of fuss. If someone reacts badly to a black person doing something they’d be fine with a white person doing, that does’t mean they’re a bad person, but it does mean that they’re acting on misinformation somewhere and they need to stop because they’ll hurt people that way.

      It’s also reasonable for white people to have boundaries of not putting up with racist behavior, just as it’s fine for men to not put up with sexist behavior, straight people to not put up with homophobic behavior, etc. Although the harm to people in a privileged group isn’t the same degree or kind of harm to people in a marginalized group, marginalizing behavior hurts us all. It also might help make things better for people in marginalized groups if the social norm is that racist, sexist, homophobic, etc behaviors aren’t considered acceptable.

      • Josh Rehman  On April 21, 2017 at 7:05 pm

        You are talking over me, making a strawman assertion on my behalf that I’m somehow asserting that racist/sexist/etc behaviors are acceptable. They aren’t.

        I am asserting that not every accusation of harm is correct, valid, or made in good faith, and I am noting that there is literally no mechanism in the liberal ideology to address the possibility that someone might be falsely accused. The total absence of that mechanism makes “social justice enforcement” little better than mob rule.

        More importantly, I’m making a comment about the utility of the accusations themselves, and you are ignoring it. These accusations are ultimately an attempt at control using social leverage. “Either you change your behavior or I (and my friends) won’t like you anymore. You’ll be shunned.” This mechanism of justice creates connected gangs of accusers, ready to jump in and attack whenever one person attacks, and gang members never question whether the reaction is proportional or justified. (And indeed, to even question the justification is to be deemed a pariah and shunned yourself).

        This is the triumph of loyalty over principle on the left, and it’s led to terrible social consequences.

        Fairness is key. If liberals want the power to accuse, and eventually to shun, then they need to demonstrate the ability to wield that power fairly, wisely, and with great restraint. Otherwise no-one, left or right, will choose to submit themselves to that power, and indeed will consider it a gift to be shunned by a group that asserts the right to judge every aspect of your behavior, from afar, unthinkingly, and in aggregate.

      • weeklysift  On April 23, 2017 at 8:24 am

        I hear a lot about the danger of false accusation, but I haven’t seen that much of it, and I’m not sure why it’s considered so harmful. Sometimes in traffic people honk at me when I can’t see that I’ve done anything wrong. I drive on.

        A more frequent occurrence, which I often run into on this blog, is that someone will be offended by something I didn’t intend to be offensive. For example, a commenter once told me to stop using “bitch” as a verb (i.e., to bitch about something) because it was sexist. I had not thought of it that way (and in that particular case, it was a man I had said was “bitching”), but I saw the point and stopped. When I started writing about transgender issues, I frequently used the wrong words and commenters corrected me.

  • Lionel Goulet  On April 20, 2017 at 6:18 pm

    “Room-temperature racism.” I *love* it!

  • openthoughtsonlife2017  On April 22, 2017 at 7:52 pm

    This is a tough subject. The times today are touchy to say the least and require a soft hand for discussion. I also find at least in my life that keeping the conversation about racism from exploding into a full blown screaming match is tough to say the least. I will continue to try and be open to list and appreciate others thoughts.
    Thank you for the insightfulness.


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