Is racism prejudice plus power as Beverly Tatum and other theorists assert or is the better definition something like this from the Anti-Defamation League– “Racism is the belief that a particular race is superior or inferior to another, that a person’s social and moral traits are predetermined by his or her inborn biological characteristics”?
From my experience at diversity conferences and anti-racism workshops, I learned to embrace the first definition and its corollary that only white people can be racist. As a white male, I figured that with privilege came this evil power to be racist. I might even be willing to argue the converse, that no white person is free from racism. No matter how well-meaning she or he harbors unconscious biases and is complicit in the system of oppression.
Then I tried to teach the R = P + P definition and the racism is limited to whites concept to high school freshmen. It didn’t go so well. I tried to float an example explaining that a black teacher who gives all white students C’s and all black student’s A’s is not racist. Well, that concept is hard to explain in a way that a 14-year-old will buy. The theoretical point that the black teacher is not contributing to systemic oppression is a bit lost in the concrete give and take of the classroom. Creatively labeling the black teacher prejudiced, bigoted and everything short of racist did not really help. This disputation may be good in that it leaves the students’ thinking a bit muddled as the topic is complicated and it would be wrong to suggest easy answers exist. Still I fear the muddle could lead to paralysis. One cannot fight racism if one cannot define it.
Then there is the point that all this semantic muddle is pointless when actual people are dying. The technical definition of racism does not matter to Tamir Rice.