The suffix -ism comes to us from the ancient Greek language. In ancient Greek, if you wanted to form an action noun out of a verb, you would add the suffix –mos to the stem of the aorist tense. Whenever this was done with verbs that ended in -izo in the lexical form (the form you would use to say that you, the speaker, are doing whatever the verb means as you are speaking), you would get the contracted ending -ismos. This happened quite frequently, and eventually –ismos became a suffix in its own right, one used to form abstract nouns, that is to say nouns that allow you to talk about ideas as if they were tangible objects. Drop the gender/number/case marker and you get the English -ism. An English word that illustrates the original Greek usage well is "criticism". Criticism, formed from a verb that means to evaluate or judge, can refer either to the act of evaluating or judging, corresponding to the original usage of –mos, or it can refer to the idea of judgement or evaluation, corresponding to the derived usage of –ismos. In English, however, this suffix has taken on a more specific primary meaning. It is now used mostly to denote a system of organized thought, a set of doctrines that are believed, or a movement embodying either of these things.
This standard English usage is several centuries old. Much more recently a number of new words with the suffix -ism entered the language. These do not conform either to the original Greek usage as illustrated by criticism, or the standard English usage of which vegetarianism, Zionism and stoicism might be offered as examples. These are formed by adding the suffix to a noun denoting a general category rather than a verb and they do not denote a system of specific beliefs or doctrines. They are closer in usage to words like alcoholism, which was coined in the nineteenth century to depict the state of chronic drunkenness as a pathology, a medical condition. There is a very significant difference, however. Alcoholism was coined to remove much of the stigma that went with previous words for the same state by treating it as something from which one suffers, a disease, rather than a moral failing. The words to which I refer, by contrast, while they too portray certain attitudes and behaviours as pathological, it is for the purpose of adding rather than removing stigma. The first of these, of which all the others are imitations, is racism. Since it is this word I wish to concentrate on and I am fairly certain you can figure out what the others are, I shall not provide a comprehensive list. I will merely note that "anti-Semitism", although it is often used in the same way as these words, actually fits the standard English usage of the suffix since at the time it was coined in the nineteenth century it designated a movement with a definite ideology.
Although the term racism first appeared in the interwar period of the last century it was not until after the end of World War II that it really took off. This was, of course, in part a consequence of the war itself. The regime we fought and defeated in that war, the National Socialist regime of Adolf Hitler in Germany known as the Third Reich, was dominated by an ideology that incorporated elements of nationalism and socialism, as its official name indicates, but also had racialism as a strong component. Note that the word racialism, although now used interchangeably with racism by most people, is an older term that in that period did indeed conform to standard English usage with regards to isms. It referred to a system of doctrine - or rather, a number of similar systems of doctrine - that pertained to what its adherents believed to be the political implications of race, in the anthropological sense of the term. Race, which comes to English from cognates in Romance languages that refer to lineage and descent, originally was a fairly loose word, which could refer to the concept of lineage in a particular family ("the race of Jones"), to common human descent from Adam and Eve ("the human race"), or even to a line of those in a particular trade or occupation ("the race of plumbers"), the last of which made much more sense in a day when it was the rule rather than the exception for a son to follow the same line of work as his father. The science of anthropology, which began as an attempt to apply the methodology of zoology (the branch of biology pertaining to animal life) to human beings, before it was taken over by radical leftists such as Franz Boas, Claude Lévi-Strauss and their followers who stripped it of all real science and turned it into a vehicle for indoctrinating impressionable young people with their poisonous ideas, gave the term a technical meaning of large populations of human beings whose common ancestry was indicated by the sharing of several distinctive morphological characteristics. Although hardly the first to notice the existence of such groups within humanity (see Race: The Reality of Human Differences, 2004, by Vincent Sarich and Frank Miele), they were the first to attach much significance to it, as human group loyalty had always been focused on family, tribe, and nation rather than race in the past. The original racialists took this a step further by drawing political implications from the anthropologists' findings. National Socialism, incorporated a particularly unpleasant form of racialism that viewed the races as locked in a Darwinian struggle, in which their own race and nation must dominate if it is to survive at all. The crimes of the Third Reich were used in the post-War world to discredit first National Socialism, second racialism in general, and finally even the anthropological study of race which has for the most part had to rebrand itself as the study of "genetic populations" in order to survive. It was those who insisted that the Third Reich's crimes discredited not just National Socialism, but all racialism and even the anthropological concept of race, the movement of radical egalitarianism known as the Left, which had coined the term racism before the war and effectively put it to the use described in the previous paragraph after the war.
It is very unlikely that the Left would have succeeded in generating an almost universal moral revulsion towards that which their newly coined word denoted if they had attempted to do so under their own banner. Even having Hitler's terrible example to point to would have been much less effective if they launched their crusade against racism as an openly Leftist cause. Had they done so, the fact that they were openly sympathetic to or even in ideological agreement with the Soviet Union, the regime that most resembled the Third Reich and which was guilty of similar crimes committed on an even larger scale would have been used to negate the Hitler example. The Left, therefore, decided to use liberalism as its proxy in selling anti-racism to the public, knowing that once most people had been persuaded by the liberal argument against racism, they would be able to use the word as the weapon they intended it to be even though the meaning they attached to it would be very different from that against which the liberal case would be made.
The liberal case against racism gained widespread acceptance because it appealed to basic concepts of fairness that most people shared. Each person was his own person, liberalism maintained, with his own strengths and weaknesses, accomplishments and failings, merits and demerits, virtues and vices, and ought in fairness to be treated by others on the basis of these rather than on generalizations about those who shared his ethnic ancestry and physical traits such as skin colour. When liberalism condemned racism, it condemned an attitude and words and deeds expressing that attitude, of which anybody could be guilty, but only by holding that attitude, saying those words, and doing those deeds. Disliking and mistreating another person because of his skin colour was racism, regardless of who the perpetrator was and who was the victim. Being a light-skinned, Caucasian of European ancestry did not automatically make you guilty of racism, being what the politically correct now call a "person of colour" did not automatically make you a victim of racism. When liberalism attacked laws, public policies, and practices as racist it was because they explicitly oppressed people on the basis of race, not because they were part of a civilization that had been created by a people that had been judged to have been racist. In condemning racism, liberalism set as its ideal a world in which things like skin colour were regarded by everybody as being trivial and everyone of every race treated everyone else of every race, justly, decently, and fairly.
It was through these arguments and ideals that liberalism, hopelessly naïve as it obviously was, won popular support for its anti-racist cause. Even as it was doing so, however, the Left was preparing to substitute its own, radically different, anti-racism for that of liberalism. As early as 1932, William Z. Foster, who campaigned that year as the Communist Party USA candidate for American president until a heart attack forced him to withdraw and recuperate in the Soviet Union, outlined a plan to use racial division to further the end of a Communist takeover in the fifth chapter of his Towards Soviet America. At the same time, Max Horkheimer and his associates of the Institute for Social Research at the University of Frankfurt were beginning to develop what would become Critical Theory which would replace classical Marxism as the predominant mode of thought in the academic Left. An associate of Horkheimer's, the music critic, philosopher and sociologist Theodor W. Adorno had led a team of sociological and psychological researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, that put out The Authoritarian Personality in 1950, a book that purported to show that the typical, white, middle and working class, nuclear family of the day, was an environment in which children developed the title personality type, inclining them to become fascists. This book became far more influential in academic circles than its merits warranted and those influenced would go on to create Critical Race Theory, an offspring of sorts of the original Critical Theory, and currently the theory that underlies the anti-racism of the Left. Critical Race Theory rejects the colour-blind ideal of liberal anti-racism and, indeed, condemns it as racist. However, to get to the point where the Left's kind of anti-racism, which was growing more extreme as it evolved, could exude any influence outside of academe, much less the sort of control it commands today, it needed liberalism to sell the public on the liberal version of anti-racism first.
The 1950s and the 1960s were the heyday of liberal anti-racism, for these were the years of the American Civil Rights movement. Its enemy was Jim Crow, a melodramatic villain who between moustache-twirls and maniacal laughs, ran around the Old South tying black people to the railroad tracks of segregation. Its leader was the photogenic and charismatic figure whom the Americans honoured yesterday, having decided that he is more worthy of having a civil holiday named after him than their first president. His words dripped with liberalism in a nauseatingly sappy and saccharine way. Take for example, these familiar excerpts from his most famous speech, given before the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 "I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood...I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character...I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama...little black boys and little black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers". Here you have the liberal anti-racist ideal of colour-blindness put in a nutshell.
Now, it would be fairly easy to demonstrate that the liberalism of the Civil Rights Movement and its leader was an outward guise of moderation concealing something that was much further to the Left, as William F. Buckley and his colleagues correctly pointed out at the time. There was very little about either man or movement in which the reality matched the image created by the new-at-the-time medium of television news and perpetuated in history classrooms ever since. I have covered this ground many times before however, and for the purposes of this discussion it is the outward liberalism that is important.
It was this liberal ideal of colour-blindness, this vision of racial peace and harmony that won widespread popular support for the Civil Rights movement and thus broad acceptance of racism as a term of moral disapprobation. The people who came to support the Civil Rights cause and to so disapprove of racism, therefore, did so because they understood racism to be anything from a prejudicial attitude to active mistreatment of others to unjust and oppressive laws that sinned against this ideal of colour-blind meritocracy and this vision of racial harmony.
Twenty-five to thirty years ago it became apparent that Leftist professors in academe had an altogether different understanding of the word. By this time, hip-hop music had become mainstream and its “gangsta” subgenre, featuring lyrics that glorified crime and violence, was rapidly approaching the same status. Often the lyrics would express a violent hatred that was explicitly racial in nature but directed against whites. While this matched the meaning that had become attached to the word racism in the liberal Civil Rights era, the Leftist academics of the 1990s denied that it was a form of racism. It was a legitimate form of expression on the part of the oppressed, they would say. Racism, they would add, was not just racial prejudice, but racial prejudice backed up by power on the part of the oppressor group. This was criticized by conservatives such as Dinesh D’Souza (The End of Racism, 1995) as a dishonest change-of-definition tactic, although others, more familiar with the history of what around this time came to be dubbed “Cultural Marxism” were aware that the Left had begun working out this new theory of theirs before the liberal Civil Rights movement. Back then, apart from conservative criticism this Leftist definition of racism was hardly heard outside of the Ivory Towers. Its implication, however, that only whites could be racists, was starting to seep out into the wider community.
Today, the Left’s definition is the mainstream one, and we are being told that holding to the liberal ideal of colour-blindness is itself a form of racism. We are being told that it is not enough to be merely “not racist”, as, presumably, a liberal who lived up to his colour-blind ideal would be, but “anti-racist”, that is, actively opposed to “systemic racism”. “Systemic racism” does not mean, as many if not most of the politicians who have made ritualistic affirmations of its existence over the course of the last year seem to think it means, some lingering remnants of racism in the 1950s-60s liberal meaning of the word, but the idea that all the institutions and values of Western Civilization are intrinsically racist, implicitly if not explicitly, and serve to privilege all whites at the expense of all “people of colour” so that, whether conscious of it or not, all whites and only whites are racists and all “people of colour” are victims of racism.
At the beginning of this essay I pointed out that the word racism does not match either the standard English meaning of the suffix –ism or the ancient Greek usage of the original root of the suffix. Obviously, if racism now refers to the condition of being light-skinned and of European ancestry, this is all the more true. Ironically, the Left’s anti-racist movement, which is now actively shoving this absurd definition of racism down everyone’s throats, is an ism in the standard English sense of a system of doctrine. Equally obvious and ironic, is the fact that the Left’s anti-racism now itself meets the definition of racism as the liberals of the 1950s and 1960s used the term. It does not want colour-blindness, it wants whites to see themselves as white and therefore guilty of “racism”, and it wants whites to see “people of colour” as “people of colour” and therefore victims of “racism”. It does not want racial peace and harmony – only the kind of “peace” that consists of submission, submission on the part of all whites to all people of colour. The ultimate irony in all of this, is that the Left’s anti-racism, is, unlike the “racism” it decries, a racism that is actually an ism. It is a dark irony, because the last time a racist system of organized doctrine achieved anything close to the power of the Left’s anti-racism today, that system was National Socialism. The Left’s anti-racism is also eerily similar to National Socialism in its totalitarianism, its desire to suppress all dissent and require all to submit to its every dictate.
From the perspective of orthodox Christianity, the basic problem with National Socialism was one of idolatry – it had substituted race and nation for God, thus making idols out of them. Communism was no solution – it was officially atheistic and guilty of the same kind of atrocities as the Third Reich on a larger scale. T. S. Eliot, in noting that “it is only in returning to the eternal source of truth that we can hope for any social organization which will not, to its ultimate destruction, ignore some essential aspect of reality” and that democracy by itself “does not contain enough positive content to stand alone against the forces that you dislike” made the well-known statement that “If you will not have God (and He is a jealous God) you should pay your respects to Hitler or Stalin”. The wisdom in Eliot’s assessment of the situation has, of course, gone largely unheeded since.
Today’s racial nationalisms, whether black or white, repeat National Socialism’s basic error of making idols out of race and nation, to which they add the error of confusing the two categories, a mistake Hitler never made. The basic mistake of liberalism’s vision is best described as the naïve belief that we can have the “brotherhood of mankind” without first having the “Fatherhood of God”. The Left’s anti-racism, however, dwarfs all of these other Modern and Postmodern heresies, including them within itself – it has made idols out of every non-white race and nation – while heaping others on top of them. It is a religion which requires confession of a “sin” – being white – that one can neither help nor turn from, while offering only bondage rather than absolution to those who confess. In rejection of Him Who offered Himself as the scapegoat to end all scapegoats (see René Girard’s Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, 1978) it has made white people into a scapegoat for “people of colour”, much as Hitler made the Jews into a scapegoat for the Aryans. It is an evil crying out for condemnation and the test of the faithful in this day is whether they will find the courage to condemn it.