The Meaning of “Racist”

Prof. Ann Althouse, whose work I often agree with, writes:

Is Harry Reid a racist? It depends on what the meaning of racist is.

“It was all in the context of saying positive things about Senator Obama. It definitely was in the context of recognizing in Senator Obama a great candidate and future president.” So said Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine, about Harry Reid saying that Obama would be a fine candidate because he’s “light-skinned” and has “no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.”

Is Harry Reid a racist? It depends on what the meaning of racist is:

If by “racist,” you mean somebody who feels antagonism toward black people, then Harry Reid isn’t a racist. Harry Reid thinks we are racists.

If by “racist” you mean somebody who would use other people’s feelings about race in a purely instrumental way to amass political power, then Harry Reid is a racist.

My question: Does the term “racist” indeed normally mean “somebody who would use other people’s feelings about race in a purely instrumental way to amass political power”? I don’t think I’ve ever heard it used this way; and while I certainly recognize that words can have multiple standard meanings, I’m skeptical that the second meaning Prof. Althouse suggests is indeed standard. And if I’m right about this, then it seems to me a bad idea to try to redefine “racist” this way, because of the substantial possibility that (1) listeners will misunderstand, and (2) will misunderstand in a way that is unfair to Sen. Reid, because it might lead listeners to think that Reid is actually being called a definition-one racist (a normal meaning of “racist”), since that’s a more standard definition.

Finally, I think Sen. Reid’s statement (“the country was ready to embrace a black presidential candidate, especially one such as Obama — a ‘light-skinned’ African American ‘with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one'”) asserts not that American voters generally are racist, but that enough American voters are racist to make a difference. If even a small but significant minority of the public is hostile to a dark-skinned black candidate, but open to a lighter-skinned black candidate, that might well be enough to make a difference in a close primary race or a close general election. Reid might well have been correct in his assessment, or he might have been mistaken; but in any case, the assessment turned not on general racism among the public at large, but on sufficient racism (albeit of a mild enough kind that would accept light-skinned blacks while rejecting darker-skinned ones) among a minority that would cast the swing votes.