Our language has simplified over the last generation. Simplified language often leads to simplified thought: thought is, after all, encoded in the logic of language.
So when two phenomenon share the same word, confusion may arise when multiple people misinterpret the same word to mean different things.
This applies to various "isms;" racism, sexisim, ageism, and homophobia (it doesn't end in ism but it's the same sort of sentiment). We use the term racism carefully in this country. But we also throw it around a lot. We have a lot of anxiety about what's termed "racist" and what is not termed "racist." People who use it too much devalue the word; people who use it too little let racists get away with defamation. I'm going to focus on racism right now because Barack Obama invited this nation to have a dialog about race (which has not been followed up on), but this can be applied to sexism as well--that installment is coming soon.
So let me begin by splitting the term 'racism' into two categories: "hard" racism and "soft" racism. Hard racism is a very plain sort of racism, and thus we don't hear it spoken aloud anymore. Ever since the Civil Rights Movement, our culture has decided, as a majority, that it is unacceptable to be a hard racist aloud anymore. This isn't to say that there aren't hard racists; but whenever a statement that is hard racism is heard aloud, that person is pretty much chased out of any public position they might hold.
"Hard" racism is an extreme form of racism. "Hard" racism is holding the belief that one or more races are inferior to one or more races. Adolf Hitler was a hard racist. Racial eugenicists are hard racists. Jim Crow Laws are hard racist laws. They codify the notion that one race of people is objectively (in their eyes) worse than another race of people. People who speak hard racism aloud are tagged, unequivocally, as bigots.
Today, we don't see nearly as much of that. But what we do see is a lot more of "soft" racism. "Soft" racism is hard to define. "Soft" racism is non-absolute; it does not hold that one race is absolutely worse than another. But it has a lot of negative connections with a race. One type of soft racism is ignorance. Another sort of soft racism is resentment.
Barack Obama, in his speech about race, talked about "white resentment," caused by pro-minority actions such as Affirmative Action. It is unsurprising that if one group gets preferential treatment, there will be resentment by the other. And these resentful emotions will spill over into negative attitudes. A hostility; an avoidance.
Now, these people who feel resentment toward African Americans may say that they do not think African Americans are worse, as race. Most probably genuinely believe that. But they do still feel a racial tension which cannot be dismissed as being completely non-racist. And this racial tension, or negative attitude toward African Americans may manifest itself in negative action. And that negative action will be racist, no matter how you dice it.
If both "soft" and "hard" racism are still racisms, why is it important to distinguish? Because soft racism can usually be bridged by better communication, more cooperation, and more information. For instance: affirmative action is only necessary in a community which acknowledges that all of its poor will not get opportunities to education. If a leader brings the white community and the black and latino and asian and etc. communities to work together to improve the opportunities of college education to everyone, then the resentment will decrease.
Hard racism has to be fought. I remain highly doubtful that the Jim Crow laws and segregation could have been ended simply by having Martin Luther King Jr. and Strom Thurmond sitting at a table discussion solutions. Strom Thurmond's belief that the black man was inferior was an ideology; it was entrenched in how he approached the world. And we have no need to give that any time or respect.
The reason is because "hard" racism is an ideology of racism and "soft" racism are facets or actions of racism; the latter being bad, but not as all-encompassing as the first.
Another reason "soft" racism needs to be addressed is that it often causes subconscious soft racism. People who are nervous when black men approach them in the street are exhibiting racism in a way, but it would be ridiculous to put that in the same class as joining the Klu Klux Klan. The imagery and the stereotypes and the cultures which give rise to these soft racisms need to be addressed. They cannot be ignored.
For instance, in the Amadu Dialo case, the officers involved had an ingrained soft-racism; their assumptions were that a black man of a certain age might be violent. And because of it, their reflexes (in under seven seconds; a core part of Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink) led them to shoot a man over 40 times before they could accurately and dispassionately appraise the situation. Do I think they were hard racist--that they think the black man is inferior? No, I don't believe that. But I do believe that they were soft racists; taught to expect trouble from men of a certain description. And although I have only met a few hard racists, I have barely met anyone who doesn't exhibit the occasional sign of "soft-racism" (Exhibit A: "Everyone's A Little Bit Racist" from Avenue Q).
It is important to confront these soft-racisms and make everyone aware when they are going on. Because the conscious mind can overcome subconscious soft-racism, and the conscious mind can address the causes of soft-racism. Unquestioned, they might simply fester, and lead to those cases of hard racism that we want to avoid.
And one last notice: hard racism nowadays masquerades as soft racism; sometimes it is barely detectable. This makes it hard to point to. For instance, I personally detect a hint of hard racism about the McCain campaign's allegation of Obama as "presumptuous" (David Gergen, a Southerner, called it a code-word that everyone in the South would recognize as standing in for uppity). But of course I wouldn't be able to prove it, any more than I can prove that Obama's "out of touch" ad is ageist, the way the McCain campaign alleges it is. When Trent Lott famously said that if they'd elected Strom Thurmond, we wouldn't be in "this mess," did he actually mean that we should have a segregationalist country? It seems pretty clear to me and to most people, but because of this conflation of hard and soft racism, it loses its impact.
Be on the lookout, America.