Racism, by definition, is advocating or teaching the superiority of one race over another. When talking about this we usually bring up the example of Nazi Germany, which made racism a state practice.
But is discussing race or bringing race up when talking about certain issues also racism?
Labour MP Diane Abbott caused a storm of outrage and cries of racism after she used Twitter to comment on the Stephen Lawrence murder trial. In case you don't know, she said "White people love playing divide and rule. We should not play their game."
Now I'm no fan of Ms. Abbott, who I consider a dilettante on some key issues. But it seems to me her words were just an expression of opinion, not a racist rant. And did anyone challenge her view? All we got were condemnations from Tory MPs about it being racist.
Every other week some athlete is accused of making 'racist' remarks. And worse, the UK's anti racism and hate crime laws are now routinely brought into play for alleged crimes that are often petty in nature and may not be racism in the first place.
This results in two main things. It creates a climate of fear in the country where people become afraid to bring race up in any discussion, And second, it cheapens overt racist acts by lumping petty non crimes in with real racist actions such as the Lawrence murder. There's nothing wrong in civil society with laws dealing with race and religion hate crimes. But they should be aimed at overt racists.
The essence of intellectual debate on issues such as racism and race hatred, is having all sides presented and the challenging these views.
America, with all it pretensions of freedom and democracy, has long been an anti-intellectual nation, choosing to maintain and a defend bigoted beliefs as a matter of religious conviction, upbringing or political correctness. Sadly this has now become the case in the UK, with laws, initially designed to protect minorities, being used to keep the population politically correct.
Yet this is nothing new here. Before WW2 British society maintained civility through class and people knowing their place. This, along with the highly civil practice of not speaking negatively about people in public, was an early form of PC.
As the old order broke down following the War and the UK became a multi-cultural society, white-on-minority racism became widespread among the lower class and lesser educated UK population.
However, gradually the Asian and Afro-Caribbean minorities began exhibiting anti white sentiments. And Abbott's tweet illustrating this is the controversy's most important aspect...that negative racial sentiments are a two-way street. This is not saying she is a racist, but it does show how whites are viewed by some members of minority groups.
Much of this sentiment, from whites and minorities, is due to a lack of jobs, especially for young people, people with too much free time on their hands and too little self respect.
The main difference in poverty UK and US style is that in the UK poverty seems to be an equal opportunities condition, entrenched in white and minority society. In America, most grinding poverty is located in black and Latino ghettos, with White areas isolated and insulated from these ghettos. You won't find council high rises in Beverly Hills.
I guess racism today depends on how society or governments define it. Using the standard definition of advocating racial superiority, if stretched, could even apply to Christianity and Islam, two faiths that maintain their superiority over other faiths and people not of their faith.
An example in the news is US presidential hopeful Mitt Romney. For years his main drawback amidst the rank and file of Republican voters is the fact he is a Mormon. No matter how good a leader he might be, the Christian right doesn't consider him a Christian, and thereby not fit to be president.. This is far more serious than Abbott's remark, yet who would accuse religions of being racist. And how many clergy members are arrested as charged with racist offenses?
Still to cry racism every time someone utters a racial view or joke is wrong and only creates more fear, resentment and a limitation on free speech.
There's a big difference between telling one of those "did you hear the story about" jokes and calling for genocide or ethnic cleansing. These may be in bad taste...and culprits should be held accountable, but not as criminals...just twits on Twitter while saving the race hate laws for yobs such as the Lawrence killers.
Follow Dan Ehrlich on Twitter: www.twitter.com/danew13