The Atlantic

Racist Is a Tough Little Word

The definition has grown and shifted over time.
Source: Carlos Barria / Reuters

“They dated.” What does that mean? Date is one of the more ambiguous words in American English. It can refer to anything from two people going to a movie one time to two people having a years-long sexual relationship and everything in between. Its meaning is so multifarious as to challenge any attempt to tell a foreigner what it actually refers to.

Racist has become a similarly protean term. Many of us think its meaning is obvious, but it has evolved quite a bit from its original signification over the past several decades. That’s why our punditocracy is engaged in a drawn-out battle to explain why President Donald Trump’s latest animadversions against certain congresswomen of color are racist, against his and his pals’ claims that they are not—and even why Democrats are entertaining an intraparty controversy over whether House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, of all progressive figures, is herself a racist.

When became common parlance, rapidly replacing starting around 1970, it was understood mainly in its dictionary-style definition: “Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race

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