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measuring the post-racist society: the eclipse of racist words

Slurs_af_am_latino As_am_slur_clean

The original post-racist society discussion, Eric Grollman responds,Tressie McMillan responds, my response to Eric, McMillan part deux, Eric responds again

A few weeks ago, I argued that the era of overt racism is over. One commenter felt that I needed to operationalize the idea. There is no simple way to measure such a complex idea, but we can offer measurements of very specific processes. For example, I could hypothesize that it is no longer to legitimate to use in public words that have a clearly derogatory meaning, such as n—— or sp–.*

We can test that idea with word frequency data. Google has scanned over 4 million books from 1500 to the present and you can search that database. Above, I plotted the appearance of n—– and sp—, two words which are unambiguously slurs for two large American ethnic groups. I did not plot slurs like “bean,” which are homophones for other neutral non-racial words. Then, I plotted the appearance of the more neutral or positive words for those groups. The first graph shows the relative frequencies for African American and Latino slurs vs. other ethnic terms. Since the frequency for Asian American slurs and other words is much lower, they get a separate graph. Thus, we can now test hypotheses about printed text  in the post-racial society:

  1. The elimination thesis: Slurs drop drastically in use.
  2. The eclipse thesis: Non-slur words now overwhelm racist slurs, but racist slurs remain.
  3. Co-evolution: The frequency of neutral and slur words move together. People talk about group X and the haters just use the slur.
  4. Escalation: Slurs are increasing.

This rough data indicates that #2 is correct. The dominant racial terms are neutral or positive. Most slurs that I looked up seem to maintain some base level of usage, even in the post-civil rights era. The slur use level is non-zero, but it is small in comparison to other words so it looks as if it is zero. Some slure use may be derogatory, while some of it may be artistic or “reclaiming the term.” I can’t prove it, but I think Quentin Tarantino accounts for for 50% or more of post-civil rights use of the n-word.

Bottom line: Society has changed and we can measure the change. This doesn’t mean that racial status is no longer important, but it does mean that one very important aspect of pre-Civil Rights racist culture has receded in relative importance. Some people just love racial slurs, but that its likely not the modal way of talking about people. Is that progress? I think so.

Adverts: From Black Power/Grad Skool Rulz

* Geez, Fabio, must you censor? Well, it isn’t censoring if it’s voluntary. I just don’t want this blog to be picked up for slurs. Even my book on 1970s Black Power, when people used the n-word a bit, only uses it once, in a footnote when referring to the title of H. Rap Brown’s first book.

Written by fabiorojas

February 21, 2013 at 12:01 am

18 Responses

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  1. Fabio, I think the issue here is not whether or not change has happened but rather whether we can discuss those changes in terms of a linear “more racist” or “less racist”. When you look at the use of explicitly racist terms, it seems like society has become “less racist”. But when you look at the spike in incarceration rates among black males since the 1970s, then society starts to look “more racist”. Another complicating factor here is whatever indicators we use, they not only are likely to point in opposite directions but also may possess varying degrees of importance. For example, I might say (actually, I probably would say this) that my incarceration rates are more important than your racist word count.

    I dont think anybody would argue with you if you simply said that society has become less racist IN SOME WAYS (even if you dont conclude the thought by saying, “but more racist in other ways”), but of course then you wouldnt be able to provocatively announce the “Post-Racist Society” as easily as you would like. Sorry, Fabio, you have to face it: there are enormous problems with your post-racist idea, it needs serious reconsideration.

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    soft scientist

    February 21, 2013 at 2:06 am

  2. The google word search is cool. Thanks for doing it.

    In my earlier post I was trying to make the point that racial progress has a history. It is not a yes or no, but when sociological question.

    Here is some data from Kevin Stainback an my new book Documenting Desegregation (https://www.russellsage.org/publications/documenting-desegregation) on white’s resistance to integration. In 1972 73% of whites agreed that blacks should not push themselves where they are not wanted. If we had earlier data it would no doubt was higher. By 1994 it had dropped to 43%, where it has hovered ever since. So there was progress, but as recently as 2002 40% of whites did not want African Americans “pushing in”. In the book we provide reams of data on employment desegregation, showing clear, even rapid progress through 1980, but almost none since. I agree with Fabio that since the mid 20th century there has been progress. I think evidence that progress continues is harder to find. Let’s pretend you were black and born in 1964, the year the Civil Rights Act passed. Since you were old enough to interact with whites, say 16, there has been no progress and somethings (white political commitment to equal opportunity or affirmative action, employment opportunities if you had less than a college education, incarceration, your neighborhood) have gotten worse. Answering the question of racial progress depends alot on when.

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    Don Tomaskovic-Devey

    February 21, 2013 at 2:13 am

  3. Without taking a position in this debate, but methods-wise I think you might want to do it something like this: http://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=%28Nigger+%2B+nigger%29%2F%28nigger+%2B+Nigger+%2B+African+American%29&year_start=1908&year_end=2008&corpus=17&smoothing=3&share=

    But you also have to realize that the polite terms have changed. No one said “African American” in 1900, even if they weren’t racist.

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    Philip N. Cohen

    February 21, 2013 at 2:27 am

  4. OK, if we take Phil’s improved method, but further tune it to the change in polite terms (Negro, Black,African American, and we accept Fabio’s argument, we have increased racial slurs 1910-1935, decreased through 1950 (pre-civil rights movement), flat through 1980, decrease 1980-1985, flat since. http://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=%28Nigger+%2B+nigger%29%2F%28nigger+%2B+Nigger+%2B+African+American%2B+black%2BNegro%29&year_start=1908&year_end=2008&corpus=17&smoothing=3&share=

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    Don Tomaskovic-Devey

    February 21, 2013 at 2:35 am

  5. Dr. Rojas, certainly you have supported the point that overt interpersonal racism has gone down, but you have yet to really engage in Eric’s point on the importance of institutional racism, which he apply points out can be a very serious issue in it’s own right – especially if people feel that racism is increasingly becoming past tense. Saying that racism has become “post racist” makes it easier to dismiss less immediately tangible institutional racist issues.

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    Grad Student

    February 21, 2013 at 2:59 am

  6. OK, there are a lot of options here. One more: you can’t use “black” because it’s also a color (don’t ask me why). If you remove that, and extend this time, you get this: A long-run decline in offensive terms from the Civil War to the late 60s, followed by a rebound till the late 1980s.
    http://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=%28Nigger+%2B+nigger%29%2F%28nigger+%2B+Nigger+%2B+African+American%2BNegro%29&year_start=1800&year_end=2008&corpus=17&smoothing=3&share=

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    Philip N. Cohen

    February 21, 2013 at 3:40 am

  7. “it isn’t censoring if it’s voluntary”

    I now reverse my earlier position. I’m glad you don’t teach Foucault.

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    Austen

    February 21, 2013 at 12:29 pm

  8. Its telling how eager we are to fuss over the parameters of racist words search–even though racist words are clearly not as important nowadays–and yet how easily we can dismiss the institutional racism question that has been brought up multiple times. Like, seriously, how can you pronounce the arrival of a post-racist society without addressing institutional racism? It would be baffling to hear from anybody but especially from sociologists. And we wonder why the social sciences seem are no longer relevant.

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    soft scientist

    February 21, 2013 at 12:44 pm

  9. @soft scientist

    One suspects that the “institutional racism” question is going unaddressed because

    (a) at least in its typical usage, institutional racism is a frustratingly elusive concept. For example, Fabio has clearly operationalized a dimension of institutional racism here (that is, not all uses of racial slurs were cases of overt racism; it was simply more *institutionally* acceptable to refer to racial groups with words we now consider to be ugly slur) but in doing so has obviously elided other empirical trends which we might associate with the concept, e.g., incarceration, higher educational attainment, and employment discrimination. One can imagine that if other people were to quantify these patterns (some of which might bear evidence for Fabio’s “post-racism” thesis), they would still face questions as to whether these isolated statistical trends “really get” at “institutional racism.” At some point, it is conceptual, rather than methodological reflexivity which is required.

    (b) it’s unfair to hold Fabio to the claim that the era of institutional racism is over when he is trying to make the point that the era of “overt” racism is over (a seriously inane point if you think about it). What was the era of “overt” racism? When people could openly and publicly call other people racial slurs, use placards to segregate them into racial groups, and embed these categories into law and policy. While these things still happen, we are obviously not in their heyday, and this is the (again, seriously obvious) point Fabio is making. In short: it’s only a provocative point if you stop reading after the title.

    (c) it’s not necessarily helpful or enlightening to bring up institutional racism if the worst aspects of modern racial abuse aren’t primarily functions of institutional design. Big institutional structures like law, higher education, and the economy have restructured themselves in demonstrably “post-racist” ways and yet inequalities persist, especially for blacks. As WJW observed, further institutional changes at this level primarily help minorities who are already prepared to take advantage of them, leaving the truly disadvantaged behind. The kinds of remedies for this sort of internal inequality might not be tied to dominant institutional models at all, but to the paucity of economic resources and even of institutions themselves in these communities.

    Anyway, tl;dr, if you read with an open mind you’ll find that Fabio’s not really making that provocative of a point, but that even so, it might be a useful point to make.

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    ucgrad

    February 21, 2013 at 3:46 pm

  10. There is a concept of “self censorship”, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing and you could argue that everyone engages in it all the time (with the possible of exception of some people we would consider mentally handicapped).

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    Wonks Anonymous

    February 21, 2013 at 4:09 pm

  11. @ucgrad, nice try but after reading your response I still don’t see the merit of Fabio’s approach:

    (a) the problems you point out here also apply to Fabio’s operationalization. For example, I am arguing that tabulating the usage of racist words also fails to “get at” racism. Just because southern state legislatures (for example) were more likely to use racist slurs in the past doesn’t mean that these same institutional bodies are less racist today (see “redistricting”). The language has changed but the processes produce similar outcomes as before or are counterbalanced by other racist trends. Thus, the prevalence of racist slurs may not have much to do with the racist outcomes produced by major societal institutions. I don’t think I’m being too radical when I say that operationalizing racism as the usage of racial slurs totally ignores much of the longstanding sociological wisdom we have accumulated over the years about racism (e.g. Douglass and Massey, Bonilla-Silva, etc); given what we know, I would even say that this approach seems sociologically naïve. @UCgrad, you seem so convinced by the shabby measure presented above, and yet you don’t even want to talk about ways of measuring institutional racism because you think its too methodologically complicated to even warrant discussion, whats up with that?

    (b) and about “overt” racism: this also seems to boil down to whatever stands out to the researcher as “overt.” For example, although we can all identify various kinds of subtle racist practices, things like mass incarceration, police brutality, etc are racially-targeted in a rather extreme way and so they seem very overt to me. I would say that its time for sociologists to begin seeing these kind of things as “overt” and we may become relevant again.

    (c) as many critics of WJW have argued (and, later, even WJW himself) he was waaay premature in diagnosing our major societal institutions as post-racist (see WJW’s “More than Just Race”). Clearly, you are too.

    p.s. I am very open-minded I just happen to disagree with Fabio (and you) on this subject (in other words: just because I bring up “institutional racism,” you shouldn’t assume that I am near-sighted, close-minded, or intellectually-stinted in any other way)

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    soft scientist

    February 21, 2013 at 5:23 pm

  12. I don’t think you’re close-minded or intellectually incapable because you don’t agree with me, but I do think that you’ve deeply misunderstood my comment. We actually agree on several points, but I’ll just point out one: yep, what counts as “overt” racism can be highly subjective. What do you think that implies about “non-overt” or “subtle” or “institutionalized racism?”

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    ucgrad

    February 21, 2013 at 8:18 pm

  13. @ucgrad We can start by looking the various forms of racial inequality present. A good place would be in residential segregation. The works of Bobo and and others have made clear the long standing group preference that are still rather robust. Moreover, studies using the American Housing Survey show vast inequalities among racial/ethnic groups even when controlling for economics. The point is that even though overt racism is on the decline, this change does not account for institutional racism. Moreover, arguing for post-racism creates the ability for us to sidestep direct discussions on the prevalence of racism that still exist in our society.

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    Grad Student

    February 22, 2013 at 12:18 am

  14. Thank you for linking to my blog, Fabio.

    I continue to be confused by your argument. It appears to morph with every posting. In your original argument you put forth a bulleted list of premises from which you draw the conclusion that ours is a post-racist society. But, in every subsequent post you seem to only address one premise or change the premises altogether.

    In this instance, the tool is quite cool but as an operationalization of racism the instance of racial slurs in books that have been scanned by google books strikes me as weak measure. First, is there some reason that we would expect that the occurrences of the word nigger (I’m black and choose not to censor the word; doing so leads to discussions of post-racial and post-racism) in printed text from corporate publishers correlates with the presence or extent of racism? Again, I think this is a problem of definitional statements, or the lack thereof. Just what counts as “racism” in your post-racial theory? To your racial slur measure used here I could argue any number of things. One, racial slurs change over time. In fact, there is good theoretical reason to interrogate the use of “ghetto” and “urban”, for example, to connote the same racist classism that functions similarly to nigger: to define black groups as non-normative and inferior in the allocation of resources, symbolic and material. I could also say that there is a profit motive attached to the corporate publication of printed books that would explain the decline of the use of racial slurs. There has also been massive changes in publishing and distribution over the past 20 years that makes a search of google books a very limited population that may not reflect the greater cultural discourse.

    But those are measurement issues which are not the crux of my issue with the post-racist thesis. The real issue is that it is a big claim that would require some robust measurement and theoretical grounding for me to accept it. What counts as racism? Why would you choose some measures and not others? Why would inquiring about post-racism be a sociological inquiry? Those are fair questions, I think, that remain unanswered. I suspect the problem lies in the term itself. To be “post” something is a fixed state but you seem to be arguing for some kind of scale of racist progress. That does not reconcile well with nomenclature like post-racist which, by definition, would mean AFTER racism.

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    TMC22

    February 22, 2013 at 4:08 am

  15. Reblogged this on tressiemc and commented:

    Fabio continues to defend his position that ours is a post-racist society. As I say in my comments below, Fabio has a peculiar tension. He is trying to reconcile a claim of post-racism which, by definition, is dichotomous (something is either post or it is not) with an argument that appears to be most committed to the notion of measuring and rewarding racial progress. That would require a scale of racist to not-racist and it would not be compatible with a dichotomous declaration like “post-racism”. I may speak at some later time about how important this is to sociological inquiry.

    I continue to be confused by your argument. It appears to morph with every posting. In your original argument you put forth a bulleted list of premises from which you draw the conclusion that ours is a post-racist society. But, in every subsequent post you seem to only address one premise or change the premises altogether.

    In this instance, the tool is quite cool but as an operationalization of racism the instance of racial slurs in books that have been scanned by google books strikes me as weak measure. First, is there some reason that we would expect that the occurrences of the word nigger (I’m black and choose not to censor the word; doing so leads to discussions of post-racial and post-racism) in printed text from corporate publishers correlates with the presence or extent of racism? Again, I think this is a problem of definitional statements, or the lack thereof. Just what counts as “racism” in your post-racial theory? To your racial slur measure used here I could argue any number of things. One, racial slurs change over time. In fact, there is good theoretical reason to interrogate the use of “ghetto” and “urban”, for example, to connote the same racist classism that functions similarly to nigger: to define black groups as non-normative and inferior in the allocation of resources, symbolic and material. I could also say that there is a profit motive attached to the corporate publication of printed books that would explain the decline of the use of racial slurs. There has also been massive changes in publishing and distribution over the past 20 years that makes a search of google books a very limited population that may not reflect the greater cultural discourse.

    But those are measurement issues which are not the crux of my issue with the post-racist thesis. The real issue is that it is a big claim that would require some robust measurement and theoretical grounding for me to accept it. What counts as racism? Why would you choose some measures and not others? Why would inquiring about post-racism be a sociological inquiry? Those are fair questions, I think, that remain unanswered. I suspect the problem lies in the term itself. To be “post” something is a fixed state but you seem to be arguing for some kind of scale of racist progress. That does not reconcile well with nomenclature like post-racist which, by definition, would mean AFTER racism.

    TMC22

    February 22, 2013 at 4:08 am

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    tressiemc22

    February 22, 2013 at 4:12 am

  16. […] an example of declines on overt expressions of racial prejudice to provide further clarification: https://orgtheory.wordpress.com/2013/02/21/measuring-the-post-racist-society-the-eclipse-of-explicit-… [February 21, […]

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  17. […] This also came up when a bunch of people got irritated at Fabio Rojas for writing about our “post-racist society“. It would be understandable if he said something extreme like “racism doesn’t […]

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  18. Thomas Elliot just finished a massive coding project and released a few graphs from it. He is looking at representations of the LGBT community in the NYT. In the end, I think it will also show support for a hypothesis like #2.

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    Matt Pearce (@mtpearce)

    February 28, 2013 at 8:13 pm


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