Redefining words (without telling anyone) is a tried-and-true rhetorical tactic often deployed in political debates. Generally, the goal is to advance an argument or proposal by surreptitiously taking advantage of a word’s positive or negative connotations.
Polls show a majority of voters favor traditional infrastructure projects like building roads and bridges, so now progressives in Congress call every item on their socialist wish list “infrastructure.” The fact that things like railways and airports now must be described as traditional infrastructure, instead of just “infrastructure,” demonstrates the redefinition.
Labor unions aren’t immune to the temptation.
As highly progressive organizations, unions had fully embraced the tenets of critical race theory (CRT) long before the term entered the public consciousness.
With its focus on systemic racism, CRT effectively replaces the traditional definition of “racism” with an alternate meaning more suited to the political goals of the speaker.
Even today, the dictionary definition of “racism” focuses on individual beliefs in differences and disparities between racial groups:
“…a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human racial groups determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to dominate others or that a particular racial group is inferior to the others.”
That’s the way most Americans understand the word, but that’s far from what unions mean when they use the term.
The Freedom Foundation previously reported how the National Education Association (NEA), the largest teachers’ union in the country, defines “racism” as “a cumulative and compounding product of an array of societal factors that, on balance, systematically privilege White people and disadvantage people of color.”
Theoretically, under this definition, the world could be completely free of prejudiced people yet still be “racist.”
The Bellevue Education Association (BEA), an NEA affiliate, recently signed a pledge proudly proclaiming its belief that, “Racism is designed to privilege White people and set ‘Whiteness’ as the norm.”
If racism is properly understood, however, according to its actual dictionary definition, then BEA’s understanding of it is woefully limited by failing to account for racism that takes forms other than White-on-Black.
Ideologies like CRT have been described by some on the right as “cultural Marxism,” dividing people not along class lines as Marx did — think the working-class proletariat and the wealthy bourgeoisie — but along racial lines as oppressed and oppressors, a framing calculated to gain more traction in prosperous, post-civil rights era American society than Marx’s original formulation did.
Indeed, the Washington State Labor Council (WSLC) — the state chapter of the AFL-CIO with which most unions in the state are affiliated — has adopted a definition of “racism” that is a prime example of old school, economic Marxism: A “system of oppression, designed to divide the working class so the wealthy elite can consolidate their wealth and power at the very top.”
In each of these cases, the redefinition is perpetrated in the service of the speaker’s immediate goals and interests, whether political, electoral, financial, or economic. Since people generally believe racism to be morally repugnant and typically don’t want to be viewed as racist themselves, it’s an effective strategy.
Unfortunately, such rhetorical deception makes communication far more difficult than it needs to be and inhibits substantive debate and discussion. And, as Virginia voters tired of CRT semantics and chicanery recently demonstrated, the listener tends not to react well once the duplicity has been exposed.