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Ask the White Guy Answers: Was Kanye West Racist?

Luke Visconti’s Ask the White Guy column is a top draw on DiversityInc.com. Visconti, the founder and CEO of DiversityInc, is a nationally recognized leader in diversity management. In his popular column, readers who ask Visconti tough questions about race/culture, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability and age can expect smart, direct and disarmingly frank answers.


Paraphrased Question:
Was Kanye West racist when he said “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people”?

Answer:
I think this Kanye West interview on “Nightline” is where Kanye is at his best—slightly contrite, but perceptive: “I have a hard time believing that George Bush cares about anyone. So, sidebar, Black people also.”

I think it is unfortunate that Kanye has now apologized for “calling him a racist.” 

It’s unfortunate because his earlier reaction was the better of the two. Objectively, you cannot say that former President Bush doesn’t care ONLY about Black people; his saying that Kanye’s comments were the worst part of his presidency speaks to both his damaged thought process AND his relative lack of racist behavior. It’s important to remember that his Cabinet was relatively diverse, but that didn’t protect him from managing so poorly.

I don’t think that this incident is the best learning experience because the wounds of the Bush presidency are still ongoing (two wars, economic disaster) and the aftermath (a Black president) is being leveraged by the Koch brothers and others to build a political movement that has divisiveness as its single largest source of power aggregation.

That said, I think what we can learn from this is that everyone has a bad choice of words now and then; for example, Justice Sotomayor’s “wise Latina” comments were not well phrased. It is the nature of an apology that makes the difference; a heartfelt “I’m very sorry. That was a poor choice of words. I apologize for the offense they gave” is very likely to set things straight. Kanye’s apology was very good. I just wish he hadn’t made it!

I don’t think Kanye West’s remarks were racist. Technically, they couldn’t be racist—because they were from a Black man to a white man (racism can only be directed down the economic scale, not up). At best, they could have been bigoted—but that’s a semantic argument that’s lost on most people. But “racist” is how Kanye West describes his own words, and I believe everyone has the right to their own imprimatur.

 

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35 Comments

  • Some of Mr. Visconti’s remarks are misguided, at best.

    Racism knows no economic distinction; by definition, Kanye West was suggesting that George W. Bush was a racist, which could not be further from the truth. Is Kanye West a racist? Based on how he has twice now claimed that an Afrucan-American person (Rhianna or Brandy vs. Taylor Swift and BarackObama vs. George W. Bush)simply because of the person who he favored’s race, Kanye West by his ACTIONS and his WORDS is a racist.

    At least he apologized; his remarks, however, were misguided and misinformed, at best.

  • YES! Well, said, and as I sat this am watching the clip of Today. I shook, my head, and thought, his attempt to apologize for his choice of words is being lost, by his initial point.

    Thank you for the concise words I don’t have! :)

  • Anonymous

    You can only be racist “down the econonmic chain”? Is that determined by average salary in the U.S.? In the world? In my state? Does that include all benefits? Does that mean me, a “white guy”, can’t be racist against someone of a oriental persuasion? All these definitions of races you promote make doing the right thing and being diverse very challenging!

    Are you saying that anytime you have a group that isn’t the proper mix of races compared to the population in that area, that it’s a racist group? Hm……! (.and is “visual” diversity the only important kind? That doesn’t seem to make much sense to me!

  • Anonymous

    Since when is this statement supposedly true? Let’s clarify here – “Technically, they couldn’t be racist—because they were from a Black man to a white man (racism can only be directed down the economic scale, not up)”
    1. Is it because Bush is may be richer than Kanye that it can’t be racist – (economic scale)?
    2. So if I am poorer than Kanye and I am white – the comment would be racist?
    Racism is Racism – it doesn’t matter how wealthy – what economic scale you are in. This you messed that comment up – Ask the White Guy!!

  • Anonymous

    I have heard this comment before ” racism can only be directed down the economic scale, not up”, is totally without merit, It is a convienient construct but not part of the English language. Who gets to decide this?

  • Anonymous

    I agreed with Kanye West at the time, but now I see it differently. I think that George Bush cared, but he chose to handle the issue from a political perspective. The emotional side of the matter, the caring, simply was not as important to him as surviving politically. I am guessing that he cared about the victims but he cared about governing a lot more.

  • Anonymous

    Dear White Guy:

    I must respectfully disagree with your description of racism -(see below)

    “Technically, they couldn’t be racist—because they were from a Black man to a white man (racism can only be directed down the economic scale, not up).”

    Racism is not only whites being racist to blacks, it describes anyone prejudging another person based on their skin color or ethnicity-whtes don’t have a patent on racism!

    Also about the “economic scale” comment – your socio-economic status is not necessarily related to race or ethnicity. As a very successful musical entertainer, Kanye may even be at a higher income level than George Bush!

    I’m with you, however, as I don’t think Kanye should have apologized for his comments, although I don’t think that Bush only had disregard for black people, he also did really much for many of the American people, no matter what their race or ethnicity.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for the distinction between bigot (or prejudiced) and racist. It seems very difficult for most Whites to realize that racism is not a two-way street. In order to be a racist, one must have power (either actual or inferred) over a group or another ethnicity or race. I taught this in my classes before I retired, but it is a difficult concept to get across to members of the majority (ruling) population. There is no such thing as “reverse racism,’ which many on the far right claim. Only Bigotry/Prejudice + Power=Racism. Without the Power, its bigotry/prejudice. While bigotry and prejudice are deplorable, they do not carry the weight that racism does.

  • Anonymous

    Oh brother Luke! “racism can only be directed down the economic scale”
    Really?? I so disagree with you on this point. Racial discrimination shows no economic lines. Hating a person because of their race is racism. Bigotry is hating a person due to this reason or that reason. It is not racist to look at facts and tell an interviewer what you have a hard time believing. Conway should not have felt the need to make Bush feel better. Bush was judged by his actions. If your fingers are in the cookie jar, it does look like you are taking a cookie. Such is life.

  • Anonymous

    I am black and I love President Bush. I believe he cares for people, including us so called Black People. I can’t by conception look into a person’s conscience to determine if they like me or anyone else for that matter. However, I am able to tell by their words and deeds. Did President Bush say he didn’t like Black people? Did he propose legislation that would trample Black people? What evidence, including Hurricane Katrina, does Mr. Kanye have that would prove the former President to be a racist. To pinpoint a particular person and say that that person doesn’t like anyone is downright stupid. He needed to apologize for that stupid statement.

  • Anonymous

    It’s amazing to me (and ridiculous) that people are so stuck on their own baseless opinions that they argue about basic definitions. It was clearly stated the definition of racism vs. bigotry. If you don’t have an understanding of fundamental English words, how can you argue?

  • Anonymous

    Here’s my issue… “Bush doesn’t care about black people”. How did that get translated into being called a “racist”? To me he put it in the LIGHTEST terms. Bush and all of his conservative and neglectful supporters are offended because there is TRUTH to it. I could go on to say he didn’t care about anyone else that didn’t follow us contorted and falsified agenda. I also agree with your statement (racism can only be directed down the economic scale, not up). I remember my African American studies teacher explaining this to a 200 student auditorium. It didn’t sit well with many non-blacks then and it probably never will as long as people are in denial of the historical reasoning and reference of what “racism” means.

    Sidenote: How convenient that the media reminded of Bush’s feelings being hurt just before the midterm elections….

  • Anonymous

    Having spent over three decades promoting a racism free society in Australia I learnt very early that a struggle like that starts with oneself. I have not met many people (including me) who with any confidence can look at a mirror and say that they have not said, did or thought something that others may not describe as being racist. I have great admiration and respect for what you have had to say for many years and so your own words “That said, I think what we can learn from this is that everyone has a bad choice of words now and then,” must apply to your assertion that “I don’t think Kanye West’s remarks were racist. Technically, they couldn’t be racist—because they were from a Black man to a white man (racism can only be directed down the economic scale, not up).” Whilst the economic scale has much to do with systemic or institutional racism at the individual level racism can and is directed up, down and sideways vis a vis the economic scale. Kanye West’s apology was sincere and that makes him a person we should admire. That also should be a timely reminder that we should be focusing on what a person, says, does, and if possible thinks and seek to change those when they are racist rather than calling them racist.

  • Anonymous

    I agree with your views on racism. I think it is important for white Americans to acknowledge and understand white privilege. For example, whites are the only people in America who never need to think about their race.

    The American Heritage Cultural Dictionary makes this imprortant distinction when defining racism: “Historically, white domination over blacks was institutionalized and supported in all branches and levels of government, by denying blacks their civil rights and opportunities to participate in political, economic, and social communities.” The key word here is “institutionalized.” When people try to argue that Kanye’s comments are racist, they are ignoring the role that politcal and economic power, and institutionalized racism, have played in American history.

    The civil rights movement is not ancient history. Today there are some radical thinkers among the emerging “tea party” movement–some who were actually elected–who argue that the Civil Rights Act was an overreach by the Federal Government. This view is ractionary and absurd.

    That being said, I am not sure Kanye West was right when he said that George Bush didn’t care about black people. I think Bush’s main problem was that he was profoundly unaware of and disinterested in the needs of poor, struggling people of all races. As the great, late Molly Ivins said, “the trouble with George Bush is that he was born on third base, but he thinks he hit a triple.”

  • Anonymous

    Do you have additional statistics comparing the races by economic scale? You make it very apparent that all whites can be racist but I question if racism can exist between the minority groups (Blacks, Latinos, Asians, Native American, etc). Since you state that racism can only go down the economic scale I am curious where each minority group stands in comparison to each other?

  • Anonymous

    “Down the economic chain”:

    Doesn’t Kanye West make more than Bush?

  • Anonymous

    I am sorry that former President was hurt by Kanye’s remark but he he only said that Mr Bush doesn’t care about Black people. He never called him a racict. Most KKK members and skinheads say they are not racists too. Kanye’swords had more to do with Bush’s response to the plight of Blacks based on his reaction to Katrina as well as many other things that usually happen to Blacks
    in the country he was the President of. Blacks are for the most part “off the radar ” of White people. Unless Blacks are in their face; they almost act as if Blacks don’t exist or just don’t count in the picture of things..

  • FYI…a racist is one group of people who diliberately oppress another group of people for financial gain. question? who deliberately oppressed another race of people for financial gain in this country. who were the slaves whose bodies were used to make money off the backs of african americans for financial gain. go back and read/trace history and you will get your answer. i think a lot of people get prejudice mixed up with racism. most if not all of us have some prejudices. but, we, african americans cannot be racist. unfortunately former president george bush is a racist as a result of what his ancestors.did to my ancestors.

  • Anonymous

    First of all, Merriam-Webster defines racism as “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race”. Nowhere in that definition does it state anything about “down the economic scale”; that definition is Luke’s, not a real definition.

    I do have a question for Luke, however. Based on your personal definition, are you saying that whites can never be an object of racism? If this is not what you are saying, then please give us an example of racism towards whites. And better yet, while your web site, your opinions, and many of your readers’ opinions always classify any negative comments towards Muslims as racist, how would racism exist between a black person and a Muslim? Which of those 2 groups would be “down the economic scale”?

    Finally, anybody who says blacks cannot be racist towards whites is just plain wrong. There are plenty of black people who think they are superior to whites, and according to the real definition (“…racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.”), I’d say it fits rather nicely. Whites may not be oppressed, but they are certainly the objects of racism.

  • Wow! Luke your comments show you to be one of the most educated and informed people with regard to the understanding of racism, prejudice, bigotry and the differentiation between race and ethnicity. I can’t believe the amount of slack one can receive from being correct. Although I am certain you are fine, because your responses show that you are secure in the knowledge you possess, please also take solace in this; arguments fueled by ignorance may never be settled but statements made with the sincere desire to communicate truth from an educated perspective will ultimately influence the masses. I am certain your words are benefiting the masses. Congratulations to you.

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