I've probably always been working with a definition like the one developed by the Anti-Defamation League. According to the ADL racism is "the belief that a particular race is superior or inferior to another, that a person’s social and moral traits are predetermined by his or her inborn biological characteristics. Racial separatism is the belief, most of the time based on racism, that different races should remain segregated and apart from one another."
While the sense of one group's superiority over others is crucial to this definition (especially since that sense of superiority is often derived from long-term economic and political oppression of those others), equally important is that once justice and political equality begin cracking the foundations of racism, the supposedly superior group is often unwilling to disabuse itself completely of the stereotypes and cultural narratives that have maintained the benefits of the oppressive social arrangements.
So, even though plenty of American citizens have managed to stop participating in overt racism against Negroes or Latinos or Asians, notions of racial superiority or racial separatism, fueled by stereotypes and negative cultural narratives, still drive our social habits and attitudes.
Both the Obama and Clinton candidacies have revealed that Americans do not know how to generate truthful and nuanced discussions about the sophisticated ways in which we've learned to negotiate or evade the thorny realities of race (including whiteness) and gender (masculinity, femininity, or transgender) in American social life.
In George Packer's recent deconstruction of Republican conservatism, he illustrates that political strategists like Pat Buchanan have been using the codes of racial superiority and racial separatism in extremely sophisticated ways for the last forty-five years. Packer explains,
Buchanan gave me a copy of a seven-page confidential memorandum—“A little raw for today,” he warned—that he had written for Nixon in 1971, under the heading “Dividing the Democrats.” Drawn up with an acute understanding of the fragilities and fault lines in “the Old Roosevelt Coalition,” it recommended that the White House “exacerbate the ideological division” between the Old and New Left by praising Democrats who supported any of Nixon’s policies; highlight “the elitism and quasi-anti-Americanism of the National Democratic Party”; nominate for the Supreme Court a Southern strict constructionist who would divide Democrats regionally; use abortion and parochial-school aid to deepen the split between Catholics and social liberals; elicit white working-class support with tax relief and denunciations of welfare. Finally, the memo recommended exploiting racial tensions among Democrats. “Bumper stickers calling for black Presidential and especially Vice-Presidential candidates should be spread out in the ghettoes of the country,” Buchanan wrote. “We should do what is within our power to have a black nominated for Number Two, at least at the Democratic National Convention.” Such gambits, he added, could “cut the Democratic Party and country in half; my view is that we would have far the larger half.”(An aside: unfortunately, this may also explain the basis for some of Senator Clinton's campaign strategies -- bomb dropping "hardworking white Americans" and "Robert Kennedy's assassination." The first Clinton uses to describe the racially paranoid white Americans whose votes she can count on because they cannot tolerate Obama's blackness; the second, though couched as a historical basis for her continued participation in the race, is also an insinuation that something terrible may happen to Obama or that something scandalous may afflict his campaign. And almost certainly the sort of feminism that her campaign seems to be rallying around on is focused on white womanhood -- not the hybrid feminism championed by June Jordan or Gloria Anzaldua.)
The Nixon White House didn’t enact all of these recommendations, but it would be hard to find a more succinct and unapologetic blueprint for Republican success in the conservative era. “Positive polarization” helped the Republicans win one election after another—and insured that American politics would be an ugly, unredeemed business for decades to come.
In the following interesting episode of Bloggingheads, John McWhorter and Glenn Loury examine, albeit briefly, whether racial paranoia about Obama is actually racism by definition or Buchananite practice. I've not come to any conclusions about the arguments that McWhorter, a linguist, and Loury, a sociologist, disseminate in this short clip, although I don't believe that racism is "over." In fact, as this presidential race continues I believe that we will need to interrogate our social arrangements and our ways of speaking about them closely -- the requirement to do so rises daily.