From David Schraub:
Drum identifies a paradox: We have to talk about racism, but talking about racism renders conversation impossible. Racism is a “such a uniquely toxic accusation that it makes any real conversation hopeless.”
But here’s the thing: there’s no reason why that has to be true. When we talk about homelessness, for example, and I argue that a particular political position is unfair to the homeless, it doesn’t have this effect. Racism is different: to talk about racial justice at all is automatically translated into a personal attack on the target’s moral character. And once that’s the terrain of the discussion, we’ve insulated the underlying policy differences from critical review. All conversations about racism are converted into inquisitions into whether or not someone is a conscious bigot. Since they know they’re nothing of the sort, the “accusation” is dismissed and the “accuser” is labeled a race-baiter. One may have noticed that even if one takes great pains to frame an argument such that it does not call anybody a racist, the stock response nevertheless will be “are you calling me a racist?!!?” Why are they so eager to make the debate about something so “toxic”? It’s because that’s actually very easy terrain to deal with.
Framing racism as a “toxic” accusation benefits the status quo racial hierarchy. Most obviously, it does so by insulating policies which have racial impacts from meaningful scrutiny. More subtly, it allows proponents of maintaining racial hierarchy to maintain their self-perception as anti-racist. This whole gambit depends on asserting the exceptional moral seriousness of racism (else how could it be so “toxic”?). One often hears the claim that a given charge of racism is spurious coupled with the assertion that such frivolous accusations “make it harder to oppose real racism” — a reassertion of racism as something that is serious and does need to be opposed. The net result is that racism is so serious that nothing ever actually can be racist — a neat equilibrium, for those who want to identify as non-racist but don’t want to actually change anything about themselves.