Modern Standard Racism

Photo By U.S. National Archives | Words By Joseph Earl Thomas

Liberal-ish citizens rejoiced as an employee from Thomas Jefferson hospital was swiftly fired after saying she was "sick and tired of all this bullshit with the black people!!" Her recommendation was to bulldoze the BLM movement protests in the 24th/25th districts while wearing both a white lives matter (see: all lives matter) and a blue lives matter (see: white lives matter) t-shirt at the same damn time. I discovered this triumph of racial justice through none other than social media. Friends-- some of whom also proudly rock these anti-black t-shirts -- were outraged at the woman's comments and never prouder of their progressiveness. In the minds of too many, the loss of her job simultaneously unshackled chains and laced bootstraps from Philly to Mississippi. Problem is, I couldn't bask in their revelry.

The scenario reminded me of an incident at my own job. A suspect was found guilty of making a joke (a hilarious one which HIPAA prevents me from revealing the details of) about a famous former slave/abolitionist who may have had a lot in common with a current emergency department patient. The work email was awash with white neoliberals making profound statements about “zero-tolerance” and professionalism. Management promptly addressed the issue and informed all staff of how serious the matter was; demanding the abolition of such antiquated racism. They even sent out PDFs of workplace policies with relevant information in bold.

While the offending events/parties were worlds apart, the response was identical. Justice was demanded, sought, and claimed in the swift, clean manner that we all know dismantles racism forever and always. But essentially, if Louis C.K. and Donald Sterling both worked at Philadelphia hospitals, they’d be terminated (or at least reprimanded) just as quickly; bearing a stamp as equally deleterious racists. By that logic, Chris Rock's BFF who directed "Pootie Tang" is just as harmful to racial equality as the guy who forbids his girlfriend to be seen with black people in public. While liberals used to value comedians--as the best of them highlight social injustices--this fundamental difference between satire and overt bigotry is vanishing quickly and has lead many comics to refuse shows at formerly liberal bastions like college campuses.

Which reminds me that while racism is frowned upon, we don't typically punish people for it--unless they're an old time racist of antiquity. By that I mean those dumb enough to violate the by-laws of political correctness and say nigger too loudly. That’s what really matters. Because that's black and white. What rational person could disagree with the character assassination of one who plainly states their loathing for colored people? If this woman at Jefferson, or Paula Deen, or Donald Sterling, or Donald Trump were never dumb enough to mention it, would their views have been any different? We aren’t complicating things enough to improve ways of thinking, just shutting down anything remotely uncomfortable. Considering this, political correctness is nothing more than subterfuge for those who practice modern standard racism (MSR).  

MSR is summed up by the shop owner who follows your brownness around the store, the employer who turns away “ethnic” sounding names on resumes, the confederate flags on these damn military bases, the police officer who already knows you're guilty, the judge who grants you harsher sentences for equal or lesser crimes, the media that conflates excess melanin with sub-human status and the self-loathing that follows, the politician who dubs you “super-predators,” the physician with diminished consideration for the cases of colored people, and especially those who feel your life is worth so little that they must adamantly contest the very premise of a black lives matter movement--completely unable to de-center themselves and equally unwilling to imagine why. I'd prefer people to just admit when they hate niggers--it’d provide a simpler framework to judge and subsequently manage their transgressions--instead of politically forcing their bigotry into MSR without ever addressing the problems underlying the way they think.

Unfortunately, MSR has no simple cure, and I think that's why we celebrate dumb racists so often. We think, finally they said nigger! We knew it all along, but couldn't prove it. Now we can bask in the golden rays of what little foreseeable justice wafts in our direction. It may feel good to rejoice, but in some ways, it exacerbates the real problem. It does not force those who practice MSR to deal with their biases, but instead reinforces the conservative idea that very few people are racist, that we punish them harshly and--my personal favorite--that the only racist act is the open/direct condemnation of colored people. There has been a lazy expectation that political correctness will subdue or even solve racism, but it has only granted us swifter pointer fingers and comfortable places amongst the civilized for savvy racists whose views will never be challenged. Those who lose their jobs over racist comments will not feel less vitriol towards brown people, but more. In their minds we were already the cause of all white tears and the loss of employment is further evidence of our destructive power. But now all they have to do is waltz into their next job knowing what never to say publically no matter how angry they get. They become more crafty and only share their loathing with close friends, their hatred surfaces in microaggressions that go unnoticed by people who ain’t woke. Isn’t the greatest damage done by those we let in?

All one must do to not be labeled a racist, is to avoid obvious statements that reflect it. To call out failures of political correctness as racism--in the absence of deductive reasoning and while remaining oblivious to everyday racial aggression--is to diminish social justice movements and foster breeding grounds for MSR. It is to reinforce the racist ideals in this country’s bloodstream and pump it through those angry little Trump supporting hearts. Americans love to penalize those rare examples of lapsing political correctness because it’s so damn easy, and the celebration draws attention away from persistent inaction where it actually counts. In no way can there be a future dismantling of racism without the extreme discomfort that accompanies all true growth. But right now, the country never has to admit an uncomfortable truth or think our way through a conversation if we can throw ice cream at it. No empathy, no growth, no future--but plenty of spectacles dismantling old racism--and privatized hiding places for the subtlety of MSR.


Joseph Earl Thomas is a graduate student in the Writing Studies program at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, PA where he also works as a writing tutor. He blogs on birth world problems at and writes in several genres including memoir, speculative fiction and poetry. He is currently working on a collection of speculative stories, along with a fantasy novel and memoir. He lives in Elkins Park, PA with more dogs than people. He can be reached by email at

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