Racism has become the “R-word,” an allegation that is so outrageous that it cannot even be spoken in public, let alone seriously addressed. In this brief exploration, I propose that it is exactly because racism continues to loom large in American society that talking about it has become taboo. In other words, banning the “R-word” serves a political function. It masks the failure of American society to confront the existence of racism and do something about its effects. Derrick Bell's path breaking work can be used to show why the focus of race discourse has moved from debating over what to do about racism to debating over whether to talk about racism. What Bell discovered is that talking about race is inherently ideological. Analyzing race discourse reveals competing definitions of racism that can be deployed to achieve different ideological goals.
In the remaining portions of this Essay, I will first review two tools devised by Derrick Bell that can shed light on the way race and racism manifest in American society. Then, I will apply those tools to analyze why the discussion of racism has become taboo.
Kenneth B. Nunn, The R-Word: A Tribute to Derrick Bell, 22 U. Fla. J.L. & Pub. Pol'y 431 (2011), available at http://scholarship.law.ufl.edu/facultypub/369