Response to Spike Lee: Define Your Terms


We are all entitled to our own opinions. None of us are entitled to our own facts.

– Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan

Dear Mr. Lee,

Thanks so much for coming to Andover and engaging with our kids and community. Your genuineness, humor and candor were great gifts.

In addition to sharing some of your personal history, emphasizing the necessity of having supportive people in one’s life and explaining how one can have confidence in the face of doubt, I was very appreciative of your effort to inspire our kids to not settle for surface level understandings of crucial things (e.g. the deep significance of MLK Day and the value of sports as a window into important social dynamics).

In keeping with your admonition to dig deep into important matters in order to gain true understanding, I am hopeful that you will accept a correction to a misconception you presented at the All School Meeting.

When asked about your purported stance on whether or not blacks can be racist, you confirmed that you maintain that since racism involves the exertion of power (by government or institutions of power), those who do not have such power cannot be racist. Blacks in this country have been and are still widely excluded from macro level sources of societal power; ipso facto, blacks cannot be racist.

What requires correction here is the unnecessary and dangerous restriction of the meaning of the term racism and the conflation of several related concepts.

While you are by no means the only proponent of the racism-requires-power formula, such a formulation is specious. Asserting vociferously that that is how you choose to define the term and adding that to do so draws an important distinction between the concepts of prejudice and racism only compounds the problem of corrupting a perfectly functional concept by conflating other terms associated with it.

Prejudice is the holding of unwarranted, preconceived and possibly irrational views in favor of or against something or some people. Power is the capacity to exert force over or upon something. Racism is the belief that a person or people are inferior or superior, favorable or unfavorable to other people based on the person’s or peoples’ supposed membership in supposed different races. Hence, I may hold the racist belief that Asians are, by virtue of being Asian, better at mathematics than other races, or that blacks, as a consequence of being black, have more rhythm and athleticism than other races. Oppression is the use of force or authority to subjugate others.

If we can agree on the meanings of these terms (and I insist that we must, since the definitions provided above are in fact the definitive understandings provided in virtually any dictionary one might consult), then we are bound to acknowledge that anyone with a thinking brain can be prejudiced or racist, but that one needs power in order to oppress. It is reasonable then to assert that race-based oppression requires the power to oppress and that since blacks in this country are largely excluded from macro level seats of power, they are unable to perform race-based oppression.

Why all this trouble to end up agreeing that black people can’t oppress (at societal levels)? Because oppression is not the same thing as racism, and to factitiously indemnify a whole group of people from being held equally accountable for toxic forms of thought that would otherwise be called racist is unjust and dangerous. Whites can be racist, blacks can be racist, biracial people can be racist, and on and on. But only people with power can oppress. The school of thought advocating otherwise which you countenanced in your remarks is simply wrong.

I hope, Mr. Lee, that you will acknowledge the inescapable logic of this argument, and that you will henceforward adjust your stated position on racism to express the truth that anyone can be racist, but only those with power can commit race-based oppression.

Thanks again for coming to Andover.


Carlos Hoyt

Carlos Hoyt is the Associate Dean of Students.


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