My guess is that two types of people are going to be reading this. The first are those who see "political correctness" as some kind of liberal conspiracy against the white majority. These are the people who enter into these debates saying things like: "Political correctness is a form of fascism!" and "Political correctness is crushing my right to free speech!". They will tend to claim that they have "nothing against black people" but that affirmative action and the like is taking racial equality "too far". The second group likely to set eyes upon this are liberals looking for an argument. Sorry to these people, but I am doing my best to avoid writing reactionary bullshit- I want to talk about something that I don't think is brought up often enough in these debates by either side of the argument: that political correctness may, to some extent, actually make racial tensions worse.
First, I want to talk about the causes of racism. And I'd like to start to do this by employing the thought of an interesting figure, who is now out of fashion in academic circles but whose work, while pretty uneven, can provide us with some pretty powerful insights: Carl Jung.
One of Jung's most important ideas (and one that leans heavily on Freud) is that we tend to repress those parts of ourselves which do not conform to our ideal of who we are. Unacceptable sexual desires and irrational anger are good examples of parts of our personalities that we usually would prefer to ignore. The problem is that we can't make these parts of ourselves just disappear, however inconvenient they may actually be. And so we form what Jung calls a "shadow self" - basically an underside to our personality that possesses all the traits we'd rather not to. But the shadow does not seem to like being locked up in the basement, so to speak, and tends to do things like appearing in dreams as all kinds of unattractive figures. If you dream, for instance, that a dark-clad man is chasing you down the street, Jung would say that you need to face up to a part of your personality that you have repressed.
Another far more dangerous way that the shadow manifests itself is through projection. This is where our unwanted personality traits are subconsciously projected onto another person. Did you ever know somebody who was obscenely arrogant, but who hated arrogance in other people with a strange vehemence? Jung: "Everything that irritates us about another persona can tell us something important about ourselves."
OK, where does this fit into the problem of racism, I hear you ask. The important thing to remember here is that the phenomenon of shadow projection can and is very often abused by those in positions of power. This is because ethnic minorities and other such groups are the perfect target for projection. So when right wing conspiracy nuts speak of a "Negro conspiracy," perhaps they are actually doing so because of a real fear of something dark and foreboding within themselves: it's much more psychically tolerable to place these unwanted personality traits upon Others than it is to actually face up to them ourselves. Racism, then, seems to be at least partly motivated by people's fear of the 'dark sides' of their own personalities. People can only maintain an acceptable sense of self if they have something "evil" to define themselves against.
All this, of course, is compounded by other factors (another point that Jung should probably have examined further), such as politics and economics. People in poor communities tend to live a state of greater uncertainty and fear than those in middle class environments, because they have less money to protect themselves against hardship and because they typically have more unstable job environments. And so the politically vulnerable are more likely to project these fears onto ethnic minorities, meaning also that the real economic problems that they face go unsolved. You can see quite easily how those in positions of power therefore have a vested interest in the continuation of racist sentiment.
The point for us though is that racism is not something that can be eradicated by simply changing the way we speak. It's unfortunate but true: people depend upon hatred to maintain their very identities. So what happens, then, when you tell someone that racism is wrong, that those from ethnic minorities are good people too? They might nod along with you, but deep down feel the terror that accompanies the collapse of any defence mechanism. And what about when you tell them that they are no longer allowed to say the word "nigger"? Again, they might seem compliant enough, but yet another defence mechanism is under threat, and, deep down, so is their sense of self.
Not surprisingly, this also creates strong feelings of resentment. And so what you end up with is a strong public backlash against "political correctness" as well as an undercurrent of increased racial tension. Down here in Australia, for instance, there were a few weeks when a series of gang rapes were taking place in Sydney. It turned out that the majority of these were being carried out by Arab Muslims, and of course there was a huge outcry. All the usual statements were made, most of them beginning with "I'm not a racist, but..." Newspapers were criticised for not reporting the nationality of the perpetrators from the outset, with claims being made left, right and centre that "political correctness has gone too far."
I think what this shows is that hate will not disappear if all we do about it is simply tell each other to 'play nice with the other kids.'