Wednesday, April 18, 2012

ummm, yes, that's called racism. you can say it.

A couple weeks ago Newsweek had an underappreciated piece of reporting on the reactions of people in Brandon Mississippi to last year's infamous murder in which a white teenager beat up a 47 year old black man and then ran over him in his truck.

The killer, Deryl Dedmon, was drunk that night and upset about a girl, so he and some buddies decided to leave the party and drive to Jackson to "fuck with some niggers." They had driven to Jackson for the same purpose at least five times before, growing increasingly violent. The last time they had beaten a black man until he begged for his life. They drove to a poor black part of Jackson they called "Jafrica" or "the Third World" or simply the "zoo." This time, after a beating, Dedmon simply ran over the man, killing him.

The family of the victim, James Anderson, has responded with grace and dignity, but we don't hear about them in this article. We do hear from Dedmon's friends and family, though, and their words are fascinating. How has Dedmon's family coped? The grace of God, and one other vital point: "Deryl is not racist." His friends, white and black, seem to agree:
“He didn’t seem racist at all to me,” said Lagarrin Watson, a black senior who at the time had a white girlfriend. “I never saw any sign of racism,” added Brandi Henson, a mixed-race senior, who had Dedmon over for pizza with friends the week before he ran over Anderson. “Deryl was always sweet to me.” [...]
 In the version told by Dedmon’s social circle, racial hatred did not bring them to Jackson so much as boredom and drunken teenage aggression, mingled with a kind of moral outrage at the shabbiness of life in the Metro Inn area. Yes, the people there are almost all black, and the white teens call them “niggers.” But that has more to do with their status than their skin; the undignified don’t deserve dignity, they say. “White, black, red, or yellow,” says the Bunyanesque friend from the car wash, who did not go to Jackson that night, “what I’m prejudiced against is stupidity. I don’t like stupid people.”
This is almost hard to take seriously. Here's a kid who fell into a pattern of making special trips into black neighborhoods to seek out black people to beat up while spewing racial epithets. Here's a boy who ultimately decided to run over a black man with his pickup truck. After which, laughing, he immediately called his friends to proclaim, "I just ran over the nigga." But...he's not a racist.

I've often said, almost jokingly, that for many Americans there is nothing you can do that warrants being called a racist. Well, it turns out that is literally true. See, Deryl Dedmon is a racist. He is. You don't need to talk to him to find out for sure. You don't need to have pizza with him. And yet the colorblind, individualistic perspective on racism has become so entrenched that even some black teens are confused about what racism actually is.

Racism marks the boundaries of our existence and hems in our path. It doesn't necessarily turn us into a monster. Having some black friends, and treating them well, is perfectly compatible with being a racist. Indeed, racists tend to find such friends quite useful (as the proudly racist John Derbyshire reminded us recently). But there's a reason that Dedmon went to a black neighborhood when he wanted to cause trouble. His friend who claimed he's just "prejudiced against stupidity" is a liar or, perhaps, stupid. There are numerous poor white neighborhoods Dedmon and his buddies could have attacked. But they went to the black section of Jackson every time. It's not complicated. They went there because they're racists.

I know, I feel dumb stating the obvious, but that's the point: for tragically large numbers of people, it's not obvious.

I think there's a historical problem here, too. Do people think that slavery was one unending orgy of hate, day after day? Do people think that all slaveowners were monsters? Are people not able to imagine themselves as a slaveowner? If you can't you're not taking American history or your own humanity very seriously. Racism in 1850 didn't necessarily mean that I couldn't have affection for my slave (the equivalent of having you over for pizza). But it did mean that I was master and the other guy was slave. It shaped the boundaries of people's lives and determined their most important decisions. I'll get into this more later.

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