Friday, March 8, 2013

Good People, Racist Country

TNC's guest editorial in the New York Times yesterday covered well-trod ideas but it is worth revisiting them. Riffing off a recent indignity the black actor Forest Whitaker suffered at a deli in TNC's neighborhood, he challenges us to think about "The good, racist people."
In modern America we believe racism to be the property of the uniquely villainous and morally deformed, the ideology of trolls, gorgons and orcs. We believe this even when we are actually being racist. In 1957, neighbors in Levittown, Pa., uniting under the flag of segregation, wrote: “As moral, religious and law-abiding citizens, we feel that we are unprejudiced and undiscriminating in our wish to keep our community a closed community.” 
A half-century later little had changed. The comedian Michael Richards (Kramer on “Seinfeld”) once yelled at a black heckler from the stage: “He’s a nigger! He’s a nigger! He’s a nigger!” Confronted about this, Richards apologized and then said, “I’m not a racist,” and called the claim “insane.” 
The idea that racism lives in the heart of particularly evil individuals, as opposed to the heart of a democratic society, is reinforcing to anyone who might, from time to time, find their tongue sprinting ahead of their discretion. We can forgive Whitaker’s assailant. Much harder to forgive is all that makes Whitaker stand out in the first place. New York is a city, like most in America, that bears the scars of redlining, blockbusting and urban renewal. The ghost of those policies haunts us in a wealth gap between blacks and whites that has actually gotten worse over the past 20 years.  
But much worse, it haunts black people with a kind of invisible violence that is given tell only when the victim happens to be an Oscar winner. The promise of America is that those who play by the rules, who observe the norms of the “middle class,” will be treated as such. But this injunction is only half-enforced when it comes to black people, in large part because we were never meant to be part of the American story. Forest Whitaker fits that bill, and he was addressed as such.
Coates is challenging here not only the notion that good people cannot be racists, but the very meaning of American society. It reminds me of the Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal who came to the United States at the behest of the Carnegie Corporation to study the "Negro problem." (Around the same time, the black author Richard Wright was asked what could be done about the "Negro problem." He informed the interviewer that there was no Negro problem, only a white racism problem. Seventy years later, many whites still don't get that, even if we don't call it the Negro problem anymore). The result of Myrdal's study was the classic and extremely influential book, An American Dilemma, published in 1944.

The point is, though Myrdal was anti-racist in his orientation, he accepted many common frames of the time and was extravagant in his praise of American ideals. He argued that all Americans shared a belief in an American Creed defined by freedom, equality, justice and opportunity, and that any deviations from this creed were tragic exceptions rather than contested expressions of American identity. When you actually look at the history of the United States, this optimistic take becomes extremely dubious. And that's part of what Coates is getting at: racism lives in "the heart of a democratic society," but Myrdal wanted to believe, and we do as well, that it merely lives in "the heart of particularly evil individuals."

The line that we trace from the Declaration of Independence to the Emancipation Proclamation to the civil rights movement is useful, and was used by people at those times to advance justice, but it is only one expression of contested American identities. The line from Jefferson and Madison to Calhoun and colonization and Plessy and modern colorblind conservatism is just as true an expression of America's real identity, and it's one in which black people are excluded.

TNC followed up his column with a brilliant summary of the stakes involved:
If we accept that racism is a creation, then we must then accept that it can be destroyed. And if we accept that it can be destroyed, we must then accept that it can be destroyed by us and that it likely must be destroyed by methods kin to creation. Racism was created by policy. It will likely only be ultimately destroyed by policy.  
That is hard to take. If Forrest Whitaker sticks out in that deli for reasons of individual mortal sin, we can castigate the guy who frisked him and move on. But if he -- and others like him -- stick out for reasons of policy, for decisions that we, as a state, have made, then we have a problem. Then we have to do something beyond being nice to each other.
This is the crux of my grief. Basically, if you don't think the United States is a racist country in some fundamental way -- or if you think that to the extent racism lingers your job is to be nice to people -- then in my view you don't actually care about racism.

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