Is it possible to be so opposed to racism that it becomes more difficult to root out racism?
Just follow me for a second here: What image springs to mind when you think of “racism”? A Klansman burning a cross? Adolf Hitler? George Wallace barring the schoolhouse door? Images like these are iconic, easy to invoke, and extreme. They remain current because they are potent illustrations of where racism leads; their ugliness, their repugnance, is manifest.
There are still, of course, sectors of American society where the crude racism of the epithet and the noose is casually accepted. But , happily, this sort of thing largely is beyond the pale in polite company. And this makes it beguilingly easy to conclude: “Well, I don’t go around slinging racial epithets or fuming with hatred at this or that group. Therefore I can’t be one of those awful people. Why, some of my best friends…”
But the variety of racism more common today is more subtle than that, and in a way more pernicious for it, since the overt bigot is unlikely to wield much social power. It’s the subliminal reaction of the manager looking for a new cashier who, for some reason he can’t articulate, just doesn’t think the minority candidate seems quite trustworthy enough. It’s this person who we most want examining his own attitudes. But to do that means being prepared to start from the difficult premise that even he—educated, urbane, kind, and so on—may indeed harbor racial biases. Like Hitler! Like a Klansman!
Now, there’s an obvious way around this, though it should make us uncomfortable for different reasons. We could make a point of talking about race bias and stereotyping in a more gradated way. At one pole is the Klansman. At another, there’s that “typical white person” who is more guarded and alert walking past a black guy at 1am on 7th and V than he would be walking past a similarly-dressed white person.
The discomfort here comes from the thought that allowing these gradations entails licensing some forms of racism—regarding them as understandable, even acceptable. And for very good reasons, this is not the kind of conversation we want to have: “So, is this particular instance bad racism or sorta-understandable racism?” There are whole modes of thought we just want to be entirely beyond the pale.
While I think Julian's onto something important here, I wonder if this is even relevant for most of the white community. Most people just don't seem very interested in battling subtle bias.
The earlier anti-racism movements had clear goals. Free the slaves, change the Jim Crow laws, tell people they ought to treat black candidates the same as all the others. The new battle is against an endless battle against one's own thoughts. This sounds fine for people who are professional intellectuals, especially if they are focused on race or gender issues. I think that when feminist blogs say, "Everyone is sexist--we are not blaming you, but we need your help to stamp it out" they think they're extending an olive branch. But to most people, I suspect it just sounds exhausting.
And, to tell it true, the newer forms of sexism and racism aren't as bad as what proceeded them. With civil rights, we were asking people to slay dragons. Now we're asking them to spend the rest of their lives exterminating mosquitos. It may be true that a swarm of mosquitos is almost as bad, in toto, as a single dragon. But they don't summon the same sort of emotional energy.
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