How Bigotry Works

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Former NFL defensive back Wade Davis, has come out the closet:

Davis had won over the locker room, which is the very reason he never uttered a word about his sexual orientation. "You just want to be one of the guys, and you don't want to lose that sense of family," Davis says. "Your biggest fear is that you'll lose that camaraderie and family. I think about how close I was with Jevon and Samari. It's not like they'd like me less, it's that they have to protect their own brand." 

When I caught up with Kearse at the NFLPA's Rookie Premiere event in May, he still remembered Davis fondly a decade later. "That's my dog," Kearse said. He had no idea that Davis was gay until that event last month. "I know there have been a lot more than just Wade," Kearse said upon learning of Davis' sexual orientation. "It's just becoming more acceptable, which is a good thing so they can come out and not feel secluded." 

Eddie George was on the other side of the ball with the Titans while Davis was there. The former Heisman Trophy winner didn't know Davis was gay at the time, but he feels a gay athlete on that Titans team would have been accepted. "I don't see it as a problem," George said. "I don't think it would have been a problem at all."

Eddie George is smart guy and I think it's good that both he and Kearse still embrace Davis. But I suspect it would have very much been a problem for Davis to come out a decade ago. 

One reason why it's hard to see bigotry in people we respect and love, is that it's become a mark of shame. I would almost go so far as to say it's becoming a class marker, which is very different than saying that bigotry is restricted to a certain class. But we think of bigots we think of ignorance, stupidity, violence and a lack of decorum. No one really wants to associate their friends and family with those sorts of qualities.

This becomes increasingly true as the particular bigotry becomes less accepted, and shame comes into play. And so in the 19th century you virtually everyone you have any respect for, at some point, uttering kind words about white supremacy. I am not even convinced that everyone who spoke those words believed them. But the lack of shame frees us from having to analyze our impulses, and even when we have analyzed them we're still free to say what we want in order to be part of the crowd.

But as bigotries are increasingly marginalized we also marginalize evidence of them. One way we do that is by trying to make them the exclusive property of people who are themselves already marginalized. So everyone knows the rough history of segregation in the South, but considerably fewer people know how red-lining, block-busting, and mob violence shaped housing patterns in the North. We all know who George Wallace was. But Orville Hubbard kept the city of Dearborn nearly all-white well into the 70s, at which point he was still saying things like: 

"I don't keep the niggers out of Dearborn. I don't keep anybody out of Dearborn. I haven't done anything to encourage 'em. I don't do anything to discourage 'em."

Bigotry becomes a kind of ignorance, and thus a sin. And we tend to not want to see sin in those we relate to. We would like to think that the it would not have been "a problem at all" for a openly gay man to play in the NFL a decade ago. That, of course, leaves us with the fact that there still isn't one today.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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