Good People, Racist People

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My Times column yesterday focused on something we've talked about quite a bit here: the idea that racism is not merely the property of the morally deformed. Before we get to that, I wanted to acknowledge Thomas Sugrue's Sweet Land of Liberty, which is probably the definitive history of the civil rights movement in the North. I've written about the book's rendition of Levittown's segregationist policies before. 

But I thought this quote from racists in Levittown really illustrates what I mean. Here you find people in the practice of not just actual racial discrimination, but the kind of actual racial discrimination that gifted us the wealth gap we now struggle with, insisting that they are doing no such thing:

"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 few years ago I wrote a modern history of people practicing racism all the while claiming they were not. You can include this example of a Louisiana judge who refused to marry an interracial couple and then told a newspaper:

"I'm not a racist. I just don't believe in mixing the races that way."
The "I'm not racist even though I'm doing something actually racist right now" rationale is linked to the notion of racism as something worthy of societal condemnation. That is a good thing. As Sugrue identifies in his book, you see a post-World-War-II consensus forming in the 1950s that racial discrimination actually is wrong. 

Along with that (perhaps in the 60s) comes the idea that racism is something that "low-class" white people do. It's not a system of laws and policies, so much as the ideology of Cletus the slack-jawed yokel. But Arnold Hirsch and Beryl Satter's work shows the University of Chicago quietly and privately pursuing a racist strategy of "urban renewal" while publicly claiming otherwise. 

None of this is new. It's akin to proto-Confederates loudly and lustily defending slavery, daring the North to war before 1865, and then afterward claiming that the war really wasn't about slavery. The point is to save face.
 
Last night I had the luxury of sitting and talking with the brilliant historian Barbara Fields. One point she makes that very few Americans understand is that racism is a creation. You read Edmund Morgan's work and actually see racism being inscribed in the law and the country changing as a result. 

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.



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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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