Against the Conversation, Cont.

Kansas politician Jim Gile's insistence that he can't be racist is an example of denial and willful ignorance. And it's fairly endemic.

I think the dynamic which The Wire outlines here indicates why a conversation is beyond us. Jim Gile, a country commissioner in Kansas, was caught on tape discussing the repair of building with a group. He told the group that the county should hire an architect, instead of "nigger-rigging" the project. This suggestion was greeted with laughter. In case you were unclear about the meaning Gile went on to clarify -- the project should not be "Afro-Americanized."  


When the tape emerged, Gile claimed that he had actually meant to say "jury-rig" or "jerry-rig." How you get from "nigger" to "jury" or "jerry" is beyond me. And "jerry-rig" and "Afro-Americanized" became synonyms, I'm not quite sure. 

But none of this really matters because Gile is a "good person" and isn't racist:
"I am not a prejudiced person," Gile said Friday. "I have built Habitat homes for colored people." Gile said he also has a close friend whom he regards as a sister who is black.  "I don't ever do anything bad and don't know how to do anything bad. People know I am not," he said. 

In addition to building Habitat homes, Gile has been involved with CAPS, DVACK, the Food Bank, Salvation Army and Salina Rescue Mission, and he helped start Hunger Barrel, Souper Bowl and Project Salina. In 1989, Gile was awarded the JC Penney Golden Rule award for his volunteer work and he was given the Salina Award for Outstanding Citizen in 2009.
One of his colleagues went on to say that Gile doesn't have "a racist bone in his body .... He would give the shirt off his back to help anyone, no matter their race or status."

It is tempting to write this off as the local shenanigans of some unknown politician. Except that Gile's response is fairly typical when people are caught doing racist things. You can see my catalogue here. Michael Richards once yelled, at the top of his lungs, "He's a nigger! He's a nigger!" made a joke about lynching. When told that this is the sort of thing which, you know, racists tend to do, he said "I'm not a racist" -- and was indignant that someone would call him one -- "that's what's so insane."

This is denial and willful ignorance. And it's fairly endemic. I can't really remember the last time I saw a public figure do something racist and say, "Yes. I am racist. I am sorry and I intend to do something about it." Indeed virtually any "conversation" on race that would take place in this country must -- necessarily -- be premised on there not being any actual living racists, or any actual effects of racism. 

We do not know. And we like it that way.

EDIT: As a clarification, this is where I part with many of my liberal fellow travelers. I just don't believe everyone should be engaged in a conversation. I strongly believe that people often have disparate interests. White racism is an actual interest held by actual people. Some people should be talked to. Other people must be defeated.
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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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