A Conservative Confronts His Racist Past

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Any essay that opens with the declaration “We called him N----- Jeff" is going to attract attention. I have struck out all but the first letter of the offending word; author Alan Jacobs does not. Called “The Walking Boy” and posted on the unabashedly right-wing The American Conservative website, the essay is a meditation on childhood racism by a respected conservative professor of literature who grew up in Birmingham, Ala.

Posted two days ago, the essay is obviously meant as a reflection on the Trayvon Martin verdict. Jacobs makes no effort to hide the racism of his white peers, even though he says that he himself did not participate in physical attacks on “N----- Jeff.”

All I can say in my defense is that I never hurled a stone at him, or shouted abuse. But I stood by, many a time, as others did those things, and I neither walked away nor averted my eyes. I never held anyone’s cloak, but then I was never asked to. I watched it all, gripping a rock in my hand as though I were preparing to use it — so that no one would turn on me with anger or contempt — and I always stood a little behind them so they couldn’t see that I wasn’t throwing anything. I was smaller and younger than the rest of them, and they were smaller and younger than him. In my memory he seems almost a full-grown man; I suppose he was eleven or twelve.

As far as conservative responses to the Trayvon verdict, Jacobs’s is far more compelling than the race-fear being proffered in the pages of The Washington Post by Richard Cohen and Kathleen Parker. Jacobs is eloquent in the description of the ugliness with which this black boy – and so many others, of course – was treated:

We could have surrounded him, of course, but we were too cowardly for that. We were pretty sure that, as long as we huddled in a small group, he wouldn’t attack; but if we separated he might go for one of us. So we gathered like a Greek chorus to curse, and Jeff kept walking. Eventually his solitary figure grew smaller, and our throats grew tired of launching insults. We dropped our rocks and returned to our children’s games.

The question is whether mere acknowledgement of prejudice has any curative properties of its own. Jacobs says he did not throw rocks at this young man; but will his essay prevent others from doing so in the future?

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After Gawker linked to the essay last night, one commenter had this to say:

If this is what counts for conservative introspection... or white introspection... or Southern introspection... or American introspection... my god I can't find any useful words. Except: as a nation, we're just as fucked up as the news makes us seem.

I happen to think that we are even more messed-up than what’s revealed by the evening news, but that’s because I am a cynic. And I had prepared to cringe at reading Jacobs's essay, only to find myself surprisingly moved by his admission of racism. The essay ends with him telling the story to a black colleague, who responds with three words of pure truth: “Poor little thing.” She is talking about "N---- Jeff," as well as so many others who have gone unnamed. 

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