What happens when racism goes underground?
In the early days of 2008, there was a collective feeling among the open-minded population that we had finally reached our better selves. The mood was festive. It is that feeling that seems rare in real life— we gain what we hoped for, without settling. Not the first black nominee of a major party who ends up losing the general election. Not the first black Vice President. The first black President of the United States. America was proud of itself in 2008. But as we all know, pride goeth before the fall. Since the election of the first African American president, we have seen the public sour on him. We have seen a Republican controlled house dedicated to his failure by any means necessary. We have seen racism go public in police forces from Staten island to Ferguson. And now a white gunman kills nine black individuals in a church.
As a fifty year old white male, I can recall many times when I overheard racist comments delivered fearlessly in public; today, it is very unlikely that anyone will openly express what they now know but did not fully comprehend in the 80s and 90s as racist remarks. No one wants to be a racist. That is a good thing. The problem is that not wanting to be something does not imply that there is a something else one aims to be.
I am not a racist is like saying I am not a murderer, or I am not an arsonist.
For the typical white American, a racist is one who publicly expresses racist remarks or commits racist acts. And these same white Americans would have no trouble passing a lie detector test when answering “No” to the question “Are you a racist?”
Many white people will speak openly about their dislike of President Obama, saying things as seemingly innocuous as “He’s too full of himself,” or “He thinks he’s better than everyone else”–and pass that same lie detector test. In reality, the arrogance, of which the likes of NY Times essayist Maureen Dowd have accused the President, would be construed as being above the fray or as acting presidential in a white leader.
Racism has gone underground. And the adage out of sight out of mind has been the blight of American society for the past eight years. The pride white America felt in electing a black man led to a very limited definition of racism. How can we be racists when our president is black? While we pat ourselves on the back for not being racists, racism itself is gaining strength in pockets and caves and in the minds of people like Dylann Roof.
White America needs to know two important things: 1) we are all racists and 2) not being something bad is nothing to celebrate.
Face the fact; we are born racists. It is our inheritance the moment we enter this society. It’s not our fault, but it is a reality nonetheless. If we are lucky, at some point in our growing up we gain clear evidence; for In knowing, we can begin to modify our behavior. There are many who live without ever becoming aware of the subtle, unconscious, or subconscious things they do or say on a daily basis that are part of their racist inheritance.
Mine happened as follows
My family lived in a predominantly lower middle-class African American neighborhood. A generation before most of the whites had escaped to the suburbs. A white friend and I used to ride our bicycles around the neighborhood. On this particular day, I was to launch my brand new Schwinn Continental II on its maiden voyage. My mother warned me as usual to stay within the friendly confines of our neighborhood where I would be safe. But there is a difference between riding a bicycle within boundaries and riding a brand new 10 speed Schwinn Continental II in those same boundaries. It was impossible for me not to enjoy the ease with which I could ascend hills and the speed with which I could descend them. Soon I was riding along a street in a more impoverished section of the city with several black teens running after me throwing rocks. But I was nearing tenth gear and sped away. I finally stopped to take a breather. Out of an alley sprang four of five of them. They tried to wrest me from my bike. In my puerile way, I was determined to die before giving up this prized possession. After I was punched to the ground, the kicks started. But my feet were on the pedals and my knuckles were extra white clenching the handlebars. And then one of them bit my neck. The pain loosened my grip. And the bike was tugged forever away from me. In my tears, I looked around. On the steps of the Pleasant Valley Recreational Center, I saw several adults sitting. But I did not see them simply as adults. I saw them as blacks who refused to come to my rescue because I was white.
That was the first racist thought of which I was aware.
The second was far worse. When I got home, at my first free moment, I telephoned my best friend who until then I would never have qualified by saying “black,” and I yelled at him, “I hate you. You are an N word!”
My default reaction to this situation was not that the teenagers who did this were an exception; or that the people in that neighborhood were greatly impoverished and owned next to nothing; or that they saw me on this new bike as a rich kid. Nor did I immediately chastise myself for disobeying my mother. Nowhere in my mind was the fact that I felt completely safe in my predominantly African American neighborhood. My default was that every single black person was as guilty for assaulting me as the ones who did. Why? Because they were all black and I wasn’t.
I am fully convinced that that was not my first racist act, but that it was the first that my mind could not subconsciously get away with. I am sure that every day, although I eschew racism, I am committing unknown acts of racism or enjoying privileges contingent upon my being white.
And the unconscious or subconscious can change only with greater self-awareness and a commitment to scrutinize thoughts and actions on a daily basis. The best we can be is recovering racists.
We also need to become lovers of our neighbors, not simply people who don’t use the N word. This means self-education in the history of black America. This means an understanding if not an open support for policies that promote equal pay, lower incarceration rates for black males, affirmative action, , etc. This means doing something positive, not just not doing the negatives.
Racism doesn’t just disappear. It must be weeded out and new attitudes, words, and actions must be planted in its place.
Today in checking my phone messages I was surprised by the presence of a recording of about a minute in length of Senator Pat Toomey’s telephone town hall meeting. In this minute he said that the police were being made scapegoats in recent incidents of civil unrest and that unfortunately the blame falls on the President for introducing new standards for the provision of military style equipment for local law enforcement. I guess the best way of getting rid of the scapegoat is to create a bigger and better one. It’s the President fault. I had fun with this for an hour with my children
Son: Dad, I can’t find my wallet!
Me: It’s the President’s fault.
Daughter: I don’t have any clean clothes for my trip on Sunday
Me” Well, you’ll have to ask the President about that one.
At any rate, if putting some accountability in law enforcement is causing civil unrest then we know we are in the middle of a situation far worse than we may have initially thought.
But why did Senator Toomey blame the president? First, his telephone constituency was predominately white; so he was preaching to the proverbial choir who as recent polls have suggested tend to support police officers when they gun down African Americans. Second, he was not prepared to sound racist by saying what he really felt: that too many times the black citizens in these communities provoke the police. Finally, he didn’t have to speak his racist thoughts, since he had his scapegoat, the President who is himself black.
You see for white Senator Toomey and many of his white constituents, hatred and distrust of Barack Obama is synonymous with hatred and distrust of African Americans. Barack Obama is the new N word.
What has happened over the last eight years, particularly in police departments in communities like Baltimore and Ferguson, is that the racist cat has been let out of the bag he was hiding in. Regardless of whether or not Officer Wilson murdered Michael Brown, the free exchange of N word-filled emails and communiques demonstrates just how secure these police officers were in being racists. The truth, however, eventually comes out.
Some of what’s hidden is being revealed, and this is not pretty for whites, especially those who are under the delusion that, just because there is a black President and that neither they nor their close friends toss around the N word, racism is dead in America.
There are, unfortunately, many spots where racism is alive and well. They are simply better hidden. One of these secret spots is in the mind of Dylan Roof.
And we should not kid ourselves into thinking that there are not tens of thousands of people like him– hate in their hearts, biding their time. For white Americans, however, Dylann Roof has the potential of making them more satisfied with themselves since they look so virtuous by comparison. When we ask ourselves, “Am I a racist?” and quickly answer “No!” we are fooling ourselves. Christ would tell us that if we have hate for another in our hearts, then we are murderers. For now, exaggeration is in order: we are Dylann Roof. And until we measure our virtues in positive transformations instead of by the avoidance of extremes, then we will continue to be the fertile field in which men and woman like Dylann Roof grow and flourish.