The Racism of “Good People”

If you are a white person who has on occasion felt aggrieved at the persistence of allegations of white racism in America, do yourself and your conscience a favor and read Ta-Nehisi’s Coates’ guest column today in the New York Times.

His point of departure is the humiliating frisking of the very famous and distinguished actor Forest Whitaker by an employee of a deli in Coates’ own Manhattan neighborhood. But he uses this incident to make the very important point that if we disclaim the possibility of racist behavior on the part of “good” or “moral” people, we may well wind up excusing racism almost altogether.

The idea that racism lives in the heart of particularly evil individuals, as opposed to the heart of a democratic society, is reinforcing to anyone who might, from time to time, find their tongue sprinting ahead of their discretion. We can forgive Whitaker’s assailant. Much harder to forgive is all that makes Whitaker stand out in the first place. New York is a city, like most in America, that bears the scars of redlining, blockbusting and urban renewal. The ghost of those policies haunts us in a wealth gap between blacks and whites that has actually gotten worse over the past 20 years.

But much worse, it haunts black people with a kind of invisible violence that is given tell only when the victim happens to be an Oscar winner. The promise of America is that those who play by the rules, who observe the norms of the “middle class,” will be treated as such. But this injunction is only half-enforced when it comes to black people, in large part because we were never meant to be part of the American story. Forest Whitaker fits that bill, and he was addressed as such.

I am trying to imagine a white president forced to show his papers at a national news conference, and coming up blank. I am trying to a imagine a prominent white Harvard professor arrested for breaking into his own home, and coming up with nothing. I am trying to see Sean Penn or Nicolas Cage being frisked at an upscale deli, and I find myself laughing in the dark. It is worth considering the messaging here. It says to black kids: “Don’t leave home. They don’t want you around.” It is messaging propagated by moral people.

The thing is, this has always been more or less true. My extended family (thought not, mercifully, my nuclear family) when I was growing up in the Jim Crow South was loaded with racists. None of them were members of the Ku Klux Klan, perpetrators of violence, or “bad people” by any general measure. Most of them were very regular church-goers. One of the sweetest people I ever knew was a great aunt who after MLK’s assassination allowed as how she wished she could take in the assassin and feed him and protect him for his great act in defending Christian civilization. That wouldn’t have been surprising to Dr. King himself, whose classic Letter From a Birmingham Jail was addressed to the good Christian clergy of that city who by their silence and calls for an unjust “peace” were defending segregation more effectively than the hooded riffraff of the Klan.

Now that racism is no longer respectable, it’s tempting to reason conversely and suggest respectable people can’t be racists. But to do that is to reason racism virtually out of existence. Most of the world’s religious and moral traditions try to remind us that while good works are always to be valued, there is something in the human soul that makes good people prone to doing bad things. That did not stop being the case when racism was deemed “bad” by national consensus in this country, and those of us who will never suffer a single indignity for the color of our skin should remember that before turning all human experience on its head and claiming we are the victims of racism if our own good will is challenged.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.