I think there's an essay to be written about why any accusation of a racial offense is so often reduced to "Are you a racist?" It would be as if my wife said, "You forgot to check Samori's homework" and I responded, "I'm not a bad father."I would like to try. The strict answer to that question is straightforward. It's as he implies, an evasion. A way to move the terms of the debate to more open, maximalist, easily-defended ground, where counterexamples are easier to find and inflate. "Ron Paul is racist? But he's against the drug war!" etc.
But that piece isn't for me to write. It's for some white person daring enough to plumb the depths of their soul. I don't think this is something that can be explained from the outside.
But I think Ta-Nehisi was looking for something deeper. Let me start with a story and a confession.
Some time ago coming home from work on the train three young black men got on and came to my section. One sat next to me, the other on the floor next to him, and the third across the aisle. They began talking loudly, the one next to me pointing at me kind of behind my head such that it was impossible to determine whether he was trying to subtly signal me as some kind of target or just try and intimidate me out of my chair so he and his buddies could sit together.
There commenced in my mind a vicious battle between 1) the modern secular liberal, arguing (correctly) that I knew nothing about these guys and it was wrong to judge them as I was doing, and 2) the lizard-brain defender of life and limb, arguing (also correctly, in my view) that these guys were setting off some alarms and it would be prudent to evacuate. The winner, of course, was 3) the seat of cowardly, guilty, white middle-class maledom, who argued it would be least awkward to just sit there and continue reading, or pretending to read, The Power Broker. The next ten minutes or so were awful.
Nothing happened. I sat there until my stop and got off without incident. But I was afraid of those three kids in a way which made me almost ill. I had to admit: I am a racist. And in the way of a disease, where my reactions have been hijacked by old programming, where my conscious "self" watches in horror.
This kind of thing is, I think, common. The way racism is most obviously manifested in everyday American society is against young black men. I even have a half-plausible excuse. During my two years in South Africa I was three times attacked by thieves, once successfully and twice not. In all three cases the perpetrators were young to middle-aged black men. Though I do not always trust my own memory or impressions, I think in this case it is fair to conclude that my negative reaction to black men has gotten much worse since before my Peace Corps service.
I think Ta-Nehisi's question cuts to something deeper in the soul of white Americans. We do not like talking about race. I don't mean talking about how black people are oppressed by the system—that's easy, even satisfying—or even "owning our privilege." I mean rooting around in the rancid basements of our minds, finding the most vicious rottenness down there, and spreading it out for the world to see.
It's partly the result of a lot of very positive development. It's now generally accepted that slavery and white terrorism in defense of Jim Crow were atrocities. Martin Luther King is one of our most cherished heroes. Being a committed racist is now about the most awful thing someone can be in public life. But imagine Nancy Pelosi talking about being afraid of black men. Better to avoid the subject altogether. Too much potential downside.
But just avoiding the issue is not enough for me. Another piece from Coates:
This basic extension of empathy is one of the great barriers in understanding race in this country. I do not mean a soft, flattering, hand-holding empathy. I mean a muscular empathy rooted in curiosity. If you really want to understand slaves, slave masters, poor black kids, poor white kids, rich people of colors, whoever, it is essential that you first come to grips with the disturbing facts of your own mediocrity. The first rule is this--You are not extraordinary. It's all fine and good to declare that you would have freed your slaves. But it's much more interesting to assume that you wouldn't and then ask "Why?"I met many Afrikaners in South Africa who were utterly, abjectly racist. I met them in bars, backpackers, or was picked up by them hitchhiking. Nice folks to me for the most part, but when the subject turned to race, as it inevitably would despite my efforts to avoid it, things got ugly. I can't tell you how many times I heard the phrase fokken kaffirs, which is Afrikaans for "fucking niggers." These people were gripped by a cancer of the mind. It was at first horrifying, like watching some trembling junkie shoot up in the stairway of an abandoned tenement; numbness eventually set in.
This is not an impossible task. But often we find that we have something invested in not asking "Why?" The fact that we -- and I mean all of us, black and white -- are, in our bones, no better than slave masters is chilling. The upshot of all my black nationalist study was terrifying -- give us the guns and boats and we would do the same thing. There is nothing particularly noble about black skin.
But the worst part was the creeping realization: that could be me. That is the context underlying whites' unconscious goalpost-shifting. "Is Ron Paul a racist?" Well, that's hard to prove. "Is there a potential KKK member in nearly everyone?" That is far more uncomfortable territory.
In the next post, I'll try to find that "muscular empathy."