White progressives like me prefer to think of ourselves as non-racist. I think ill of no one because of skin color, I’ve already joined two Black Lives Matter protests, I support both affirmative action and residential integration, I mailed $30 to help found a North Shore chapter of the NAACP, and I recently wrote a check to the National Urban League. But new voices in the public forum prompt me to see that I’m racist too.
First, there’s white privilege, something accorded even to us assimilated Jews. My white privilege is so taken for granted that I never think about it, but I’m “enjoying” it — I think nothing of sending off my opinion pieces to The Salem News, not to mention asking the manager of the grocery store to start stocking my preferred brand of ground espresso. What do they call my comfort in doing so? Entitlement?
But the racism problem goes beyond white privilege. You know the metaphor about fish not noticing the existence of water? Our immersion in America’s culture blinds us to its racist currents. For years didn’t I notice that TV advertisements depicted only white people? And all those news anchors, teachers, movie stars and senators? As a kid, wasn’t I untroubled by “flesh-colored” band-aids and crayons?
I never preferred it that way. It’s just that our culture normalizes injustices and inequalities, and we “naturally” go with the flow. Some of us are now trying to fight the flow and get our heads above the water.
So, I’m racist too, but give me this — I’m racist despite myself and am working on it.
But what about my white brethren who, instead of marching under Black Lives Matter banners, sneak out at night to tear those banners down or to spray- paint over the Black Lives Matter street murals? What about those still flaunting Confederate flags outside NASCAR tracks and letting slip the n-word, expecting the sympathetic-if-private understanding of workmates and buddies? What about those amped up by tweets from on high disparaging this Mexican-American judge or that African-American congresswoman?
Here’s the thing: even if we whites must all wrestle with our racism problem, we’re not all racist in the same ways. We “passive racists” are racist despite ourselves -- and increasingly up for becoming “woke.” But “active racists?” They remain proud of it, and if forced to remove the Stars and Bars from their porches, they will fly them still in their hearts.
Why do we even have active racists? And why so many?
1. They were raised that way. Most people adopt the same religion as their parents, vote for the same political party, feel pretty much the same about the Yankees, and so on. Subsequent life experience, of course, matters, but change rarely comes easily. Happily, plenty Americans look back with dismay at the taken-for-granted racist attitudes of their parents, but active racists never moved on.
2. Something about “human nature.” Many progressives dispute the notion of human nature. It’s all culture and learning, they believe — and therefore correctable. I wish I could agree. Deep within our DNA is a human tendency to divide the world into “us” versus “them.” We seem wired not only to protect and defend “us” from “them,” but to reinforce our very identities by having a “them” to pit ourselves against. I’m suggesting that it’s human nature to need a “them,” some group or tribe that’s both proximate and different, a common enemy that unites us through a bond of hate and possibly fear.
It’s not a great leap to see how neighbors who “don’t look like us” can easily serve as ‘them,” but we’re an inventive species and can always find a “them.” They don’t even have to look different. To the average American, there’s not a shadow of difference between the Tutsi and a Hutu of Rwanda, but one group inflicted genocide against the other.
And to the average Rwandan, there’s not a big difference between the Protestant and Catholics in Belfast and Derry, but we know how things went down there.
This need to hate and fear a “them” fuels racism. (Couldn’t we all get behind booing the Yankees instead?)
3. And then there’s scapegoating, the intentional misdirection of blame to let ourselves off the hook (and usually at the cost of promoting someone else’s agenda). Recall Hitler. He rose to power persuading most Germans that some other Germans, the Jewish minority, were to blame for the hard times. Hitler was not the only demagogue to stigmatize a people and inspire hatred and fear in order to advance his political program. Ronald Reagan won an election partly on a dog-whistle campaign against “welfare queens.” The first George Bush bested Mike Dukakis with Willie Horton ads. Trump is making scapegoats of Mexicans and other migrants, persuading his base that their struggles to find good jobs or rise in the world have everything to do with the brown-skinned people seeking safety in our borders and nothing to do with Republican policies that siphon the nation’s wealth to the super-rich.
If scapegoating brown and Black people keeps Republicans in power, what do the racists who buy into it get? The big tax breaks went to someone else. But hating a scapegoat lets racists feel better about themselves and their own lot in life. It gives them someone to blame for the troubles and to look down upon. They’re allowed a feeling of “supremacy.” Some might even base their entire identity around it.
Have I gotten us closer to the roots of our white racism problem, our racisms passive and active? Is our racial problem cultural? Biological? Familial? Psychological? Political? All of the above? Is there more? And do such lines of thinking bring us closer to solutions? Many voices in the African-American community now suggest that racism is the white community’s problem to solve (after first facing it). They want the white community to struggle with it. Right now.
Rod Kessler is a retired professor of English and writer living in Salem.