We’re not as racist as we’re afraid we are

And there’s real reason to be afraid…

NPR last night spoke with Kevin Merida about his piece in the Washington Post on racist incidents on the campaign trail. This is some of what was said:

Mr. JEAN MORRIS(ph): Don’t want Obama in there. I don’t like his background. They’re putting the man in because of his race, and I don’t – I’m not ready for that.

Ms. JOETTA KUHN(ph): Mr. Obama doesn’t have much of a chance here because they will not vote for a black man in West Virginia, and they can’t stand the thoughts of a black man telling a white man what to do.

Mr. THOMAS COLDWELL(ph): Whether he is a Muslim, I guess he’s – I guess it’s just with everything that’s going on in the Middle East, it’s a little scary being unknown.

Mr. MORRIS KING(ph): You know I didn’t vote for no colored. […]

NORRIS: … with all the coverage of the campaign, these stories really have not been talked about. This – your story was somewhat surprising to many readers because we haven’t heard these stories, these kinds of things.

Mr. MERIDA: Well, I think in part that’s because there has been so much euphoria and excitement around Obama’s candidacy. I think also the nature of campaign coverage, it centers on events, rallies, really you have to kind of just be on the ground and, you know, hanging out at the bar at Applebee’s in small towns, going places where you’re not doing anything but just listening to people. But it really it was lying in plain sight.


A good and important story. It’s about time that it be told!

I think it is fairly well understood and accepted by now — though I’m not sure how much we are remembering it in the heat of this election season — that those Civil Rights fighters who brought about the end of Jim Crow were helped along in their struggles by bringing the raw, brutal, barbarous injustice of that era into the living rooms of all Americans.

See, for example, The Race Beat: The Press, The Civil Rights Struggle, And The Awakening of a Nation.

The Obama campaign has been all about hope. One thing it has not been about is addressing our fears. Well, we’ve got some very real fears. Isn’t it time we face up to them?

I’m thinking we don’t need a national conversation about race. We’ve been talking too long. We’re all talk… nothing but talk… sick of talk! What we need is a debate! And at the end of the debate, we call the question and bring it to a vote. This election can be that vote! And if Obama’s really got those transcendent communication skills that so many of us have seen, what better purpose to put them to then the national healing we need on race?

I believe that when it comes to a vote what we’ll find is that the vast majority of the American people are NOT racist.

But let’s talk for a moment about those who are. Because it’s just a tad bit too easy to call each other names. Point a camera in anyone’s face at the wrong time and you are bound to catch a regrettable quote. Any of us, all of us, say things at times and in ways that we may not mean.


Maybe. So what about the real racists. There are some. They are few. Expose them. Marginalize them. Address them.

Last night I quoted Richard Thompson Ford, author of The Race Card: How Bluffing About Bias Makes Race Relations Worse. Ford argues, I think convincingly, that among the challenges we’re faced with these days is “racism without racists,” the institutional legacy of past racism that can’t be linked to, or blamed on, any single individual’s actions. From the NYTimes review:

[M]uch of the racial injury suffered today by blacks, especially the black poor, is the consequence of past racist action by actors long dead. Katrina is the most telling case in point. The fact that blacks lived in the most vulnerable areas of New Orleans resulted from the apartheid racism of the city’s earlier history, a situation exacerbated by the government’s inept response to the crisis. But to accuse President Bush and the Federal Emergency Management Agency of racism, Ford suggests, is to play the race card and is counterproductive, alienating those in a position to help while blinding us to the true nature of these racial injustices and the policies needed to redress them.

Racism by analogy is the second source of the race card: the tendency of nonblack constituencies — gay people, women, the obese, the unattractive and the culturally different — to frame their grievances in civil rights terms. Ford grants that the common-law emphasis on precedent encourages the use of analogy, and that the extension is justified in some cases. But the civil rights model is often inappropriate. The multicultural movement, for example, threatens to transform all cultural claims into racial ones. Ford thinks only racism, sexism and xenophobia deserve remedy under the Civil Rights Act because they are irrational, refer to intractable traits and cannot be justified by facts or logic.

The Race Card, an outstanding piece of work, is reviewed here, here, and here; excerpts are here, here and here; the first chapter here; purchase it here. Bonus video, Ford on Colbert.

Scratch a racist, find a sexist. More from that NPR interview last night:

NORRIS: Do you have any sense as to whether staffers working for Hillary Clinton’s campaign have faced ugly comments, similar resistance, faced any degree of bigotry based on her gender?

Mr. MERIDA: Well, yeah, Michele, that’s a very great point, because I also heard from a lot of Clinton supporters who said people have said very misogynistic things. In some ways I think that people find it easier to say I will not vote for a woman than they – to say starkly that they will not vote for an African-American. You know, I think that that deserves a level of reporting that has not existed so far as well.

Of course, racism isn’t all there is to address. But it’s a darned good place to start!

  • runasim

    Joe, thanks for the de-simplification of bigotry.

    I differ with you,, in what you see as needed as the next step.
    I don’t think we need a debate, we need a discussion.

    Debating implies a battle for superiority by virtue of winning the debate. It puts people into opposition to one antoher.

    Discussion implies bringing all opinons into play to create a broad field of understnding each other, and leading from that, understanding bigotry for what it is. . If discussions are conducted in a non-confrontational, fact-finding way, a commonality in our human experience is much more likely to emerge.