The Good Racist People

The Good Racist People

In modern America we believe racism to be the property of the uniquely villainous and morally deformed, the ideology of trolls, gorgons and orcs. We believe this even when we are actually being racist. In 1957, neighbors in Levittown, Pa., uniting under the flag of segregation, wrote: “As moral, religious and law-abiding citizens, we feel that we are unprejudiced and undiscriminating in our wish to keep our community a closed community.”

15 thoughts on “The Good Racist People

  1. Ta-Nehisi Coates also wrote a couple of great blog posts last month in which he discussed Levittown. One of them focuses on the effects of housing segregation.
    http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/02/the-effects-of-housing-segregation-on-black-wealth/272775/
    http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/02/the-language-of-segregation-under-social-sanction/272795/

    Not long thereafter, a new report came out showing that home ownership is a central contributing factor to the huge racial wealth gap in the US: http://iasp.brandeis.edu/pdfs/Author/shapiro-thomas-m/racialwealthgapbrief.pdf

  2. I’m of two minds on the piece. If he’s saying that he’s tired of people’s racism being excused because they are, on the whole, good people, then I agree. It’s not much of an excuse.

    If his claim is that being or acting racist doesn’t come in degrees, or that reflective self-aware racism isn’t any worse than subconscious, implicit bias-type racism, then I think he’s mistaken. Though I can understand being tired of both.

  3. @ajkreider – I took it as the former: that being “a good person” on the whole isn’t good enough when it comes to combating racism. Good, well-meaning people can contribute to racism, so we should stop focusing so much on whether an individual person gets to still be considered a “good” person as if that will excuse their ‘innocent slip’ into racism.

    Hmm, though the more I think about it, perhaps he is saying something of the latter, too. Insofar as implicit racism can cause just as much damage as outright intentional bigotry, then it’s really not a lesser evil and “good people” are just as much part of the problem as any self-identifying “racist” is. I know I can certainly say (if this is comparable) that implicit sexism can be much more psychologically painful that intentional misogyny (especially when it comes from someone I trust or don’t expect it from). Furthermore, implicit bias can contribute just as well to material loss as intentional prejudice can. So it’s not like the overwhelming bulk of harm from racism comes from malicious bigotry.

    But I suppose it depends of what counts as a form of racism being “worse” than another.

  4. True that on implicit racism. In addition, however, it seems a plausible conjecture that being “good” people in times of very serious persisting problems of racism requires more social activism (various forms of consciousness raising and physical resistance activities, for instance). Such social activism is arguably not only required to be a good person in times of racism and social injustice, but also arguably can serve important roles in bringing implicit racism to the fore and leading to more steps toward social change.

    see the last full paragraph on p. 326, finishing on the top of p. 327, here

    see also the last two full paragraphs beginning on p. 331 and continuing on the top of p. 332

    The continuing paragraph from the first link above – the first full one on page 327 above – is incredibly important and relevant as well. Here is another version of it from the end of a 1963 speech about being proud to be maladjusted:
    proud to be maladjusted

    Very similar words come from others such as Sandra Bartky, Alison Jaggar, Catharine MacKinnon, and Thomas Pogge. Unfortunately (but hopefully), we need them to come from many more people. – David Slutsky

  5. The difference between implicit and explicit racism seems to be that one can point out to a person who is implicitly racist (or sexist or whatever) that their actions are racist and if one makes one’s case rationally, clearly and patiently, that person, if motivated by good will, will try in the future not to incur in those implicitly racist practices, actions and attitudes. I say “try” since many implicitly racist attitudes, being in-grained habits, are hard to change.

    On the other hand, the person who engages in explicitly racist actions does so willfully and intentionally and is generally not open to rational arguments showing that their actions are racist.

    Now, there is a lot of bad faith about people who are implicitly racist or sexist, but
    when they insist on their racism or sexism, after having received a rational explanation of what they are doing, their racism or sexism is no longer implicit, but explicit.

  6. With respect, I take a view different from the one(s) expressed in comment #7. Apart from obvious differences between implicit and explicit racism, the problem repeatedly addressed by Martin Luther King and represented in the links (and perhaps especially in the video clip and corresponding words in the first link) provided in my comment #6 is that an incredibly large number of people allegedly “motivated by good will” fail to act accordingly for all sorts of arguably ignoble reasons (such as disinterest in the work of social activism, disinterest in alienating racist friends and colleagues, unwillingness to risk sacrificing aspects of one’s job in the presence of racist coworkers and bosses/supervisors, unwillingness to risk various aspects of the personal costs/potential negative effects of engaging in social activism, etc.) and do NOT “try in the future not to incur in those implicitly racist practices, actions and attitudes” as described in comment #7.

  7. David:

    As far I can see, there is not much difference between our points of view.

    I don’t believe that anyone motivated by good will can act for ignoble reasons, although they may claim that they are motivated by good will or may lie to themselves (that’s why I refer to bad faith in my previous post) about whether they are acting motivated by good will, unless their racism is unconscious.

    Now, as I explained above, once their unconscious or implicit racism is pointed out to a person of good will, that person will try to change, although, as we all know, changing implicit racism is difficult.

    So in my opinion, a person motivated by good will and aware of their implicit racism will strive to change their attitudes and behaviors.

    That may force them to risk their careers or lose friends, as you point out, but life isn’t always so easy, is it?

  8. To SW in comment #9. Thanks for you thoughtful input and clarification. I agree, though I think your use of the phrase “good will” might contain connotations of more ethically significant sentiments/principles than how many other people use that phrase (except, of course, for serious/committed Kantians).

    In general, let me just point out the potential affinities between the particular OP-ED by Ta-Nehisi Coates linked in the original post, on the one hand, and the speeches by Martin Luther King linked in my comment #6, on the other hand. Although the tone – for lack of a better word – seems understandably different given the different circumstances/situations/contexts, I find the similarities significant, telling, timely, and important.

    Since we can find the relevant speech parts (possibly spliced together from more than one speech) in a piece of popular culture for a possibly common frame of reference, do readers believe that Boolie and/or Daisy Werthan from Driving Miss Daisy are good people and/or people of good will? Some of the main points of the pivotal scene in question arguably suggest the potential similarities described in my previous paragraph above (and in comment #6 above):

    – David Slutsky

  9. As a lifelong southerner who has been, on many occasions, privy – through white male privilege – to godawful awful racist statements ranging from the naive to the crass to the spiteful, I can assure you there are different kinds of racism, but it’s not a matter of “greater” or “lesser” evils. They each have their own terrible effects, just as insidious and harmful as the others. But knowing – and making – the distinctions between them is key to combating them.

    There are people in the South who are, by any rational definition, racist who nonetheless don’t SEE themselves as racist. It’s important to understand that for generations, “genteel” racists who “merely” wanted closed neighborhoods and the like drew a sharp distinction between themselves and the gibbering, hateful folk who seemed to actively despise blacks. THOSE OTHER people were the racists, to their minds. Not them. Oh, no. Never them

    As the fight against intolerance and racism has claimed great victories and made it unacceptable in the mainstream to openly espouse racial HATRED, open racist AGGRESSION, naturally attention has turned to the less violent but no less destructive forms of racism, such as embodied by so many Southerners of my mother’s generation. But to these people, in the dialect they understand, calling them “racist” is absurd. They “know” what racism is. It’s violent. It’s hateful. It’s blowing up churches and shooting civil rights workers and other such horrors. And that is not what they do. But they can’t see the connection, the connection between THEIR racism and the awful, overt violence they associate with the word. They can’t see how one feeds the other, how one legitimizes the other, how one DEPENDS on the other. To them, when you point a finger and say “racism,” it is risible. It is a reductio on anything you might say after. Because that is a word that is – to their thinking – well-understood, and one that does not apply here.

    This is not an excuse. As I said, implicit-bias racism is no less destructive than out-and-out Klan-style hate. They are all part of a single way of thinking about the world that is fundamentally at odds with the concerns of justice. But they are, in fact, DIFFERENT expressions of that way of thinking about the world, and you can’t hope to combat one with the weapons that will defeat another. I’m not talking about whether you can consider the “genteel” racists to be “good” people or not – frankly, I don’t care. All I care about is what can be done, how best to root out THAT kind of racism. But to beat it, you must understand it.

  10. I imagine that part of understanding it is talking about it and raising awareness of it, as Martin Luther King did, as Ta-Nehisi Coates did/does, and as I tried to do by calling attention to the kinds of distinctions that they, along with you, seem to draw (while also responding to SW). No?

    To be sure, don’t many people rationalize morally objectionable behavior by reinforcing classifications according to which such behavior is not morally objectionable? In order meaningfully to classify subjects of moral properties one way or another, don’t we have to provide our reasons for doing so this way and/or not doing so that way – in order meaningfully to classify subjects of moral properties one way or another, don’t we have to discuss the moral properties, the classifications, and our thoughts/feelings about them?

  11. David:

    Maybe if instead of “good will”, I use the phrase “good faith”, my idea would be clearer. “Good faith” involves being honest with others and with oneself, as well as openness to criticism.

    I suspect that many implicit racists who refuse to accept criticisms of their implicit racism are not honest with themselves.

  12. Big thanks for those links to the two Martin Luther King speech transcripts from 1957 in your comment #6; these are so powerful, moving, and much needed! The similarities to the Ta-Nehisi Coates’ piece are certainly significant, telling, timely, and important. I also found your clarification in comment #10 (as well as #6) and SW’s clarification in comment #13 very helpful. Keep up the good work.

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