“I’m not a racist.” How often I hear and see that statement. I wonder if it’s ever true.
Ideas have much longer lives than people. The simple idea that skin color matters in the worth of human beings might be as old as society itself. But the complex ideas of scientific racism, that ranked skin colors and heredity from super-race to inferior beings, were created at the end of the 19th century, and then elaborated in the 20th. Racism was a melange of sciences, a truly interdisciplinary theory that used what passed for scientific evidence 100 years ago to demonstrate conclusively that northern European white people were the finest people of all. The Nazis turned this certainty into a program of genocide, but neither did they invent it nor did it die with Hitler in his bunker.
Throughout the first half of the 20th century American scientists, philanthropists, and political leaders agreed that people of any color but white were inferior and that their lives were not worthless, but worth less. The discriminatory immigration laws with national quotas, the experiments on African Americans at Tuskegee from 1932 to 1972, the 1920s growth and then post-World War II reemergence of the Ku Klux Klan, the Jim Crow laws and sundown towns across the country, the treatment of Native Americans by governments at all levels, were supported by a clear set of ideas that biological scientists and social scientists “proved” were true again and again.
The racist consensus was visible in every public space in America. Every major newspaper, every radio and, later, TV station, every legislative body, every private club and every classroom taught, repeated, and reinforced the racial rankings that had been developed. Even if one refused to swallow this ideology whole, it was impossible not to be affected by its constant repetition.
I was born into this American racist consensus and I have lived to see its demise. The greatest proof that we are nearing the end of this idea is the constantly repeated claim, “I am not a racist.” Until the 1960s the overwhelming majority of white American leaders and white American citizens proudly proclaimed their racism and insisted on its continuation as the determinant of public life. Being racist is no longer socially acceptable.
But it is not so easy for a society to just forget every aspect of an all-encompassing racial world-view. The battles over ending open, public, legal racism stretched into the 1970s, and the remnants of less visible racism in mortgage loans, hiring practices, and history books persist into the 21st century. Powerful ideas cannot be waved away with a magic wand.
There are too many recent manifestations of these racial ideas for anyone to argue persuasively that we have reached the end of racism. Not merely at the fringes of responsibility, but in the center of public life, racism is still being practiced. Orange County GOP Central Committee member Marilyn Davenport just circulated an email picturing President Obama as a chimpanzee. She wondered what all the fuss was about, because those seemingly defeated ideas still resonated with her and with those with whom she exchanged the message. Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour can’t understand what was so bad about Jim Crow.
I know that phrases from my past, images that I remember from long ago, and beliefs which I was taught still rattle around in my head. I try to keep them inside, out of my speech and away from my behavior. But they haven’t disappeared, for me or anyone else who had them implanted in our minds.
Racism isn’t an either-or, yes or no, 100% or 0% issue. All of us, of all colors, carry images and stereotypes of ourselves and others, which can be overcome, but never eradicated. Maybe there will be a society in the future where race doesn’t matter at all, where skin color is like eye color, where heredity is like shoe size, an interesting but inconsequential fact. A society where people can say, “I am not a racist,” and be believed. We aren’t there yet, and we won’t get there until we examine how the lingering racial idea that was so powerful just a lifetime ago still affects our public lives. We just have to look at the nasty debate about immigrants or current discussions about Muslims as terrorists to see the continued power of that idea.
Yes, you are a racist. So am I. Let’s hope today’s children are better. It all depends on what we teach them.
published in Jacksonville Journal-Courier, April 26, 2011