A month or so ago I discussed my article Fighting the Ghost of My Own Racism with my mother. She was frankly shocked, and told me that she never raised me to be a racist. I kept quiet — she is quite frail and I didn’t want to upset her further…but I couldn’t help but bear in mind what she’d said in the past when referring to blacks of whom she didn’t approve for whatever reason: “The ones like that aren’t black, they’re n****rs.” I cannot count the times that I’ve heard her (and the rest of my family and the vast majority of the whites I knew well Down South) use the ‘n-word’, but I can say it’s in the thousands. I can recall the looks on their faces at the prospects of interracial relationships. But each and every one of my family would claim that they’re not racist at all.
What’s the disconnect here? How can they use the ‘n-word’ on a daily basis (but only in front of those they trust), but consider themselves not racist? This is not an easy question to answer.
Now let’s look at blatantly racist e-mails Carl Paladino, the Tea Party candidate that may well win the GOP gubernatorial primary in New York. Yet he claims he’s not racist. There’s the obviously race-baiting Tea Party parade float in a parade in a small town in western Washington state. I’m quite sure they’d claim they’re not racist either. Then there’s the Shirley Sherrod video that was edited to make her seem racist and then broadcast all over the right-wing blogosphere, and Glenn Beck claiming that it’s (half-white) Barack Obama who has a “deep-seated hatred of white people”, and a backwoods-outhouse-full of similar race-baiting by the pundits who are among the most influential voices in conservative America.
Yet every single one of these politicians and pundits – and my family and the friends of my youth – will claim that they’re absolutely not racist.
I honestly don’t know. There’s at least four possibilities:
1) Perhaps they really think that as long as they only use the word “n****r” among themselves, that as long as they don’t act racist on camera, that they’re not racist.
2) Maybe they actually aren’t racist, but the politicians and pundits use the race-baiting as a means to regain political power.
3) They believe that just as “Polock jokes” aren’t seen as a sign of actual prejudice against those of Polish descent, blacks should likewise not take offense at these references to someone’s color or heritage.
4) Many of them are racist, and the election of President Obama has brought them out of the woodwork and galvanized them. They know the Democratic Party that gave America the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would reject them, but they’ve found a place for themselves in the Republican Party. LBJ foresaw this when he told an aide “We have lost the South for a generation” just after he signed the Civil Rights Act into law.
I suspect that it’s a combination of all four of the above possibilities…but I know something else, too — my mother is not evil. She’s got a heart of gold. I’ve seen her happily give bushels of food from our garden to blacks who couldn’t afford a trip down to the local Piggly-Wiggly supermarket. She was eager to talk with our almost completely-black clientele at the used clothing store we used to have in a small town eight miles down the road, and more than once gave away merchandise to those in greatest need. She trusts her daily life to the black caregivers that drop by to bathe and clean her. She knows that she is not racist…in her own opinion. By today’s standards she certainly is racist, but by her own standards, she’s not racist at all.
I’ve come to see that she doesn’t really understand how despite her willingness to give, to share, to treat with sincere kindness the blacks she knows, the things she’s said privately to other (trusted) whites over the years have added to the echo chamber of whites-versus-blacks in the Deep South. She doesn’t understand how her words have helped to reinforce the traditional racism by Southern whites.
And that’s the point of this article — in my heart of hearts I believe that most conservatives are much like my mother. They are good people, willing to give the shirts off their backs to those they see in need. Most conservatives and most in the Tea Party have good hearts and true. They’d courageously risk their lives without a second thought to save someone of any color or heritage in danger.
BUT they do not see how their words said in private add to the echo chamber of racial adversity, how the barely-concealed race-baiting by conservative pundits and politicians is continuing to drive a wedge between socially-conservative minorities and the Republican Party (as RNC Chairman Michael Steele pointed out). What’s more, since they honestly do not believe themselves to be racist, they are deeply offended when people point out their words or actions that are considered racist in today’s world – and instead of conforming to the modern societal norm, they double-down on their conduct. “I’m not going to change the way I am just to be politically correct!”
No, they’re not going to change. But they will grow older. There’s a younger generation today – sometimes called ‘the Millenials’ or ‘Generation Y’ – that is much less racist (and far less homophobic) than the older generation. They see which party is happy with race-baiting, and which party isn’t. In another thirty years they’ll be running the country, and it is then that Martin Luther King’s dream will come true.