Political Animal


March 07, 2013 4:43 PM The Racism of “Good People”

By Ed Kilgore

If you are a white person who has on occasion felt aggrieved at the persistence of allegations of white racism in America, do yourself and your conscience a favor and read Ta-Nehisi’s Coates’ guest column today in the New York Times.

His point of departure is the humiliating frisking of the very famous and distinguished actor Forest Whitaker by an employee of a deli in Coates’ own Manhattan neighborhood. But he uses this incident to make the very important point that if we disclaim the possibility of racist behavior on the part of “good” or “moral” people, we may well wind up excusing racism almost altogether.

The idea that racism lives in the heart of particularly evil individuals, as opposed to the heart of a democratic society, is reinforcing to anyone who might, from time to time, find their tongue sprinting ahead of their discretion. We can forgive Whitaker’s assailant. Much harder to forgive is all that makes Whitaker stand out in the first place. New York is a city, like most in America, that bears the scars of redlining, blockbusting and urban renewal. The ghost of those policies haunts us in a wealth gap between blacks and whites that has actually gotten worse over the past 20 years.
But much worse, it haunts black people with a kind of invisible violence that is given tell only when the victim happens to be an Oscar winner. The promise of America is that those who play by the rules, who observe the norms of the “middle class,” will be treated as such. But this injunction is only half-enforced when it comes to black people, in large part because we were never meant to be part of the American story. Forest Whitaker fits that bill, and he was addressed as such.
I am trying to imagine a white president forced to show his papers at a national news conference, and coming up blank. I am trying to a imagine a prominent white Harvard professor arrested for breaking into his own home, and coming up with nothing. I am trying to see Sean Penn or Nicolas Cage being frisked at an upscale deli, and I find myself laughing in the dark. It is worth considering the messaging here. It says to black kids: “Don’t leave home. They don’t want you around.” It is messaging propagated by moral people.

The thing is, this has always been more or less true. My extended family (thought not, mercifully, my nuclear family) when I was growing up in the Jim Crow South was loaded with racists. None of them were members of the Ku Klux Klan, perpetrators of violence, or “bad people” by any general measure. Most of them were very regular church-goers. One of the sweetest people I ever knew was a great aunt who after MLK’s assassination allowed as how she wished she could take in the assassin and feed him and protect him for his great act in defending Christian civilization. That wouldn’t have been surprising to Dr. King himself, whose classic Letter From a Birmingham Jail was addressed to the good Christian clergy of that city who by their silence and calls for an unjust “peace” were defending segregation more effectively than the hooded riffraff of the Klan.

Now that racism is no longer respectable, it’s tempting to reason conversely and suggest respectable people can’t be racists. But to do that is to reason racism virtually out of existence. Most of the world’s religious and moral traditions try to remind us that while good works are always to be valued, there is something in the human soul that makes good people prone to doing bad things. That did not stop being the case when racism was deemed “bad” by national consensus in this country, and those of us who will never suffer a single indignity for the color of our skin should remember that before turning all human experience on its head and claiming we are the victims of racism if our own good will is challenged.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • Quaker in a Basement on March 07, 2013 5:02 PM:

    Frisked by a deli employee?

    I wasn't aware that salami slingers had been deputized into law enforcement.

  • ellen sweets on March 07, 2013 5:19 PM:

    some post-racial society, huh?

    thank you for your comments.

  • kevo on March 07, 2013 5:20 PM:

    Silence in the face of racial injustice is a form of racism so subtle, it is usually overlooked! It works two ways - If one can make a statement against racial injustice and decides not to, the question becomes why, if not for agreement with the racial injustice!

    Or, if fear of racist retaliation is present and produces the silence, the witness of the racial injustice has just been silenced by racist intimidation, increasing the amount of victims upon which the racism is being directed!

    Fear is the racist's best ally, and the racist is fearless in employing it, which usually reinforces just how cowardly the racist may actually be! -Kevo

  • MR on March 07, 2013 5:22 PM:

    Thank you for this. Good reminders all and it makes me think of how some republicans said that racism must be over now since we have a black president.

  • hornblower on March 07, 2013 5:26 PM:

    I grew up in the north in the 50's. Racism was common. This white man thinks that most white opposition to the president is rooted in racism. On the other hand my mom, who was a terrific lady, checked the sheets after a black friend slept at my house. Ignorance and separation are still a factor. The real "evil" types are the Foxies and the talk show geeks who make millions exploiting fear and well educated types who should know better.

  • Decatur Dem on March 07, 2013 5:28 PM:

    When I read Coates' op-ed this morning, I wanted to give a shout-out to my late mother, born and bred in a poor white South Georgia farm family in the first decade of the 20th Century. Smack dab in the middle, geographically and temporally, of Jim Crow. I must have been four years old, and somewhere I'd heard a word- probably from a neighbor kid- that puzzled me.
    "What's a nigger, Mama?" (Coates used the word, so I claim a one-time-only right to do so as well.)
    She must have looked pretty serious, because I still remember more than sixty years later: "That's a word we never use. It would make Nora feel very bad," naming the woman who helped with housework one day a week. "Only a very common person would say that." We were as "common" as anyone could be in Atlanta in 1950, but in my mother's mouth, it meant "trashy".
    Thanks, Mama. My first lesson in race relations has stuck with me.

  • Quaker in a Basement on March 07, 2013 5:38 PM:

    Coates' column is excellent. This especially resonates for me:

    "I am trying to imagine a white president forced to show his papers at a national news conference, and coming up blank. I am trying to a imagine a prominent white Harvard professor arrested for breaking into his own home, and coming up with nothing. I am trying to see Sean Penn or Nicolas Cage being frisked at an upscale deli, and I find myself laughing in the dark."

    The owner of the deli and at least one other employee have said they didn't think the frisking was "racially motivated." I'd bet they're right in the sense that the person who did the frisking didn't decide just to hassle the black guy for laughs.

    At the same time, I'd bet that employee drew a false conclusion because he assumed the worst based on behavior that would have seemed innocuous given a white customer.

    I'm glad Whitaker called them on it. A store employee doesn't have the right to pat you down or touch you in any way, regardless of what he or she thinks you may have done. That this employee felt free to manhandle Whitaker speaks clearly to the biases that can color the perceptions of "good" people.

  • c u n d gulag on March 07, 2013 6:16 PM:

    As usual, a great column by Coates, and, as usual, a great post by you, Ed.
    This is another terrific one, in a long list of terrific ones.

  • smartalek on March 07, 2013 6:48 PM:

    And if you think you are utterly untenanted by just such presumptions and associations, no matter how unconscious, try this on for size:


    It's better known as "the Harvard racism test" -- and I wish all of you a less disturbing experience than mine, years ago.

  • zeitgeist on March 07, 2013 7:22 PM:

    getting rid of overt racism -- that's the easy part.

    it is the inherent privileges that make the majority tone deaf to more subtle racism that is the difficult part. most middle-class (and higher) straight white non-disabled Christian men - which is to say, most of the power structure - aren't even aware of the phenomenon of which Coates speaks. they've never asked themselves those questions; they can't understand the issue about driving while black; no one crosses to the other side of the street just because they are approaching.

    getting rid of the impact of that? that's the hard part.

  • rdale on March 07, 2013 7:36 PM:

    I live in Utah, where, sadly, racism is alive and well. Utah was the number one in racist tweets after President Obama was elected in 2012, and the predominant Mormon religion has a long history of racism, as much as they try to shove it into the past; it was part of the doctrine until a "revelation" in 1978. (I always joke that it wasn't until Brigham Young University's football team was getting stomped on a regular basis that TH'Laarrd spake unto Spencer W. Kimball, the Prophet, Seer, and Revelator at the time, and said "Spencer, thou good and faithful servant, skinny white kids from Idaho aren't cutting it; get thee some running backs and if they are Sons of Ham, that's OK with me!") All that said, it's some measure of progress that racists are embarrassed about being racist.

  • exlibra on March 07, 2013 8:38 PM:

    rdale, @7:36PM

    They *aren't* embarrassed about being racist. *At all*. They have simply learnt to keep their rancid traps shut, when amongst the general public, because they know it's an unpopular attitude. But you should hear them, if they think you're their equal (and, in extensio, equally bigoted)...

    Because I'm white, none-too-young and (through marriage) more-or-less "upper class", I've often been the recipient of the kind of racist bilge which has made it difficult not to barf on their Guccis (bad manners at a cocktail party, alas). It's disgusting, how ugly those "normal on the surface" people can get.

  • Jack Lindahl on March 07, 2013 8:43 PM:

    Most of them were very regular church-goers.

    For me, not a confidence builder in honesty, good works, or morality.

    Coates is becoming one of my go-to writers.

  • Karen on March 07, 2013 10:14 PM:

    This is the most appallingly racist thing I have ever read. I base my conclusion on this sentence, immediately following a quoted statement that most African Americans have some white ancestry as a result of rape or coerced sex: "We can be confident of that because no woman in history was ever attracted to a higher social status man." Anyone in the 21st C. who thinks that the relationship between a slave and her owner had anything to do with HER feelings is a damned fool.

  • James M on March 08, 2013 12:53 AM:

    I hadn't heard about the Forest Whitaker incident, but as an America Black man my initial reaction was basically a sad shrug. This is anecdotal of course, but based on my personal experience and those of friends and acquaintances, I would guess that 100% of American Black men have had their own 'Forest Whitaker moment' (I have certainly had mine…)at some point in their lives. And, as the Ta-Nehisi’s Coates’ essay suggests, the problem goes far beyond the banal assumption of evil actors with bad intent.

    One of the central themes of famed anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Claude_L%C3%A9vi-Strauss) was that the dualities such as 'Good&Evil', 'Night and Day', etc., were central to Western culture. For example:
    Black Knight
    White Knight

    I would guess that almost every one associates the Black Knight with evil and the White Knight with good or justice. These assumptions are virtually hard-wired into our culture. Darkness or blackness is associated with evil and danger. American racism as directed to Black men has always been special. Other minorities groups may engender contempt or dislike, but (with the Post 911 exception of Muslims) no other group inspires the same level of basic, unconscious fear as Black men.

    I have a funny story. About 5 years ago I was in the International Business Department of my previous company. As a result, I made frequent trips between the U.S. and Asia and soon attained elite flier status on both United and Northwest. One day I had a morning flight from Fort Lauderdale to LA. Northwest did nearly automatic upgrades for Platinum members so I was flying first class. I had been up late the night before playing Poker in a local casino and decided to dress super casual for the flight in baggy khaki shorts, a loose-fitting sweater and sneakers with no socks. (Also had my IPod headphones on of course…).

    I was the 3rd person to board the plane. Half to make small talk (and brag about my 1st class status…), I turned to the 1st class cabin flight attendant, an attractive young blond women, and asked, "Excuse me. Where is seat 2C?" Instantly she raised her left arm and gestured toward the rear of the plane and replied, "It's way back there!". "But I am first class!" I said. Her face instantly went pale. She mumbled something about it being on the right aisle and then walked away. Of course, she had to serve me for the rest of the flight!

    I felt really badly for her because I hadn't meant to embarrass her (I also started dressing better for 1st class!). However, she hadn't really listened to me. She had just seen what she considered to be a poorly dressed Black man and unconsciously decided that I had to be seated in the cheap seats in the back of the plane. She seemed like a very nice woman, and I am sure she had never made a racist comment in her life, but she couldn't overcome her subconscious assumptions. This sort of subconscious discrimination is something that Black men are going to be dealing with for a long, long time.

  • milllsapian87 on March 08, 2013 10:26 AM:

    I'm white, and I'm not the least bit "aggrieved" at the persistence of allegations of white racism. That shit is real; I see and hear it all the time. In this post Jim Crow era, racism hasn't disappeared, it's just gone underground. Like exlibra, because of the color of my skin people assume that I agree with their racist opinions.

    For this reason I'm not at all resentful of Section V of the Voting Rights Act. We (I'm writing from Mississippi) brought it on ourselves and we richly deserve that extra scrutiny. I have no doubt that if Section V were overturned that Mississippi, the rest of the Old Confederacy and certain states elsewhere would go right back to the same old shit as before. Things have changed here for the better but we have a long way to go. Maybe after another fifty years have passed we could look at relaxing the rules a little, but certainly not now.

  • paul on March 08, 2013 11:29 AM:

    Of course white people are racist. We live in a racist society, surrounding by racists images and tropes. If we're older, even more so.

    The question is what we do with that, whether we recognize it and deal with it, or pretend it's not real.

    Maybe we should come up with a new word for this kind of unconscious racism, so that all the good people don't get their feelings hurt when someone points out they've acted according to it.

  • Nurture on March 10, 2013 7:44 PM:

    Of course there are white people who are racist. Nobody is denying that. What we resent, however, is the implication (and sometimes even outright statement) that only white people are racist. Even this very article, whether deliberately or not, has that tone.

    As somebody who has been on the recieving end of both racial and religious discrimination, I can tell you that every race has its bigots and to deny racism against whites is, as you say, to "disclaim the possibility of racist behavior on the part of “good” or “moral” people" and putting you in a position where you "wind up excusing racism almost altogether".