In Politics on October 23, 2020 at 10:45 am

It is, to put it plainly, ridiculous to argue over which of two white American men in their seventies is more racist.

Comparing degrees of racism is like comparing how much “special ingredient” Minny put in our pie.  I mean how much should we be okay with?

Now, if we accept the idea that it is nearly impossible to find an adult white American male who is completely free of racism, then we can begin to address the more complicated issue: what are we going to do about it?

And I say this as a white American man in my seventies.

From my admittedly privileged perspective on issues of race, I would argue that there are two kinds of institutional and systemic racism: white supremacist and white privileged.

White supremacist racism ranges from the overt acts of racism by proud white nationalists to the small daily doubts of people who grew up in overtly racist times and can’t quite free themselves of the occasional racist response.  It is the second group that needs to be helped.  The first group will need to eventually die out – or not.

A lot of the white privileged group are sincere, kind, honest, and loving people who have tried very hard to change, and may even be convinced that they are no longer or have never been racist.  They have lots of professional and social interactions with non-whites.  Their circles are broadly diverse.  They may even intermarry, or genuinely celebrate the inter-racial relationships of their friends and family.  They may even work very hard to advance social change around things like ghettoization, income and work inequality, unequal treatment in interactions with the legal system, hate speech and hate crime, and so on.


Every once in a while, there is a moment when they wonder if “black on black crime” may be a fair point; or they have to fire up Google to fact-check whether Black communities really do have an “absent father” problem that white communities don’t.  Every once in a while, they may listen with a moment of sympathy or thoughtful intellectualism to a debate about whether the principal cause of the Civil War was rooted in slavery or in economics or in states’ rights, before it kicks in that the economic history of America is inseparable from slavery and the states’ right being fought about was the right to own slaves.  Every once in a while, they realize that they are far more aware of, and concerned with, in ways both small and large, the race of their non-white friends than their white ones.

Racism is part of our national character.  We have all been affected by it.  Even non-whites raised in America have internalized it. It’s a disease that lingers in us, and occasionally erupts into noticeable sores. We have learned to live with it, but we would be so much better off if we could find a cure.

What cure?

I don’t want to overstate it or give the wrong impression, but the current COVID-19 pandemic may provide a useful, though flawed, analogy.

We have to start by understanding that racism is highly contagious; can be debilitating or even fatal; requires us to assume for our own safety that everyone we come into contact with may be infected; and even asymptomatic carriers can transmit the disease.

To fight the disease, we will need to watch ourselves carefully.  Try to stay away from people and places where it is likely to be spread.  Especially avoid potential super-spreader events, like certain political gatherings.  Know who in your personal bubble is less likely to be putting themselves in harm’s way, and self-isolate within that bubble. When you must venture out, take precautions.  Sanitize regularly; every time you have had contact with anyone or anything that is suspect, wash your hands of it.  When your “crazy uncle” tells a “Mexican” joke, tell him it’s not funny and you won’t have any part of it.  When a white acquaintance tries to “whitesplain” the BLM movement. Refuse to cooperate.

And here’s what may be the hardest part.  Wear a mask to reduce the possibility of your inadvertently spreading the disease.  Think before you speak, before you act.  If you’re about to argue with a non-white person about their described experience of being non-white in America, stop yourself; and just listen instead.  Remind yourself regularly that even the smallest droplets of racism you might unconsciously breathe into your surroundings can spread the disease.

There won’t be any vaccine any time soon.  We aren’t going to discover any miracle cure.  Herd immunity is clearly not going to happen.  The disease will be with us for a long time.  It will continue to be a drag on our society, our economy, our lives in myriad ways.  We may need to shut some things down for a while.  Some radical surgery may be needed, such as tearing down memorials to racism or racists, such as cutting irredeemable racists out of our social and political and economic systems, such as cutting our own ties with those persons or institutions that are helping to spread the disease.

But the first, and most important step is to recognize both the severity and the inevitability of the disease itself, and to take responsibility for our own part in it.  The second step is to take whatever action we can to root it out and deal with it both within ourselves and within the culture.  The third step is to demand the kinds of systemic, institutionalized, and culturally normative changes that will be necessary to someday eradicate the disease.  And all of these steps need to be taken simultaneously.

Now let me reiterate.  I’m a white American male in my seventies.  I am, by definition, a carrier of the disease.  It is my responsibility to do whatever I can to treat the disease in myself, reduce the spread of it to others, and advocate for treatments now and a cure in the future.

I can’t be certain, of course, that I am speaking for anyone else, or reflecting a perspective that others will find useful, or even valid.  What I am certain of is that if I don’t say something, do something, try something, then I will never fully recover.  And if we, none of us, do, say, or try, then there is a real possibility that the disease will prove terminal for us all.

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