Ed Kemmick’s recent story about racist and misogynist comments on social media by a local businessman drew so much interest that it crashed the Last Best News website.
It also may have crashed the prospects of the Coffee Tavern, the business Larry Heafner was planning to open. But none of that was the most striking thing about the whole affair. What struck me was this quote from Heafner: “I’m not racist by no means, and I’m not a woman hater.”
The funny thing is, I believe him. Not that he isn’t racist—the evidence in the story is overwhelming—but that he doesn’t believe he’s racist. A lot of that is going around.
President-Elect Donald Trump has said he doesn’t have a racist bone in his body. House Speaker Paul Ryan has said he doesn’t have a racist bone in his body. Former baseball pitcher and fulltime loudmouth Curt Schilling has said he doesn’t have a racist bone in his body. A fired cop who used the n-word online said she didn’t have a racist bone in her body. A Minnesota state representative who tweeted that “70% of teams in NBA could fold tomorrow + nobody would notice a difference w/ possible exception of increase in streetcrime” said he didn’t have a racist bone in his body.
So many bones, so few racists. Still, somebody out there must be a racist. The Southern Poverty Law Center counted 700 “hateful incidents of harassment” in the first full week after Trump’s election as president. Fortunately, according to the SPLC, incidents dropped sharply as the week wore on.
But some of the incidents are horrifying: A black man was told “I can smell the Africa on you”; a black high school student saw the words “white” and “colored” above urinals in his school’s restroom; a swastika was spray-painted on the home of a Mexican family in Washington state.
Chances are, the people guilty of those offenses don’t think they are racists either. So powerful is the accusation of racism that even the worst offenders can’t admit to the world, or perhaps even to themselves, what clearly is true.
I say that as someone who defines the word “racist” in strict terms: as a belief that one race is genetically superior to another, and that the superiority justifies discriminatory treatment. By that standard, even Trump’s attack on a judge’s Mexican heritage might not be racist. But it might as well be, since it sounds like racism, looks like racism and smells like racism. To its target, it hurts like racism.
True, the term often gets defined so loosely as to rob it of meaning. The editor of Breitbart.com, which is now The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Alt-Right, just attacked National Public Radio as racist. NPR’s offense? It ran an opinion piece by a Muslim concerned that the 2016 election may have reflected “nostalgia for a whiter America.”
Last week, students at the University of Virginia complained because the university president quoted the racist slaveholder Thomas Jefferson, the very man who founded the university and who wrote the words “All men are created equal.”
Jefferson clearly recognized the evils of slavery, even if he could never bring himself to give it up, and even if he may have had children borne by a slave. All of his life, he claimed to be open to the idea that blacks could be as capable and well-mannered as whites, but he never quite found anyone who could meet his exacting standards.
For all his insight, Jefferson, like me, was in thrall to the prejudices of his time. Like him, I may not have a racist bone in my body, but there’s a little bit of racism in every one of the 206 bones I’ve got.
In the South in the 1950s, racism degraded whites just as surely, if far less conspicuously, than it did blacks. Even if I could have looked past the casual slurs and segregated restrooms, schools and theaters of my childhood, there was still no getting past the hundreds of years of racism built into European and American culture.
As Winthrop D. Jordan’s seminal book “White Over Black” teaches us, relations between blacks and whites got off to a bad start and never recovered. Sixteenth century white explorers and traders were willing to grant that blacks seemed to be human, but they couldn’t get past basic culture shock. Africans were black—not quite literally, but close enough for the adjective to stick. They didn’t wear many clothes. They weren’t Christians. They had strange manners, spoke unknown languages and seemed to Europeans to be sexually unrestrained.
The idea that blacks had inherited the curse of Ham spread rapidly, even though it was a ridiculous theory even by 16th century standards of scholarship. From there it was just a short step to slavery, and all those long centuries of oppression that followed.
Now right-wing talkers like Sean Hannity argue that the real racism comes in reverse, from black activists to solid white citizens. But what Hannity’s ilk forgets—or ignores—is that white racism met the strictest possible definition of the term. To the extent that blacks resent whites, their anger is fueled by actual wrongs and longstanding grievances. It’s racist to enslave because of color; it is not racist to hate the enslaver.
None of which is meant to suggest that Trump supporters are all racists. I don’t think it’s true, and even if it were, it would be unproductive to fight about it. But to imagine that it is possible to be innocent of all that our history of racism has implied, and of the ways Trump has exploited it, is to be innocent of history.
I bear no sour grapes. I’m perfectly willing to accept Donald Trump as my president, just as soon as I have personally examined his birth certificate and submitted it to an independent panel of experts for confirmation.
But if you are one of those people congratulating yourself for your race-free skeleton because you voted both for Barack Obama and for Donald Trump, then give yourself this quick self-test: If Obama shortly before the 2008 election had claimed that he couldn’t get a fair hearing from a white judge, or if he had claimed that he was free to grab women wherever he wanted, would you still have voted for him?
If you would not have, then you might have a racist bone in your body, too.