The “I’m not racist even though I’m doing something actually racist right now” rationale is linked to the notion of racism as something worthy of societal condemnation. That is a good thing. As Sugrue identifies in his book, you see a post-World-War-II consensus forming in the 1950s that racial discrimination actually is wrong.
While Bouie and others focused on another statement, I was struck by a passage I haven’t seen highlighted elsewhere:
Along with that (perhaps in the 60s) comes the idea that racism is something that “low-class” white people do. It’s not a system of laws and policies, so much as the ideology of Cletus the slack-jawed yokel. But Arnold Hirsch and Beryl Satter’s work shows the University of Chicago quietly and privately pursuing a racist strategy of “urban renewal” while publicly claiming otherwise.
None of this is new. It’s akin to proto-Confederates loudly and lustily defending slavery, daring the North to war before 1865, and then afterward claiming that the war really wasn’t about slavery. The point is to save face.
A while back I was helping a family member do some deep cleaning and we came across a box of novels, mostly bodice rippers, from the 70s and 80s and included in the box was Lonnie Coleman’s three volume Buelah Land saga. Coleman’s saga was described as Gone With the Wind with sex and as an adolescent I found his descriptions of the endless knotting and gendering of his Southern aristocrats and their slaves entertaining. Throughout the books, Coleman’s storytelling dismisses the systemic racism of black slavery and later Jim Crow but condemns the ideology of Cletus the slack-jawed yokel. Coleman’s villains aren’t the slave holding influential Kendrick’s and Davises who continually benefit from slavery and Jim Crow, they’re the impoverished white farmer Bessie Marsh and the racist poor farmers and townsfolk of his fictional Highboro, GA who are every bit as economically oppressed as the black characters.
The wealthy and influential whites who benefit from a system of racial segregation are excused since they’re racism is clothed in polite language. The virulent racism of the good ole boys in white sheets was excused, protected, promoted, promulgated and nurtured by the more restrained racism of the policy making elite which embraced white supremacy as a fait accomplit.
Which brings us to Coates primary conclusion:
If we accept that racism is a creation, then we must then accept that it can be destroyed. And if we accept that it can be destroyed, we must then accept that it can be destroyed by us and that it likely must be destroyed by methods kin to creation. Racism was created by policy. It will likely only be ultimately destroyed by policy.
So, to Jamelle Bouie:
Slavery (and later, Jim Crow) wasn’t built to reflect racism as much as it was built in tandem with it. And later policy, in the late 19th and 20th centuries, further entrenched white supremacist attitudes. Block black people from owning homes, and they’re forced to reside in crowded slums. Onlookers then use the reality of slums to deny homeownership to blacks, under the view that they’re unfit for suburbs.
In other words, create a prohibition preventing a marginalized group from engaging in socially sanctioned behavior—owning a home, getting married—and then blame them for the adverse consequences.
Therein lies the profound and yet simple insight. Bigotry influences the policy and policy then reinforces the bigotry.
Not for nothing, but one of the most crucial shifts in America culture in the last century has been the awareness that bigotry is wrong. When anti-gay politicians and activisits proclaim they don’t hate gays, they’re trying to protect themselves from charges of bigotry. When teabaggers make patently racist statements and then try to dismiss it as a joke or defend themselves by saying “I’m not a racist . . .” it’s because they know their bigotry is not socially acceptable. That change in attitudes could not and would not have come about were it not for the work of countless activists who have done everything in their power to change attitudes.