Friday, May 2, 2014

Elegant Racism

I've mentioned Ta-Nehisi Coates and his essential work on racism/white-supremacy before, but today I thought I'd link to his latest in The Atlantic because it gets to the heart of the continuing and pernicious tragedy of racism in America. While cross burnings and other dramatic displays of white supremacy  have been relegated to a dark and benighted past, the more insidious problem today is that if racism isn't in your face, it becomes too easy to deny it even exists.

I like how Coates recasts the invisible oppression of "institutional racism" as "elegant racism," because the notion of "institutional racism" has itself become nearly invisible. "Elegant racism" makes us confront anew the interesting phenomenon in which racist speech is now roundly called out and condemned, but racist actions that materially hurt black people are ignored, or deflected, or denied - an elegant solution indeed to keeping the white power-structure intact.
The problem with Cliven Bundy isn't that he is a racist but that he is an oafish racist. He invokes the crudest stereotypes, like cotton picking. This makes white people feel bad. The elegant racist knows how to injure non-white people while never summoning the specter of white guilt. Elegant racism requires plausible deniability, as when Reagan just happened to stumble into the Neshoba County fair and mention state's rights. Oafish racism leaves no escape hatch, as when Trent Lott praised Strom Thurmond's singularly segregationist candidacy.
Elegant racism is invisible, supple, and enduring. It disguises itself in the national vocabulary, avoids epithets and didacticism. Grace is the singular marker of elegant racism. One should never underestimate the touch needed to, say, injure the voting rights of black people without ever saying their names. Elegant racism lives at the border of white shame. Elegant racism was the poll tax. Elegant racism is voter-ID laws. 
Awhile back I made the argument that misogyny, and sexism, and sexual assault against women aren't  going to get better until more men not only refuse to engage in such behavior themselves, but actively work to stop other men from acting that way, and actively work to undo the structural barriers to women's equality. It's the same with racism and those of us who benefit enormously from white privilege.

Here in North Carolina, it is astounding that resegregation of our schools is proceeding apace, Voter ID laws have been re-enacted, and government programs that disproportionally benefit racial minorities have been slashed, while tax cuts that disproportionally benefit whites have been expanded. But the legislators and the Governor, "so are they all, all honorable men." Never a racist epithet should pass their lips.

It feels like too many of us have been complacent, thinking that we would inevitably march forward toward equality and justice because that's how history works. I guess I should have paid more attention to our history - the predations following the end of Reconstruction serving as just one clear example of how naive that idea of inevitability is.  Calling out the overt racists is a necessary step, but until we work to call out and tear down the institutional supports of "elegant racism" the paint job may look lovely, but the building is still rotting from within.

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