If you believe people with arguably racist thoughts, feelings, or beliefs are irredeemable;
If you believe that conversing with them or treating them with respect is a waste of time and energy, if not immoral;
If you consider yourself liberal, in the sense of being generous, broad-minded, not bigoted;
(Or if you just like cool stories about people undergoing shocking transformations despite significant obstacles)
Take ½ hour and read this article on the heir apparent to the American white supremacy movement who got turned around by the light touch of a liberal arts college and a welcoming Jew.
Or check out this classic, featuring one of my few heroes, John Lewis: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y77fUFUfk9I
Look, I get it. I grew up thinking racists were the worst people on earth (literally) and that racism was indelible. I simultaneously believed that if people lived in more diverse communities and were better educated and society was structured differently, racism would eventually fade away. It wasn’t logical: if racism is in your DNA, you can’t change. If it’s not, you can.
As I internalized my culture, demographic cohort, and parents, I grew up hating and fearing capital-R Racists. And all racists were capital R racists – every one was in my mind a Klansman or Nazi or screaming monster outside the school in Little Rock, Arkansas. Racism was a binary, and mutually exclusive to anything good in the world. I feared the South, where racists, I thought, reproduced in their natural habitat, not because I thought they would sniff out my Jewish roots, but because Racists were evil people, who would also rape and bully and fuck with folks for no reason.
Whenever someone I had classified as Not Racist or A Good Person said something that seemed racist, I decided that statement wasn’t really racist, or maybe they were confused. But the longer I lived in the world, the less able I was to ignore casual racism in people all around me. They weren’t monsters. They might be uninformed or from a homogeneous region or might be hanging onto a few bad experiences, but they were often good, caring people. Many of them treated everyone, of every race, with kindness, despite holding beliefs or ideologies that would seem to preclude that. Meanwhile I still believed that Racists were evil, despite interacting with racist people regularly.
We are all hypocrites.
And most of us have some racist thoughts bouncing around in our head. Most have some prejudices based on personal experience, media, family, culture, etc. There was a lot of buzz during the election about how Trump voters were more racist than Clinton voters. No big surprise to anyone; to me, the comparison was not the story. The real story was how consciously racist most Clinton voters were.
According to the Thompson Reuters poll, among likely Clinton voters:
- 22% believed blacks were less intelligent than whites
- 25% believed blacks were lazier than whites
- 30% thought they were more “rude”
- 31% thought they were more violent
- 32% view blacks as more criminal than whites
Racism, like pretty much everything, is a spectrum, and converting a Racist is not a matter of changing who they are at their core, but of turning the dial a little to the left at any opportunity. Because no one is at their core a racist. People are at their core people, or consciousness, or (if you believe in that) souls, not hierarchies of ideology. No one is just a racist. They’re workers and neighbors and film fanatics and Hello Kitty collectors and athletes and Cubs fans and volunteers and nurses. And any one of those things has the potential to bump that racist knob a notch to the left. What generally won’t budge it is being called stupid or shut out of the conversation or mocked. If someone has no knowledge of structural racism, is it reasonable for them to look at incarceration rates in the US and assume blacks are more criminal than whites? Of course it is. If I call that person a Racist for making that assumption instead of acknowledging its logic, they will be utterly resistant to the data that proves otherwise. I may not want to be part of any group that would have me as a member, but no one wants to be part of a group that calls them an idiot and an asshole.
Do you know this Lincoln anecdote?
An elderly lady, a fiery patriot, rebuked [Lincoln] for speaking kindly of his enemies when he ought to be thinking of destroying them. “Why, madam,” said Lincoln, “do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”
Look, I get it. I’m a Daughter of the Civil Rights Movement. I’m a Jew obsessed with the Holocaust. It is hard for me to not react to real or perceived racism with anger and moral outrage. I used to start shaking whenever someone said something “clearly” racist. That doesn’t happen anymore, and I can’t say exactly why, but I think it has something to do with experience, logic, and meditation, as well as recognizing my participation in our collective failing as a society that would allow these kinds of beliefs to germinate.
I am working to get past impulsive reacting in general, because unless someone is being physically attacked by a tiger (or a Nazi tiger), it’s going to do everyone more harm than good. Who had more cause to react than John Lewis in Rock Hill or Selma? Or Gandhi? Or Atticus Finch, if you prefer the fictional? I can’t simultaneously hold their beliefs and practices in the highest esteem and behave in a way that is utterly opposed to it. The examples above show that even a Capital R Racist can turn the knob to the left. Imagine the potential for change in a racist if I treat them as the fallible human beings we all are.