The Tyranny of False Civility

“There are good people on both sides.”

Congressional Republicans last week voted to free auto dealers to charge higher interest to black and Hispanic borrowers. When Congresswoman Maxine Waters expressed anger at the racism in their vote, her tender white colleague Mike Kelly got his feelings hurt. He used his free Republican therapy session on Fox & Friends to express his pain.

I had 30 minutes of Democrats coming down and talking about how bad automobile people are because they discriminate against nonwhite buyers. I said that’s not America. We don’t talk about those things.

Kelly merely sought to relieve the good merchants of his field from burdensome regulations. For this, he finds himself tarred with the most damning epithet. To the Fox News crowd, it is Waters, and all those low creatures who utter the unutterable, who deserve scorn.

“There are no racists in America.” That’s the tongue-in-cheek conclusion reached by Ta-Nehisi Coates in his book Between the World and Me. Americans have generally eschewed public expressions of racism even while actively perpetrating it. Racists are ugly, ignorant brutes, ergo, nice people are never racists. Ohio Governor John Kasich is a friendly, nice white man. When his administration sought to exclude white counties from Medicaid work requirements, he meant no harm to black voters. Anyone who claims otherwise is “race-baiting.”

From Coates again,

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.

It is uncivil to call out racism, a breach of good manners and grace. In the white community, racism is always the fault of those who name it. For most American whites, racism exists only when it is spoken into being. In explaining that “We don’t talk about these things,” Rep. Kelly is deploying one of our oldest defenses of white supremacy: Civility.

Authentic civility creates an environment in which differences can be aired, discussed and often resolved without rupturing our shared ties. To be civil means we discuss our grievances in a direct, sometimes even painful manner without seeking to harm or demean one another. A shared commitment to civility creates a framework for healthy disagreement while preserving our ties of shared citizenship.

We have never allowed minority communities access to this kind of civility. Any attempt to raise concerns about white supremacy, even with a gesture as civil as kneeling, is by definition uncivil.

Two forces have been crucial to maintaining racial bias in American life. The first, violence, is fairly obvious. But, relatively few Americans in our history have ever beaten a handcuffed suspect, participated in a lynching, or marched under a swastika or Confederate flag. Violence that protects white privileges is carried out by “a few bad apples,” a precious deniability that insulates the conscience of white Americans.

Of course, these ruined apples would be cast onto the compost heap but for the second element of the equation – white Americans’ silence around race. Genteel denial and violence form the two-headed snake of white supremacy. Attack one, and the other will respond. It was a mistake, we are told, to confront the “deplorables.” Pointing out racism is “inflammatory,” a suggestion darkened by the long shadow of the noose.

Nice white man, David French, deployed the tyranny of civility in an unintentionally revealing piece for The National Review. He described the sad victimhood that has driven overt racists into sanctuaries like “the intellectual dark web.” Political correctness has constrained their free speech rights. “Everyone knows what happens to bigots in the workplace,” he writes in reference to the sad persecution of nice white men.

French, of course, doesn’t openly sympathize with the Nazis lurking at our margins. That would be uncivil. Instead, he carefully glorifies the martyrs of white supremacy:

The acolytes of these free-thinkers aren’t powerful. They haven’t pushed through political correctness. Instead, they live in fear of speaking their minds. They are growing weary of propaganda, yet many of the standard avenues for education and self-improvement now speak with one voice and permit little dissent. They fear that even asking questions could endanger their livelihoods and ruin their public reputations.

To translate, America is marginally less friendly to bigots than it was a few years ago. French and other genteel white folk believe that’s a pity, a breach of civility. Conservatives who are OK with black loan applicants being exploited for higher interest rates, or with people getting fired for being gay, are “concerned” about the “decline of free speech” that might “endanger the livelihoods” of racists. Our false civility dictates no one is a racist. On matters of race, white Americans insist on their right to be judged by their intentions rather than their actions or words.

Ironically, free speech has never been a core value of the American right. They are concerned instead about the spread of free speech beyond the limits of a white universe. Free speech outside the stifling constraints of our faux civility threatens civic order. The right fears losing the safe space through which racist ideas blossomed and regenerated. Lose that space, and white supremacy in the US faces is its first truly existential threat.

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove put a rhetorical finger on the problem in his book, Reconstructing the Gospel:

White supremacy doesn’t persist because racists scheme to privilege some while discriminating against others. It continues because, despite the fact that almost everyone believes it is wrong to be racist, the daily habits of our bodily existence continue to repeat the patterns of white supremacy at home, at school, at work, and at church. White supremacy is written into our racial habits. In short, it looks like normal life.

Silence enforced by civility makes it easy to maintain white supremacy. Anyone who points out the racism inherent in “normal life” is uncivil, impolite. That incivility is taken as a danger, because it threatens what many hold dear. Poor Mike Kelly. Inferring racism in his effort to promote racist repression is rude. He is nice guy, beloved one must assume, by his kids and his dog, a suffering martyr to be pitied.

If you’re white and you want to end racism, your most powerful weapon is your voice. Tell the truth as a white person among white people, and American racism loses a little more of its sanctuary, its shelter, its food. Truth is power.

Pointing out racism puts racists in a corner. The complaint from the Trump whisperers that “deplorables” language inflames racist sentiment is a powerful warning. The Trump administration itself is a living harbinger of greater retribution to come. Look how much damage we’ll inflict on our own most vital institutions to protect what we truly value. Implied in Republicans’ concern-trolling over divisive language is an age-old threat – shut up, or you’ll get what you deserve. And nice, civil, white Americans won’t lift a finger to save you.

Force their hand by using your voice. The truth will set you free.

23 Comments

  1. FYI, I came across this quote today:

    “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” ~~Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks.

    I mentally noted it and looked it up later. The search engine brought me this NYTimes Op-Ed from 2013: https://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/19/opinion/cohen-a-dangerous-interregnum.html

    “Interregnums are dangerous — and doubly morbid if unaccompanied by a readiness to think anew about changed power structures.”

  2. Your term “false civility” is also known as “white fragility”: the tendency of white people to be more upset about being called racists then they are about actual racism.

    It’s interesting, too, that sometimes commenters on this site complain about how the people talking about this issue are too aggressive about it, and feel that the discussion turns them off from supporting the cause. There it is, in practice, right on this very forum. But ‘false civility’ is softer than ‘white fragility’, and you’re a white man talking about it, so it’s more comfortable. We’re not talking about everybody, we’re just angry at the real racists, who are the other people, the conservatives, the Trump supporters. Nothing to do with us, right?

    But that’s about as far as I want to take that thread, because on the other hand what I personally find annoying is groups of people who have largely the same beliefs chewing each other up over relative purity tests. I feel as long as the argument is framed most around how best to help achieve lasting and visible results to the betterment of the human condition including the recognition and self-representation of marginalized communities, then I’m all good to move forward to the nitty gritty of civic debate here. I really just wanted to throw that out so that others notice that it’s a thing here too.

    The funny thing about the term ‘white fragility’ is that it does seem purposefully designed to get a rise out of people. Conservatives come up with shit like that all the time, such as ‘snowflake’ and ‘social justice warrior’, and aren’t subsequently called out for being ‘condescending’ to ‘regular people’ (I promise I’m finished with the flying quotations now). The major difference between the left being too condescending and the right driving people too polls with the same language is that the left is targeting white people who have the power, and the right is targeting everyone else who doesn’t.

  3. Powerful essay, and this needs to be heard more. The aggressive non empathy of conservatives is something I’ve encountered a lot.
    But the intellectual dark web (I prefer to call us ‘liberals’) are not a haven or alternate name for the alt right. I personally hate the alt right, but the PC left has about 100 times the societal power.
    I was on JSTOR (the largest academic article database) last week, and searched “race” under the discipline “sociology”. I read what was either the first or second result, and this paper theorized that white Europeans invented racism. It’s insane. You can’t tell me that there’s not a free speech crisis, or that all of my enemies’ enemies are good people. I see it all the time, in my immediate surroundings as well as in national news and discourse. Look up Evergreen College, where the school president told university police to stand by while a mob threatened a professor for suggesting that A Day Without White People was a bad idea. Or look up the text of the so-called “anti diversity memo” that got James Damore fired from Google; I’ve heard quite a lot of a the same things from organizations focusing on women in tech and yet I’m supposed to believe that Damore is the 27,688,521st coming of Hitler.

    1. Oh and Mary,
      I wasn’t able to respond to you in time on the last piece, but tomorrow is the third election I will have participated in (2 primaries and the 2016 general). Of the 5-8 times that women have appeared as a candidate for a race, I will voted for a woman all but one of those times. So, I give women a chance. I just don’t vote on the basis of sex.

      1. I’m sure the reason you voted for the female candidates was because you felt they were the best qualified – which is as it should be. Women don’t want or expect anything to be “given” to them based upon their gender, what they want is an equal opportunity, fair treatment, equal pay for equal work, and advancement and recognition for doing their jobs well.

        In a male-dominated Congress, it’s not been easy for women to “shine”, and not all have deserved praise. Those who make a special effort to reach across the aisle (irrespective of party) should be acknowledged. Senators Collins and Murkowski have been able to work with their Democratic colleagues on issues that speak to women’s needs while parting company on other issues. American voters are lazy in vetting their candidates, and continue to re-elect 92% of Congressional incumbents. Given that statistic, we should have an outstanding Congress, yet, we don’t. Voters need to pay more attention to the electoral process and they need more and better candidates. I submit the American electorate would be better served by representation that more closely aligns with our population, in race, gender and ethnicity. Judge their performance after they have a chance to enter the process and serve.

        Thank you for your votes for women in the past and hopefully in the future. I hope you will always be gratified by your decision.

      1. Let me start by pointing out that nowhere do these writers express regret that Evergreen’s students put Weinstein in so much danger that the police said they couldn’t protect him. The most they do is “the-other-side-is-worse-ism”, which is not a defense here.
        There’s a lot to unpack here so I’m going to through the sections and pick a few things out (this won’t make sense if you’re not looking at the article):
        1. There’s a lot of things thrown in this section that don’t have much relation. Domestic terrorists making violent threats against free speech is horrible (Indeed, it’s part of what I’m complaining about, and I don’t have a double standard.) Intellectual critics who think that colleges are, to put it euphemistically, taking public funds without creating the “informed public” they claim… not so much.
        2. “Voluntary” with strong social pressures and expectations is not voluntary. It’s coercion with a smile. These sorts of power structures can be informal. And looking at how things turned out, I don’t believe the quote from Prof. Davies. Also, reverse racism or not, the idea here was at the very least dumb. That kind of thing is just perpetuating everything being viewed through a racial lens.
        3. BLM picked a poor example this time. If you are being attacked by two men with a skateboard, I don’t care what training you have, you’re going to defend yourself. The anger that they were shot is not justified.
        8. Yes. There is no double standard here, but again, one of the sides is mostly a bunch of Internet trolls and the other is setting up camp in the institutions we trust to discover new knowledge.

      2. I didn’t forget about sections 4-7. I wanted to touch on something more general in a separate comment. This is what I think of your all’s rightwinger associations.
        Camps P and C are diametrically opposed, and members in each strive to establish themselves as being as different as possible from the other group. Between them is group L. Group L is a breakaway from P, but has increasingly come to not like P or C either one. L criticizes P and C, and those groups, hating each other as they do, sometimes copy L’s criticisms. But L is of the conviction that a good argument does not become bad when repeated by bad people for nefarious reasons, and so is not going to be roped into associations with people they don’t answer to.
        I’m an atheist, so for me this could well also be about Christianity vs. Islam, or Luther vs. the Catholics. But the general idea is this: two groups, wrong about everything else, may be right about why their primary opponents are wrong.

      1. Okay I’ll back up on that one but only a half step. As far as I know Europeans were the first to facilitate large-scale interactions (as opposed to small bands of merchants or travelers) between peoples from very different parts of the globe. There were the Mongols but their empire was brief, and also very violent. So, if Europe invented racism, it’s only because they were the first to discover groups of different skin colors in large-scale economic interactions. And by “invention”, I mean the formal expression/justification of gut reactions that were likely to occur no matter what. (Because of selfish genes and group selection. The liberal mind, capable of seeing strangers as individuals instead of members of groups, is in some sense unnatural and takes time to develop – though develop it we must.)
        The claim that I’m not going to back away from is what I perceive as an implicit charge that there is something unique about Western culture that predisposed them to chauvinism, racial or otherwise. Look at Japanese jingoism in the 1920s through WWII. The Japanese government sponsored emigration to Manchuria while wanting emigrants to maintain Japanese identity. They later turned Manchuria into a puppet state, and some time after that invaded China proper. This whole time their basic motive is that their ethnic group ran out of space. I’m sure you have all heard of the Rape of Nanjing; there is racism on the personal level.
        I’ve heard it said that colonial powers in Africa and the ME deliberately drew up borders so as to pit ethnic groups against one another. I’m willing to believe this, looking at the Kurds’ situation or the Rwandan genocide, but really, in order for that to work, racial and ethnic strife and to be there to exploit.

      2. Also incorrect. There was robust trade from Rome to India and Southeastern Africa. One of the earliest nations to adopt Christianity was Ethiopia.

        You’re failing to distinguish racism from simple bigotry. Greek derided the Celts as barbarians. They weren’t racist. They had no concept of race. They just hated their neighbors. It’s kind of a funny problem. Americans are so steeped in racism they can’t conceive of it having an origin, like trying to explain where the sun comes from.

        Europeans’ first brush with the notion of race emerged from the Spanish and Portuguese interactions with Native Americans. They actually convened a Papal council to determine whether they were human. The council concluded that they were. This was unsatisfactory because it created a political and economic problem, but it put the matter briefly to rest, at least until the emergence of the plantation economy.

        At that point, there was still no concept of the Africans the Spanish and Portuguese were encountering as being some distinct life form. They had kingdoms and civilizations just like the Europeans. There were noble families in Medieval Spain and Portugal with African lineage and features. In fact, England’s 18th century Queen Charlotte was the country’s first “black” royal. One of the 16th century Medici Dukes of Florence was black (Alessandro). You hear little about it because it wasn’t even always noted at the time. Race hadn’t been invented yet because it had no purpose, no context.

        Demands of the slave trade led to the invention of race. Slavery in Medieval Europe had no racial context. Mostly it was tied to land. Europeans found that importing slaves from Europe or enslaving the native Americans didn’t work well. In a wild landscape, people could just flee. Irish slaves looked like everyone else. Natives could easily escape, often knowing the land better than their captors.

        Imported Africans were perfect. They were easily identified. The land and its people were too alien to make flight easy. Starting in the 17th century in Virginia colonists began to create laws defining a black identity and making them slaves by default. It took time for the culture to define and absorb a concept of race, but money smoothed the process. The concept and its purpose quickly spread across the Caribbean and South American. We’ve never undone what early American colonists did and we still don’t even understand the logical falsehood at the core of our ideas about race.

      3. But how many Europeans moved to Ethiopia when it converted? Missionaries and merchants are not the same kind of interaction as immigration, forced or not. Having thirty foreigners is exotic. A thousand and you trigger a tribal response. By this same reasoning I’m not surprised that there would be black European royalty before the transatlantic slave trade started.
        I’m not making excuses for them; I’m just trying to untangle historical cause and effect and I don’t think that demonizing one group is very helpful, nor realistic concerning human nature. Honestly what you’re saying does not, to me, sound that different from what I already had in mind.
        But what do you mean by “the difference between racism and simple bigotry”? You mention a Papal council on whether Amerindians were human, and an idea that one might be interacting with “some distinct life form”. I feel that this is far too restrictive a definition of racism. That sort of theory does not exist with any force in today’s mainstream society. And I know my opponents generally agree with me on that one, what with all the focus on implicit bias.

      4. The difference between racism and simple bigotry (I hate NY Giants fans) is a system. That distinction is extremely important, because that system is comprehensive, silent, and carrying all of the unattended oppressive power of capitalist engine. You heal the racists of all their conscious racism and that system will continue to do its work.

        Nothing quite like racism has ever previously been turned loose in our world, just like we’ve never before seen something quite as powerful as computers, space ships or AI. Seeing its distinct characteristics will be crucial to climbing past it.

    1. With more space I could have thrown in some examples. Remember all the conservatives who objected to suspected Communists being blacklisted? Remember all the conservatives who objected to laws banning flag burning or pornography? Remember the conservatives who objected to schools banning controversial books? Remember all the conservatives who fought to make sure the science around evolution and climate change was taught in school. And on and on and on

  4. The Epistle of James in the Bible makes pretty much the same point as this excellent essay. I am reading the Soul of America right now. Just into the first few chapters and already much of what you have been writing about is being brought out by the historian author Jon Meacham. Our national original sin is still such a massive powerful influence in our county. Like you I have a deep ancestral ties to the old south. One of my paternal great grandfathers fought for the South. Another one maternal fought for the North. I refuse to be complicit in this sin. Despite the southern ties. I have made at least half of my family uncomfortable and many have blocked me on FaceBook. So be it. I am a stubborn old cuss . And I will not forget or surrender.

    1. Bravo, Stephen. I also am reading “Soul of America,” and hope to find solice in what it teaches. I admit I am angry and deeply offended by the actions of people who deliberately choose to hurt others who cannot easily defend themselves – because.they.can. We have to give voice to their needs and rights by speaking out and by our example in our daily lives. As Chris points out, even if it is painful or disruptive, we have to stand up for what is morally right. Elections have consequences and mid-terms offer an opportunity for people to speak out. But these are old problems, and they require not just change in our elected leadership but in the hearts and minds of each of us.

  5. Oh, wow, Chris – so powerful. When I read last week about the vote to end discrimination protections for minorities in auto sales, I was floored. This blatant action said more about how far the Republican Party and our nation have decended into racism and meanness than all of the cuts to health care. Indeed, Congressman Mike Kelly merely lanced the boil that everyone could see.

    Thank you for your clear, unflinching voice calling out white supremacy and racism. You may be weilding a keyboard, but you are taking a knee for all of us who are so deeply offended by what is happening in our country.

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