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.”
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.