It's America in 2017, and No One, but No One, wants to be labeled a racist. Or a white supremacist. Or an anti-Semite. It’s beyond taboo.
Sheriff Joe Arpaio “is not and has never been a racist.” It’s “extremely hurtful and distressing to him” that it was reported that he was convicted of racial profiling, instead of contempt of court, says his lawyer. Chris Cantwell, star of the Vice video on Charlottesville, who was shown chanting “Jews will not replace us!” is not a racist. “I’m a human being,” he later cried, begging the world for sympathy upon learning he might be arrested. Richard Spencer, who coined the term “alt-right,” is not a racist; he’s an “identitarian, who wants an “ideal of a safe space effectively for Europeans.”
America has no white supremacists now. Even the KKK now denies that they are “white supremacists.” They are “white nationalists” instead, as are other extremists in the alt-right. And they are not alone. Jason Kessler, who organized the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally, denies that he’s a white supremacist. Instead, he is "pro-white" and just wants to "stand up" for his people against "ethnic cleansing" by "liberal social policies."
And, President Donald Trump is “the least racist person you have ever met,” despite launching his presidential run by saying of Mexican immigrants, “They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” Even when confronted with the facts about Mexican immigration, such as that Mexican immigration is at an all-time low and that Mexicans are much less likely to commit crimes than US born persons, he said, “I can’t apologize for the truth. I said tremendous crime is coming across. Everybody knows that’s true. And it’s happening all the time. So, why, when I mention, all of a sudden I’m a racist. I’m not a racist. I don’t have a racist bone in my body.”
But people are not afraid to wave flaming tiki torches and yell “Jews will not replace us!” or give a Nazi salute and shout, “Hail Trump, Hail Our People!” And cops are repeatedly acquitted of wrongdoing when they shoot unarmed black people in the back because being black itself represents enough of a perceived threat for a jury to decide that there was “reasonable cause” for the cop to think his life was at risk.
And yet, the statistics are overwhelming that we live in a country with alarming levels of institutional racism and personal racism. That people of color live every day of their lives filled with micro and macro-aggressions. That African Americans are 6 times more likely to be incarcerated for drug charges as whites, even though they use drugs at similar rates.. That voter suppression through Voter ID laws ensure that black people’s voices are far less represented among our elected officials, under the auspices of “preventing fraud,” when facts show that very little fraud actually exists. A new poll even shows that a majority of Americans oppose white supremacists, while still sharing white supremacist views, including a majority of Republicans who agreed with a statement that white Americans are “under attack.”
Central to the concept of racism is oppression and discrimination.
So even though Joe Arpaio believes he is not racist and says he only cares about criminals, his actions as sheriff terrorized and oppressed all Latino people in Maricopa County, who lived in fear of his “sweeps” whether they were law abiding US citizens, legal residents, or not. Oppression is evident in voter ID laws, all of which actually make it much more difficult for poorer and minority people to vote. The state of Alabama discriminated against black voters when it chose predominately black counties for DMV budget cutting branch closures, making it extremely difficult for those citizens to get IDs in order to vote. Oppression is a daily experience when you are forced to live with street names, park names, and the name of your children’s school, when those names are people who view blacks as a “servile race” (Jefferson Davis), people who fought quite openly and explicitly to preserve the slavery of your people.
We have racism without racists because our society has succeeded in stigmatizing the concept of racism, but we have not succeeding in opening people’s hearts and minds to what it feels like to be oppressed and discriminated against.
We all agree that everyone is created equal, because, hey, this is America, after all. Maybe we just have trouble empathizing. Where blacks and Latinos see injustice for being beaten by police for a minor traffic offense whereas whites are not, being pulled over 49 times by the cops in 9 years for no real reason whereas whites are not, being turned away at the polls when whites are not, or being forced to live with the worst demons of your history on bronze pedestals in front of your court house or in your town square, many white people may simply see “budget cuts” or “law and order,” “heritage” or “history.” When white people in the media talk about “black on black crime,” most white people don’t notice that they aren’t also talking about “white on white crime,” which is also a “thing,” because the vast majority of murder victims are killed by someone of their own race due to the segregated nature of our society.
The most powerful anecdotes I have ever encountered of white people who have changed in their hearts came when people spent time with people of color and heard their experiences first hand. This has been true for me. Having friends tell me what it was like to be followed in a store, to be ignored when you walk in a room but the white people are always greeted, being snubbed at a bank counter when the white person in front of them is treated kindly, to be unable to flag a taxi, or have ladies grab their purses in your presence, to be pulled over for human trafficking just because you are driving with your white wife, and to have this kind of humiliation happen to you all day, every day. One friend told me it happens so often every day, it would be impossible even to write it all down because she’d be doing nothing else but writing.
The black civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson tells a powerful anecdote in his book, Just Mercy about a tough prison guard with a pickup covered in symbols of white supremacy who melted when he heard the testimony of one of Stevenson’s African-American clients and how unjustly he was treated. Former white supremacist leader Derek Black told of how be left the movement after a Jewish kid at his college kept inviting him over for Shabbat dinners. And black musician Daryl Davis befriends Klansmen, many of whom give up their robes and hoods once they get to know him.
And yet, there are black people, like Zack Linly and Reni Eddo-Lodge, who are understandably sick and tired of trying to engage white people about racism because they do not seem to want to engage. They have enough burdens to shoulder besides talking until they are blue in the face to people who seem just not to care. Because it takes so much energy to just survive the daily humiliations that there is none left over to teach white people about racism.
I am very aware that I am writing here as a white person, full of my own prejudices because our society has drilled them into us since babyhood, trying my best to have empathy. I catch myself failing miserably at times and sometimes, people of color catch me when I don’t see it, and call me out. I’m always grateful for the lesson, but rarely happy about it. I want to be an ally, but I feel like I can never be good enough to earn that title.
Empathy is the foundation of justice. As Americans we built this country together around the ideals of justice for all. But if we abandon empathy, we abandon justice. Then we are no longer the America “of thee I sing.” Justice, by its definition, means justice for everyone, not just for some.