Perhaps the most insane part of talking about race right now in America is how many people — almost always white and right-leaning, to sweepingly generalize, but of course, that’s who it almost always is* — act just incredulous when confronted with the idea that racism might still be going on here today. Like, it’s never, “Well, yes, I agree we have systemic problems as a society regarding how we treat people with different-colored skin, but in this particular case I don’t think those problems were as important a factor as [something else] and here’s why.” It always seems to be flat-out, shaking-their-head disbelief at the mere suggestion that racism might still exist in this country and have real effects. At best (“best”), I guess they think that racism does happen, but that it’s exactly that: something that “happens” in isolated incidents, like Paula Deen or Donald Sterling or Michael Richards using the n-word. Honestly, I suspect there are a lot of people who think using the n-word is the definition of racism, and like the only definition of racism. And since black rappers use the n-word all the time, too, they conclude that racism can’t be that big of a deal. (Also, black people are allowed to use the same water fountains as white people now, and Martin Luther King Jr. happened, so, to these people, I guess, racism is over, and now it’s just a matter of lazy black people getting their shit together and taking advantage of the bounteous opportunities we have laid out before them.)
I’m guessing here, but I’m not guessing that hard, because I was born in a mostly white place and have spent most of my life with mostly white people, and regardless of what I might consciously think or write, I still feel these ways of thinking lurking in the basement of my brain. It’s not even that I grew up with racially insensitive white people — I didn’t! I think we were all pretty good. It’s just that we were still an in-group, and in-groups have prevailing mind-sets, mind-sets you’re barely aware of. We were taught that racism was a thing of the past, that the civil-rights movement had conquered it. And we were taught that the n-word was bad, an artifact of those benighted times before MLK stepped forth to lead us to the promised land. And that was about it.
Well. If there’s one useful takeaway from our present obsession with fantasy stories, maybe it’s that evil never dies that easily, really never dies at all. At best maybe it mostly goes away for a while, and then comes back morphed into a different form. But in this case, the case of American racism, it never even went away.
Listen: People are still alive today who can remember segregation, remember separate water fountains, remember Rosa Parks. (Just think of that, by the way: Sixty years ago, a woman not moving from her bus seat catalyzed a nationwide movement; now kids are getting killed, and we seem to be on the fence about if we need to do something.) Lots of people are still alive today who can remember all that.
So: Why the incredulousness when anyone suggests that racism might still be a potent negative force in our culture? Why does anyone even think it probably went away? We had a society where — decades after slavery and the Civil War — it was commonplace to explicitly, legally treat black people differently from white people. It wasn’t just accepted by many people, it had the force of law behind it. That wasn’t very long ago. Is it somehow crazy to think that the attitudes that allowed those things to happen weren’t eradicated? Maybe a class of behavior that caused one whole group of people to treat a whole other group of people like crap — publicly, institutionally — maybe that’s not something that just magically disappears.
People act like MLK won. Uh, he got killed. He’d literally just told us about the mountaintop, and then he got killed. Don’t act like we all got there, too.
*Note that “All the people who act this way seem to be white and right-leaning” is different from saying “All white and right-leaning people act this way.” I shouldn’t have to say that, but we live in stupid times.