Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Good, Racist People

What do you think of this piece? I hear echoes of Baldwin in here; do you?
For what it's worth, I think Coates is one of the best thinkers/writers out there when it comes to race in America.

The Good, Racist People

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Last month the actor Forest Whitaker was stopped in a Manhattan delicatessen by an employee. Whitaker is one of the pre-eminent actors of his generation, with a diverse and celebrated catalog ranging from “The Great Debaters” to “The Crying Game” to “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai.” By now it is likely that he has adjusted to random strangers who can’t get his turn as Idi Amin out of their heads. But the man who approached the Oscar winner at the deli last month was in no mood for autographs. The employee stopped Whitaker, accused him of shoplifting and then promptly frisked him. The act of self-deputization was futile. Whitaker had stolen nothing. On the contrary, he’d been robbed.
Liz Lynch
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The deli where Whitaker was harassed happens to be in my neighborhood. Columbia University is up the street. Broadway, the main drag, is dotted with nice restaurants and classy bars that cater to beautiful people. I like my neighborhood. And I’ve patronized the deli with some regularity, often several times in a single day. I’ve sent my son in my stead. My wife would often trade small talk with whoever was working checkout. Last year when my beautiful niece visited, she loved the deli so much that I felt myself a sideshow. But it’s understandable. It’s a good deli.
Since the Whitaker affair, I’ve read and listened to interviews with the owner of the establishment. He is apologetic to a fault and is sincerely mortified. He says that it was a “sincere mistake” made by a “decent man” who was “just doing his job.” I believe him. And yet for weeks now I have walked up Broadway, glancing through its windows with a mood somewhere between Marvin Gaye’s “Distant Lover” and Al Green’s “For the Good Times.”
In modern America we believe racism to be the property of the uniquely villainous and morally deformed, the ideology of trolls, gorgons and orcs. We believe this even when we are actually being racist. In 1957, neighbors in Levittown, Pa., uniting under the flag of segregation, wrote: “As moral, religious and law-abiding citizens, we feel that we are unprejudiced and undiscriminating in our wish to keep our community a closed community.”
A half-century later little had changed. The comedian Michael Richards (Kramer on “Seinfeld”) once yelled at a black heckler from the stage: “He’s a nigger! He’s a nigger! He’s a nigger!” Confronted about this, Richards apologized and then said, “I’m not a racist,” and called the claim “insane.”
The idea that racism lives in the heart of particularly evil individuals, as opposed to the heart of a democratic society, is reinforcing to anyone who might, from time to time, find their tongue sprinting ahead of their discretion. We can forgive Whitaker’s assailant. Much harder to forgive is all that makes Whitaker stand out in the first place. New York is a city, like most in America, that bears the scars of redlining, blockbusting and urban renewal. The ghost of those policies haunts us in a wealth gap between blacks and whites that has actually gotten worse over the past 20 years.
But much worse, it haunts black people with a kind of invisible violence that is given tell only when the victim happens to be an Oscar winner. The promise of America is that those who play by the rules, who observe the norms of the “middle class,” will be treated as such. But this injunction is only half-enforced when it comes to black people, in large part because we were never meant to be part of the American story. Forest Whitaker fits that bill, and he was addressed as such.
I am trying to imagine a white president forced to show his papers at a national news conference, and coming up blank. I am trying to a imagine a prominent white Harvard professor arrested for breaking into his own home, and coming up with nothing. I am trying to see Sean Penn or Nicolas Cage being frisked at an upscale deli, and I find myself laughing in the dark. It is worth considering the messaging here. It says to black kids: “Don’t leave home. They don’t want you around.” It is messaging propagated by moral people.
The other day I walked past this particular deli. I believe its owners to be good people. I felt ashamed at withholding business for something far beyond the merchant’s reach. I mentioned this to my wife. My wife is not like me. When she was 6, a little white boy called her cousin a nigger, and it has been war ever since. “What if they did that to your son?” she asked.
And right then I knew that I was tired of good people, that I had had all the good people I could take.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, a senior editor at The Atlantic, is a guest columnist. Nicholas D. Kristof is on book leave.


  1. This is a really fascinating article. I think that Coates' point about the idea of racism as not only isolated to "evil" people is an important one. Generally we think of racism as a seed that has been planted in a select group of hateful people such as the students at Oberlin College or Michael Richards, as Coates mentions above. There are certain characteristics assigned to these people to signal that they are crazy or somehow different from the mainstream of America. Coates makes the point that racism is a systemic part of the American life. He references the institutions of redlining, blockbusting and urban renewal which are, whether intentional or not, inherently racist practices. We have often discussed these institutions in my Urban Social Problems class and learned how they have systematically oppressed African Americans and other minority groups in the past and today as well. Many of us don't realize that while we might not consider ourselves racists, we are living in and supporting an inherently racist system. I think this is what Coates is referring to when he says "I was tired of good people, that I had had all the good people I could take". Racism runs a lot deeper in American society than just the select "evil" individuals. The "good people" are responsible for racism as well.

  2. I completely agree with the comment above. Whether we realize it or not, everyone has some form of racism within them. This seed of racism is not planted in select groups; it is planted in all of America. The difference is whether or not someone intentionally says racist things or preforms racist acts. We live in a society that is not perfect. However, when you truly believe that others are inferior to you due to race, gender, religion, etc., that is when we run into a problem. Using the language of the article, I believe that everyone does have some evil in them. However, just because you have some evil in you, does not make you an evil person.


  3. The one line in this article that stood out to me was, “But this injunction is only half-enforced when it comes to black people, in large part because we were never meant to be part of the American story.” Coates explains that even if African Americans play by the rules they still are not treated as such. Instead, fair treatment just depends on the situation black individuals finds themselves in. The fair treatment of blacks will never be equal because, as Coates claims, blacks were never supposed to be such a huge part of the American story. The phrase master narrative immediately came to mind. The American story Coates is referring to could be called the white master narrative. Similar to the civil rights master narrative, the white master narrative neglects to mention certain aspects of white history. In this case, the white master narrative leaves out the fact that African Americans, regardless of their status or actions, are still treated unfair. From what I gather, Coates believes that this inequality occurs because Americans have had a hard time accepting that African Americans now play a huge role in the American story. Similar to what James Baldwin discussed in The Fire Next Time, white Americans have yet to accept their history and how blacks altered their master narrative. Since whites neglect to accept the new American story it ultimately causes the unfair treatment of blacks.

  4. Today I attended the symposium "From Difference to Disparity: Confronting the Racism That Makes Us Sick." While I was listening to the speakers, Coates' article came to mind. Dr. Richard Thomas made the point that the serious health disparities between whites and non-whites, which characterize the United States Healthcare system, represent a "moral failing" on the part of American society. He points to institutional racism and its effects as the major causes of this disparity, but he also points out misdiagnosis and differences in treatment as other factors. Like the deli employee in Coates' article, the doctors who misdiagnose blacks are likely good people; however, they are more likely to point to unsavory lifestyle choices like drug abuse when diagnosing the ill health of an African American patient than when they are diagnosing a White patient. I think this speaks to Coates' point that the racism still prevalent today is not found in the immorality of individuals but in that of our society. While people can be good and moral, the legacy of slavery and racism ingrained in our institutions and the minds of "good" people is not.