Holding people accountable

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ column today is both a reminder and good discussion of the difference between labeling individuals as racists (or non-racists) and understanding that our history is one filled with racism:

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 [actor Forest] 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.

Hi. We’re America; we’re a recovering racist society, taking it day by day. Somehow, we can acknowledge that in the abstract, but not understand that people who live in this society are sometimes going to express that history of ugliness even when they’re good people. Too often, we see the ugly ratiocinating side of things, as in Antonin Scalia’s claim that somehow there is “racial entitlement” in a universal law protecting voting rights. Hey, Justice Scalia! Maybe you should get a reality-check before giving racial resentment lifetime tenure in your head. But unfortunately that public display of stupidity masks the private weaknesses of all Americans as humans.

We should be happy that we have moved towards being a society where people who do stupid, socially harmful things are shamed. I would much rather live in that society than in a society where the pressures are all geared towards the destructive. Right now, I am in the awkward place of still being quite capable of stupidity (I’m alive!), but in a position (department chair) and region (the South) where deference habits can easily masquerade as approval of whatever I do. I have lived in the South long enough to recognize social deference. I know enough to be suspicious of its effects and of my ability to filter it out.

From personal experience, I know that being white, young, and confronted on stupidity is a growth opportunity. To put this in another way, if you have ever been in a long-term relationship, you probably have been confronted about your own insensitivity, just because we are around our loved ones enough for the stupidity to show through. (And if you think you have never been confronted about your own insensitivity, you need to revisit your personal history. Trust me, it’s there somewhere.) I think we all can survive a few times in our life when the blood rushes to your cheeks as you realize exactly how foolish you have just been. What we cannot survive is the failure to learn from those experiences.

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