Take a good long look at that guy in Charleston with the apartheid patches on his jacket and the Lee Harvey Oswald stare. Now try to think. Is there any imaginable circumstance, any remotely possible scenario in which you could be in that picture with Dylann Roof, the man suspected in the killing of nine at a black South Carolina church?
Wait, wait, wait. Before you go postal on me, at least concede that now, thanks to the McKinney police department, we in the Dallas area are all in the same picture with North Charleston, Ferguson, Baltimore, Staten Island — the whole litany of race-related outrages every time it gets cited again in another new story about another new outrage. I’ve already heard the McKinney pool party cited in a Charleston story. It’s not an impossible reach.
And think about this. David Duke says he’s not a racist, even though he has been the leader of the Ku Klux Klan. L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling says he’s not a racist and only expressed racist sentiments because a clever beautiful black woman tricked him into doing it. Erstwhile presidential hopeful Paul Ryan says his remarks about “a tailspin of culture in our inner cities” had no racial content or reference.
The instances of racist white people declaring that they are not racists are so legion, so commonplace and on occasion so outrageous that Jarvis DeBerry at NOLA.com and the New Orleans Times-Picayune has developed an entire regularly recurring column about it.
His column is called “THAT'S NOT RACISM: A FEATURE BY JARVIS DEBERRY.” It makes riveting if awful reading, by the way. And after several installments, DeBerry’s column also draws the reader toward an ineluctable conclusion: White people who really think about race, who sincerely do not want to be racists, never say, “I am not a racist.”
If it’s coming from a place of sincerity and moral commitment, the statement we do make is always at least a little bit nuanced. As in, maybe: I grew up in a white-dominated culture with a lot of white assumptions about the world, and now that I have been out and about in the broader universe of people, I watch for that stuff in myself when it pops up and try to root it out.
But not, “I am not a racist.” That statement expresses all kinds of wrong assumptions about racism, as if it were some kind of coherent philosophy that entailed a formal affiliation you could resign, like burning your draft card.
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The fact is that racism in our country has migrated out of hard-edged realm of Jim Crow law into the soft-sided ephemeral realm of the psyche. But it’s still what it is. People still get murdered in churches. Racism is emblematic of a very real and dangerous difference in people, whether that difference is expressed through racist laws or criminal entropy.
Some people, like the Reverand Clementa Pinckney, who was murdered in Charleston, step over the cracks in life. They are healers and bonders of human beings. Other people look for cracks to step on. They are drawn to the margins, to any sign or quality they can use to divide one set of human beings from another. They find excitement and fulfillment in the splitting and maiming of human community.
Cracks in the physical sidewalk, cracks in the heart, cracks in the head. We all need to think about which side of those cracks we’re on. I’m thinking of some online commenters — not many, a few — who rushed to express racial invective against the black kids at the McKinney pool party. Telling us later that you’re not a racist only confirms the picture.
The only real way you can tell where you stand is to look at that guy in Charleston. He’s looking right back at you. What do you see in his eyes? Are you drawn to them or repulsed? Are his eyes bottomless pits? Or mirrors?