Racists Can Be Nice — But Dangerous

I have a hypothesis about bigotry. My colleagues in the civil rights movement might not like it. I share this conjecture, because I believe it should influence our advocacy against discrimination. My commitment remains the same, but my strategy has changed.

Here is what seems true: Racists can be nice, kind, considerate, polite, intelligent, thoughtful, perhaps principled. In some instances, they even end up as your friends, at least until that shocking revelation that they hold your cousins in contempt not to mention the whole lineage from which you are descended. Their attitudes, and, if allowed, their actions, are nonetheless racist. But assessing whether so-and-so is “racist,” devolves into debates over the definition of the word, or moral judgment about whether they are intrinsically honorable as a human being. Neither fight is necessary for the purpose of preventing their prejudice from adversely affecting other people.

The argument cannot be won, not with them and probably not with many observers. The discussion about them and with them becomes ugly rather than worthwhile. The reason is that they are competent as employees, loving as spouses, responsible as citizens, courageous as soldiers, and so on. They have other redeeming qualities.

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Racists can be principled. I understand the term “principle” to be a set of ideals guiding behavior, even if only as aspirations. Their principle is to distinguish among populations by color of skin or another similar measure, rank those groups, typically so that theirs is the best, then allocate resources or opportunities to favor one’s own “people.” That can be presented as an ideal to guide behavior. The government can — and in the past has — implemented policies accordingly, such as “separate but equal.” Racism can be founded on principles, simply not good ones.

Thus, the test of decency is the wrong test. The worst racists display beneficence toward those with whom they identify. They can feign generosity toward those whom they despise, granting exceptions to their rules or exercising discipline over themselves for ulterior motives. There also is the problem of people who are quite genuinely non-racist, not at all hypocritical, inasmuch as they manage to be universal in their viciousness. To be “not-a-racist” is hardly the basis for bragging.

To avoid giving the wrong impression, I should emphasize that I have no doubt: there are depraved, malignant, hateful individuals lurking out there, ready to destroy any semblance of justice. They are thankfully rare. To fight them requires removing the support around them. They include those who are sophisticated, disclaiming racism, as sincerely as any of us who makes known our opinions, albeit to pre-empt any further engagement.

History offers overwhelming evidence. The leading philosophers of antiquity accepted slavery. Nazi Germany produced manuals about aesthetics, hygiene, and child rearing, among other subjects, that were accepted as advice for improvement of the self as well as society, but which were openly or covertly manifestos for Aryan supremacy. Adolf Eichmann, who organized the Holocaust, exemplified, in Hannah Arendt’s memorable phrase, “the banality of evil,” as merely another bureaucrat following orders. The vintage photographs of White Southern crowds celebrating lynchings, after Reconstruction and before the civil rights era, document civic leaders and ordinary folks cheering and jeering, without wearing white robes and peaked hoods. Norman Rockwell paintings, because of his style, depict the normalcy of racial segregation.

The reason, I surmise, we prefer a stark, symbolic Black-and-White narrative of villains and victims is it offers us a remedy. We are promised progress if we eliminate the former to exalt the latter. The rest of us are not only comforted but also excused. If we are neither villain nor victim, we are bystanders both innocent and privileged. Implicit bias, which we acknowledge in the abstract, can be dismissed in practice. Structures which are obvious likewise can be ignored. Ironically, trying to sort out who is racist plays into that very framing of us-versus-them, which ideologues promote as ordained and natural. The tendency is toward enforcing a divide, substituting which side is the enemy.

So it is to those of us who wish to be progressive, not those who are indifferent in any event, that I insist we no longer yearn for racists to be loathsome through and through. It renders it easier for us. We do not have to confront our own complicity. We resemble the accusers of the past, those who pointed a finger at a beauty mark as the symbol of witchcraft; or who claimed that disfigurement was deserved and disease an affliction not of biology but of morality. The concept is racism without racists, the title of Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s 2003 book, which has been adopted by various others since then. Cultural dynamics can continue on their own long after their origins have become obscure.

My proposal is, instead, we consider specific consequences such as racial disparities that are as broad as deep, persisting over time Regardless of intentions, decisions have effects; rhetoric, too. The content of character is important. Yet the virtuous can have vices. All of us are accountable.

Frank H. Wu is the William L. Prosser Distinguished Professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law.  This summer he will assume the presidency at Queens College in New York.  You can follow him on Twitter@frankhwu.