For someone who thinks this whole Kramer snafu isn’t worth discussing, I sure have a lot to say about it. But when I saw the following lede for Eugene Robinson’s latest WaPo column, I just had to rebut it. Robinson’s usually a pretty sharp dude, but this is just stupid (plus I totally called it yesterday):
Anyone who thinks that racism in this country is history really ought to watch the video of Kramer going postal.
See, this sentence takes two perfectly defensible ideas—one, that racism in this country is still alive; and two, that what Michael Richards said was offensive—and tries to mash them together as though they were somehow related. By lending authoritative (Robinson is black) credence to the notion that Richards’ outburst is somehow representative of latent American racism, Robinson gives a convenient “out” to the many millions of whites in this country who would never dream of saying, or even thinking, anything so distasteful . . . but who perpetuate racism nonetheless.
Most people don’t think of themselves as racist (particularly racists themselves, who sometimes preface bigoted opinions with “I’m not racist but . . .”). Research on the psychology of prejudice tells us that it operates automatically at the subconscious level, which allows people to discriminate without self-awareness. Few people feel the dissonance of actively “suppressing” improper attitudes; after all, if you’ve convinced yourself you’re not racist, what is there to hide?
But you have to be conscious to use the N-word, or to opine, as Trent Lott did, that the old days were so much better. Thus, the claim that a patently racist tirade symbolizes the ugly impulses that lurk within us all is at best extremely misleading. The true boundary implicit in the metaphorical headline “What Lies Beneath” is that between the conscious and unconscious parts of our minds, not between our public and private thoughts. The belief that conscious racism is the only, or most significant, form is dangerous because it allows mainstream Americans to go on thinking they’re not racist while ignoring all the ways in which they discriminate unwittingly.
People need to get past this idea that the gamut of American racism includes only such extreme incidents as a cop beating a black dude on the freeway, or rednecks dragging one from the back of a truck, or Michael Richards talking shit at a comedy club. No one wants to believe they’re racist, or prejudiced, or sometimes hateful, but the truth is we all are to some degree. Use of the N-word and related rhetoric is perhaps a sufficient indicator of racist attitudes, but it is by no means necessary. However, too many believe that it is necessary, that it’s only racism when it’s beyond-a-reasonable-doubt obvious, and one of my most pressing concerns with Kramergate (hah) is that it might encourage this opinion.
Hey, I think I just found out how to spin this whole thing toward broader relevance. What do you think?