Racist like me.

Better ideas.
Aug. 11 2004 12:09 PM

Racist Like Me

Why am I the only honest bigot?

(Continued from Page 1)

"You got that right," he agreed grimly, as if I'd narrowly escaped the noose. It's a wonder we didn't flash each other black power salutes. But the moment the words were out of my mouth, I was ashamed. Worse: I felt stupid.

Who am I kidding? I'm an attorney. The lots are so big in my deer-filled suburb that I had to drive from neighbor to neighbor to collect petition signatures for a local election. In fact, we rarely even use that usurped driveway because we have two. My architect husband is white as are our two children. (So far. Biracial kids often darken over time.) The local police are just as respectful of me as they are of my neighbors, whatever they might be thinking. Whether or not I should fear them, I don't.

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It is a testament to the enduring legacy of racism that a black grandfather still doing manual labor bothered to side with either me or my squatter. He should have said to hell with the both of you and played dumb, leaving the two of us to fight over our possessions. I'm guessing he'd also witnessed his feudal lord take arrogant possession of a stranger's property and that this had pushed all his buttons, too. The fact that I turned out to be black was the icing on the cake.

In a way, I'm arguing for class warfare to replace racial warfare. Class conflict makes sense; it keeps the powerful from riding roughshod over senior citizens who can't retire from manual labor in the hot sun. The truth is, I have far more in common with the rich white man than I do with that poor black grandfather (who would never dare to park on private property in this neighborhood). A world of perfect harmony would be lovely, but until the rapture comes I'd rather blue-collar types of all races faced off against us "suits" than one race against the other. There is nothing logical, natural, or beneficial about a world organized by race—the very concept is irrational. Any system divided along racial lines, implicitly or overtly, will be immoral, inefficient, and unstable. (Take, for example, poor whites' hatred of slaves, rather than of slavery, for depressing wages.)

Class conflict, on the other hand, is natural and rational. It brought us the minimum wage, OSHA, Social Security, the weekend, overtime, pensions, and the like. While none of those are unmitigated successes, a system organized along class lines acknowledges that capitalism doesn't police itself and that labor must have a voice—it wasn't the capitalists who pushed for child labor laws and the eight-hour work day. Everybody loses when societal goods are distributed on the basis of race, even those in the front of the bus. Bigotry is just plain stupid, but as long as the price of examining one's prejudices is expulsion from the human race, we're never going to be able to quash it.

When I realized that I had internalized the world's loathing of blacks, my first response was, counterintuitively, relief. Finally, I have proof that blacks' obsession with racism isn't crazy. If I secretly think that many poor blacks are animalistic and stupid, you'll never make me believe that lots of other people don't, too. My lasting response has been chagrined amusement to realize that I hold such ridiculous, illogical notions. Most of all, acknowledging my own racism has given me a measure of compassion for how difficult it is to retain one's humanity in such a politicized and inhumane world. I'm black and I make my living thinking about race, but I still wasn't immune to the insidious bigotry in our world. How much harder it must be for those with far less time to contemplate and come to terms with these vexing social issues.

It's not bigotry per se that hamstrings us in the struggle to achieve a just society. It's our inability to talk about and think our way through our preconceptions. We have to learn how to forgive each other, and more importantly ourselves, when we're stupid.

Debra Dickerson is the author of The End of Blackness andAn American Story.

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