Given time and nothing else to do, sometimes men will say a lot.
As we waited in the August sun for our children to take their driving tests, a fellow dad told me about his daughter who works at night and had phoned him after another establishment had been robbed. He said he had told her, if threatened, to shoot the assailant and call him. It would be OK because there would be “one less black.”
I think I checked to make sure I’d heard him right, and he repeated it. He then quickly added, “I’m not a racist, but …” and explained that news reports about crimes usually involve blacks and Hispanics.
There are three kinds of racism: bold print racism, regular print racism, and fine print racism.
Bold print racism was on display in Charlottesville, Virginia, where white supremacists called for saving not only a statue but the entire white race, and then one of them ran over a woman with his car. It’s unmistakable, unapologetic, and not practiced by very fine people.
Regular print racism is more hidden, until it’s not, as with that dad. It’s the kind that would not march with white supremacists but would be OK with the world having one less black. How common is it? Common enough that he would say that kind of thing to a stranger. He assumed I would approve because the other white people he knows would.
Then there’s fine print racism, which expresses itself in ways we often don’t recognize – in unequal treatment under the law, in job opportunities, in residential arrangements, and in our daily personal choices. In some ways, Little Rock is more segregated today than it was in the 1950s. Arkansas has a handful of multi-racial church congregations, but Sunday’s 11 o’clock hour remains among the most segregated of the week, just as Martin Luther King described it in his day. Less than 16 percent of Arkansas’ population is African American. It’s not a coincidence that the state has never elected a statewide or congressional African American official, and why the 14 (out of 135) African American state legislators represent districts with high percentages of minority voters.
What makes this so complex is that it’s based not only on skin color but also on differing experiences that run deep. Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, is more liberal than I am, but she grew up in segregated schools and I didn’t, and the vestiges of segregation that survived during my childhood worked in my favor. Those differences shape us in ways we often don’t recognize, putting the population’s 16 percent at a disadvantage. All of us are the products not only of our experiences but also of the experiences of our ancestors. So no, it’s not going to be so easy for people to just “get over” the past.
Undeniably, progress has been made. Bold print racism is now practiced only by fringe elements. It’s condemned by just about everybody, instead of being embraced by elected leaders as it was in Little Rock 60 years ago. Among the many other positive changes has been attitudes toward mixed marriages. A Gallup poll found 87 percent of Americans in 2013 said they approved of marriages between white and black people. In 1959, it was 4 percent.
The danger of this kind of progress is that we can pat ourselves on the backs for not practicing bold print racism or regular print racism, but fail to read the fine print racism that may hide in our hearts. If the neo-Nazis are the baseline, then the rest of us look pretty good in comparison. But they mostly reside on the edges of society. The real threat is within.
What counts is not being able to say “I’m not a racist” compared to the bold print kind. What counts is what we do with the “but” that so often naturally follows. Do the next words justify and blame, as in, “but you’ve got to admit, black people commit more crimes”? Or do they lead to self-examination and repentance, as in, “but I must admit, I don’t always follow Dr. King’s admonition to judge people by the content of their character”?
Read closely the fine print. The words after the “but” say a lot.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.