Elegant Racism

Ta-Nehisi CoatesTa-Nehisi Coates wrote a great article yesterday at The Atlantic, This Town Needs a Better Class of Racist. In it, he looks at an issue that has long bugged me: how we ignore implicit racist that has huge social costs and freak out about explicit racism that while vile is largely impotent.

He noted, “Cliven Bundy looks, and sounds, much like what white people take racism to be… The problem with Cliven Bundy isn’t that he is a racist but that he is an oafish racist.” As I wrote last month, “Take away the [explicit] racism and the idea that slavery was just great and you are left with Paul Ryan’s hammock argument.” Yet when I say that Ryan’s policies are racist, I get ridiculed. Apparently, we aren’t supposed to talk about racism unless it is of the most obvious variety. As Coates wrote, Cliven Bundy “does not so much use the word ‘Negro’ — which would be bad enough — but ‘nigra,’ in the manner of villain from Mississippi Burning or A Time to Kill.”

Coates defines what we should be fighting as “elegant racism,” which is “invisible, supple, and enduring.” And the example of the hour comes to us from Donald Sterling because in public, he is one of its great practitioners. He refers to Bomani Jones who has been complaining about Sterling’s racism since at least 2006 when Sterling was sued by the Department of Justice on Monday for housing discrimination. Sterling was later fined $2.7 million for his behavior. In the following radio interview, Jones commented about the reason we freak out about these comments and not about his rental policies, “This is the only opportunity that a lot of people out here will have that they feel comfortable within their souls and within their psyches to stand against racism. Because it is so easy to do it on this right here and it’s so scandalous.”

But Coates took it deeper. The sin is not racism but making white people feel bad about racism. When Paul Ryan talks about lazy inner city youths, there is plausible deniability. We can say, “Sure, he means black inner city youths, but there are white inner city youths as well.” But when someone uses the n-word or says that blacks don’t have a good family life because they aren’t picking cotton as slaves, there is no denying the racism.

This is a pretty typical problem with conservatives: seeing the problems of the past but not the problems of the present. But Coates is right: this is largely a liberal problem. (Sadly, the conservatives are mostly not even this evolved on the issue of racism.) He argued that we see race as a thing, when it is actually not. Racism is a thing, and the idea of race is born from that. I think that is fundamentally correct. But more uncomfortably, he’s right that this is the way I think about such issues. I’m going to have to give it much more thought.

Coates ended the article with an observation that is so obvious that no one else seems to have thought of it:

A racism that invites the bipartisan condemnation of Barack Obama and Mitch McConnell must necessarily be minor. A racism that invites the condemnation of Sean Hannity can’t be much of a threat. But a racism, condemnable by all civilized people, must make itself manifest now and again so that we may celebrate how far we have come. Meanwhile racism, elegant, lovely, monstrous, carries on.
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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

7 thoughts on “Elegant Racism

  1. I call it insidious racism (or sexism because it is there too.) It is when James the other day said he tensed up because two black youths were faux fighting on the bus. Or when I once used race as an identifier to describe to men sitting at a table when I never would have done the same if they had been white.

    It is using coded language and not paying attention to the fact it is coded. And it is really hard to fight against because it is so insidious. It requires constantly thinking about how your statements are going to be perceived by others even though you think you are not being racist (or sexist) when you say something.

    • It’s lower brain function. It’s tribal. All we can do is try to be better and hope that the species gets better over time. I’m not optimistic.

      • I am. I read Gail Collins’ When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present and in fifty years, things have changed enormously even in the most backwards areas of the country.

        They just have not changed enough or as quickly as we want. For every police superintendent fired like Chicago’s, we still have the rest of the department to clean up. But the firing is a start.

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