Your Friendly Neighborhood Racist
I sat down in my aisle seat hoping to find some rest on the plane ride home from a speaking event. As an introvert who travels and speaks a lot, I like to use the flight time to decompress. Unfortunately, my seatmate started chatting me up before I could slip my headphones into my ears.
He was a friendly man who worked in sales and was eager to chat. His daughter was a pilot for the airline we were traveling on and because of that he could explain the intricacies between the different airplane models. The conversation was pleasant, his body language bouncy, and he seemed like a caricature of a lovable television dad.
That is, until he asked me what I do for a living. I told him I work for a nonprofit organization in under-resourced urban communities. As soon as "urban communities" registered in his mind his whole demeanor changed. His body language grew tense, his face turned red and he began unleashing a flurry of racialized political venom toward "those people" in the "inner-city." He talked disparaging of poor black women and rattled off recycled talking points about people on welfare who game the system yet drive black Escalades.
It's not that I haven't heard things like this before, but it was how quickly it surfaced and how deep a place it was coming from. It was like one of those Alien movies where something sinister was planted deep inside him without him even knowing. On the surface everything seemed fine, but then in an unexpected moment the ugly face of racism emerged.
As much as I wanted to leave the conversation I knew I had to respond. Besides, I was stuck sitting next to him for two more hours so I figured I might as well try to give him a different perspective. I told him about the history and policy that led to the creation of urban communities, the trauma people endure on a daily basis, and how people in my community don't resemble his generalizations. I told him I have yet to see anyone from my block driving a black Escalade although I have been looking because I hear that claim so often. I said rich people game the system as much as poor people, if not more, yet it’s the poor we tend to direct our critiques and contempt. I told him it wasn't that people don't want to work, I see people in my neighborhood hustling every day trying to survive selling candy, washing cars, mowing lawns, applying for jobs that are virtually nonexistent in our neighborhood because businesses are too afraid of black people to invest here. I told him one of my neighbors takes the train an hour and a half each way and then bikes from there to get to work every day. I said all that but it didn’t seem to change his mind or neutralize the contagion of racism at the source of his outbursts.
But here’s the thing I’ve been reflecting on. This man would probably not march in a white supremacist rally or carry tiki torches. He is your friendly neighborhood racist. He would say he isn't racist because he doesn't hate black people, but he wouldn't see that his visceral response to "urban communities" and the ingrained, politically acceptable anti-blackness that he espoused is racially charged. The friendly neighborhood racist doesn't realize he's a carrier of a malicious and contagious disease. And sadly, people like this man have internalized messages about people that they probably don’t have any real relationship with so they will never have their worldview challenged.
William Julius Wilson in More than Race: Being Poor and Black in America, uses the term “Laissez-fare racism” to describe the phenomenon of blaming low-income black people for their poor social standing. This form of racism is not only deeply ingrained in the minds of many Americans, it is inculcated in emotions that produce guttural feelings and fears that then become institutionalized into policy. For my seatmate, "urban communities" functioned as code for "poor black people," rather than a geographic place with a complex history or a diverse community of people with assets, skills, and hopes that he might have something to learn from. He was acting on a racialized political imagination that operated on a whole set of assumptions, judgments, and distortions. This gave him cover to make a host of prejudicial and detrimental statements about black people without appearing (to him) to be racist.
Not long after this plane encounter, I went to a charity event in honor of a young woman who passed away. At the event I had a conversation with the deceased girl's father. I felt compassion for him in his loss and also admiration for the way he was raising money in her honor. Not long into the conversation he referred to some black people that he worked with using the "N-word." My body tightened and I struggled to get any words out. I had just met this man and I wrestled with how to repudiate the words of a man at his dead daughter's charity event. I failed to say something which goes against everything in me. I can make excuses like I was caught off guard or that I didn't want to create a scene, but I failed to say anything in that moment and I let the disease go unchecked. I know anti-blackness and silence are both lethal cancers. As a white person nurtured and educated in whiteness, I am infected too. I have no problem condemning white supremacists but it's much harder to confront the friendly, neighborhood racists.
I saw an article recently, that made a distinction between the alt-right and the alt-lite. Someone interviewed in the article said the numbers of the alt-right are small, but the alt-lite is more widespread and more dangerous. White supremacists and members of the alt-right are marching in the streets. But your friendly neighborhood racists are living next door, sitting by you on the plane, attending charity events, worshipping in your churches, and yes, serving in political office on both sides of the aisle.
This kind of racism is harder to identify and takes a lot more work to root out.