Via Twitter (@bat20), I learned that the mayor of a town in Ireland is declining to meet with his black African constituents. He claims that said constituents have been uniformly rude to him and have even — get this! — accused him of racism. Henceforward, he will be referring them to his black colleagues on the city council. The story quotes him as saying, “Everything I do as a councillor is for the general good… It saddens me that people would call me a racist, because I’m not.”
As @qwghlm points out, this is “perhaps the archetypal ‘I’m not racist but….’” He may as well have said, “I’m not a racist, I just hate black people.” This is the logical endpoint of a certain white response to accusations of racism — what’s important is not the existence of any racial bias, etc., but rather the fact that “racist” is a mean name. In other words, the term “racist” in this conception exists solely and exclusively to defame the person accused of it.
I suppose this is a perverse kind of victory for anti-racism — everyone agrees that being a “racist” is a bad thing! Yet the only thing bad about it is the word itself. We can see a similar pattern with the word “homophobia”: “I’m not a homophobe, I just think that homosexuality is a moral abomination that should be discouraged by all available means.”
All this is of course a symptom of the narcissism of the straight white male who thinks everything is about him — but more importantly, it points toward the seemingly ineradicable individualism of our culture, which leads to the absurd conclusion that the systematic oppression of a given racial group is due exclusively to the racist feelings of individuals and that therefore the problem is solved once no one is immediately conscious of such feelings.
Pointing out that the latter is already extremely optimistic only concedes the terms of debate to such an individualist outlook — as though the continuing appalling segregation in Chicago, for instance, is due primarily to the fact that individual cops or other public officials are personally racist.
In reality, the opposite is the case: a racist society produces racist individuals. Racist sentiment is not the cause of oppression, but instead a rationalization to help one live with the abuse one is carrying out. I don’t abuse people because I think they’re subhuman — I convince myself they’re subhuman so that I can bear to continue abusing them.
In contemporary culture, the old “scientific” racism that stressed the inherent inferiority of certain racial groups is no longer credible, and so we’ve moved on to the cultural inferiority of certain racial groups — the reason black neighborhoods are so poor and run down, for instance, is supposedly that black culture doesn’t promote hard work and initiative, etc., etc. (In this sense, the mayor is an archetypal contemporary racist: “Black culture is too pushy and rude — they’d be better off dealing with their own kind.”) The underlying impulse is the same, however: “This group is in a systematically disadvantaged position, and to make sense of this, I can only conclude that it’s their own damn fault.”
The ritual disowning of personal racism is but a grace note: “And it’s certainly not my fault!” And in a way, it’s not the individual’s “fault.” The sad fact is that white culture inculcates insensitivity to the situation of other groups and the narcissism and status quo bias that naturally come with privilege. I wouldn’t say that it’s inherent to white people’s genes or anything ridiculous like that — obviously I know a lot of anti-racist whites. I’m good friends with a lot of them, in fact. It’s just that, by and large, white culture puts them at a disadvantage and only a select few turn out to have the will and tenacity to overcome that.