OFF THE GRID

Who You Calling a Racist?

Sep 17, 09 | 8:53 AM   byMichael Wolff
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Has anyone, besides the self-aggrandizing loony fringe, ever actually admitted to being a racist? Nobody ever says, black people are so inferior (or when they are effectively saying this, they have a baroque rationale). Or, ohmygod, you’re right, it hadn’t occurred to me, I must be a racist. (At least when you accuse someone of being an anti-Semite, you can sometimes sense on their part a moment of self-doubt. Am I?)

When you accuse some of being a racist, they stare you down. You’ve gone over the line. You’re too crude—or else you’re a paranoid fantasist. Rush Limbaugh is having a sweet time with this.

Now, someone, in a nation riven by racial fears and animosities and a few hundred years of conflict, must in fact be a racist. But who, beyond a handful of white supremacists?

How is it that racism has been so successfully rejected as a description, precisely by the people it is meant to describe? How can they so stubbornly deny their obvious feelings, and why would they want to?

Confusingly, and helpfully for the racists, the word racism has not changed but the practice has.

We (ie, liberals) say ‘racist’ in a sense that would still encompass the old South and the structure of apartheid in South Africa.

When Alan Wilson says his father is not a racist, he is no doubt rightly maintaining that his father is not Bull Connor.

Racism now is less about virulent intolerance than lingering suspicion and discomfort. It’s existential more than atavistic. We’re talking about some pretty primal sense of competition, about fear of change, and fear of the future, and everybody’s own vast disappointments and unhappiness,  which are somehow not helped by there being important black people.

It is one of the singular perceptions of the Obama people that there was no political value in the notion of racism and that, in fact, the imputation tended to unify racists in their insistence that they are not racists. Accordingly, the White House is acting very cool about Jimmy Carter’s weighing in on the subject—and even rolling their eyes.

And yet, well, obviously…come on. How do you point to what’s in front of your eyes? And how do you do it without making everybody else who is a racist not immediately deny that there is such thing as racism?

A new word, perhaps. A divisionist? I sense divisionism here. Or, even better, a new condition: involuntary divisionism. Or how ‘bout retroism? You’re a retroist. Or a whitest? Or a whitest retroist? Or, make it more media specific. A Limbaughist. That’s Limbaughism!

It would be a great help to be able to discuss what is obviously on many peoples’ minds.

But it’s hard to call a spade a spade.

More of Newser founder Michael Wolff's articles and commentary can be found at VanityFair.com, where he writes a regular column. He can be emailed at michael@newser.com. You can also follow him on Twitter: www.twitter.com/NewserColumns.

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