“Now, I’m not a racist but … .” Don’t you just dread to hear that opening? In most cases, you have been forewarned that the next few words you’re going to hear will be cringe inducing.
It is a sign of progress, maybe, that people now feel compelled to make those kinds of disclaimers. There was a time, now thankfully receding in memory, when white Southerners in particular felt no need to mitigate the meanness of their remarks before launching into the vilest comments. We can all be grateful that blatantly racist remarks are far less common in the South than they used to be. Yes, even in the Barack Obama era, some unreconstructed people in our region — and far more than many of us would like — still cling to extreme views on race. But even in those circles people with an ounce of sense at least know enough to be careful about when they openly express their opinions.
But we’ve still got room for progress, and in the meantime, how are we supposed to respond when people lapse into casual racism?
All of you will have your own stories. But over the years some of my worst experiences have been with white people from the North who think, because I am a white person from the South, that I will understand when they express their decidedly low opinions of black people — or other minorities — as a group. In those cases, I don’t generally have a question. The best response is a rude one. These people are not only stereotyping African-Americans but also stereotyping white Southerners by assuming all of us have sheets with hoods hanging in our closets. They need to be stopped short and set straight.
Closer to home, the more troubling experiences are those where in an otherwise friendly and jovial conversation someone makes a passing remark that has little to do with the general thrust of the conversation. You are talking, for instance, to a distant cousin you see only at the occasional funeral or someone who happened to go to high school with your wife in Alabama. “Now, I’m not a racist but … .” And, as soon as he has made a quick statement confirming the prejudice he has just denied, he has moved on to another topic.
Do you stop the whole conversation, think of this as a teaching moment and deliver a lecture — which is sure to be well received — or do you just let the comments slide even as you feel a little slimier for having been involved in such a distasteful exchange?
I’m asking this question now because of a conversation that in some ways was even more problematic than these examples. In a taxi on the way home from the Atlanta airport last night, my wife and I began to chat, as we usually do, with our driver. He was black — a Nigerian who had lived in Hungary for three years before moving to Atlanta to work as a cabbie eight years ago. On the seat next to him were a well-worn Bible and a book of facts about American government.
He likes his work, he told us, but he worries that the job is dangerous and that customers can be volatile. Many customers argue about their fares. Some even refuse to pay. And, just last week, he said, a driver he knew was shot and killed by a passenger in broad daylight.
“And do you know who are the worst customers?” our driver asked, not waiting for an answer. “They are black people.”
“It is so bad,” he said, “that I just won’t pick up black people any more.”
“Really?” my wife asked, stunned.
But, yes, he was emphatic, although he did go on to clarify that he meant black males from their teens to their early 30s. Some good kids and young adults I know would fit that description, and our driver, though black himself, was clearly engaging in racial profiling.
He’s not an isolated case, either. An African-American businessman who moved to Atlanta from California told me not long ago that he hires Latinos but tries to avoid hiring black workers. His reasoning: Too many blacks are on drugs, he said.
So help me out, please, likethedew readers. How should well-intentioned people respond in moments like these as the long march for civil rights and full racial equality goes on?