What Is a Racist?

What Is a Racist? August 27, 2019

Have a look at this story:

A recent public forum was shocked Thursday when Jean Cramer, a Michigan city council candidate, said that she wanted to keep “Marysville a white community as much as possible.”

According to CBS News, Cramer is one of five candidates vying for three city council seats in November, and racism is so embedded in her DNA that she didn’t see her comments as racist or against blacks, yet she added that she didn’t want “foreign-born” people to settle in Marysville.

Note that Cramer didn’t see her comments as “racist or against blacks.” We’ll come back to that.

For context, it’s important to note that Marysville is a small town of 10,000 north-east of Detroit and is 98 percent white and 0.3 percent African American, the Guardian notes. Kramer probably thought she was among friends, but according to news accounts, the crowd laughed awkwardly and then became audibly baffled.

The town’s acting mayor, Kathy Hayman, said: “I don’t even know that I can talk yet, I’m so upset and shocked.”

Hayman then pointed out that her father was Syrian: “So basically, what you’ve said is that my father and his family had no business in this community.”

At this point, Cramer addresses interracial marriage:

Cramer then noted that she had nothing against the acting mayor’s father but Hayman needed to know that her parents’ union was the opposite of right.

“As long as, how can I put this? What Kathy Hayman doesn’t know is that her family is in the wrong,” she said, CBS News reports.

“[A] husband and wife need to be the same race. Same thing with kids. That’s how it’s been from the beginning of, how can I say, when God created the heaven and the earth. He created Adam and Eve at the same time. But as far as me being against blacks, no I’m not.”

Note that last sentence—after issuing a broadside against interracial marriage, Cramer insists that she’s not “against blacks.” Cramer wants to make absolutely sure that you know that, while she wants to keep Marysville “a white community” and opposes interracial marriage, she is not absolutely racist or against blacks. Far from it!

Well you know what? During the civil rights movement, white segregationists in the south insisted that they were absolutely not racist. I once read a sermon from the late 1940s in which a white southern minister inveighed against integration or interracial marriage, while simultaneously informing listeners of how very much he loved black people. This was common.

I’ve long felt that Americans have a very troubled relationship with the term “racist.” You say you’re not racist? Okay! You’re not racist! Or at least, that seems to be the mentality. There’s a sort of an implicit assumption that an actual racist person would never insist that they’re not racist—that such a person would of necessity claim the term and glory in it—but that’s not actually how it works. Most racists will insist until they’re blue in the face that they’re very much not racist.

I’m reminded of a conversation I had a few days ago with a friend, exploring the terms “white nationalist” and “white supremacist.” Are the two worth distinguishing from each other, or are they actually just the same thing?

White nationalists want the U.S. to be a white nation state.

White supremacists believe that the white race is superior.

In general, white supremacists are also white nationalists—they believe that the white race is superior, and that the United States ought therefore to be a white nation state. But is the reverse true? Are all white nationalists also white supremacists, as a general rule or sort of default? Cramer and others like her would object to such a claim, arguing that you can argue in favor of keeping a community (or a nation) white without also believing in the innate superiority of the white race.

We could keep asking questions in an effort to get Cramer to slip and reveal that her reasons for wanting to keep her community white are in fact very racist. Cramer, of course, could simply keep denying such claims. She could argue—as that 1940s southern preacher did—that both white and black people are better off living in separate communities, and that it’s not racist to say this. Cramer could well spend the rest of her life insisting that she has no racial animus against black people.

In the end, perhaps the easiest way to counter such defenses is to point out that it does not matter. If the ideas and policies you support result in discrimination against minority groups—and worse—does it actually matter whether or not you are proven to be “racist”? Maybe this is part of the problem—a focus on beliefs, which are easy to assert or deny.

I’m reminded of the evangelical focus on faith instead of works, where what matters is what is in your heart, not what you do. You can’t work your way to heaven, after all—and only God knows the heart. Or so the framing goes. Is the same thing happening here? Are we so focused on what is in people’s hearts—on whether people are racist—that we’ve spent too little time focusing on actions, and on the outcomes of specific beliefs or policies? (White progressives’ fight against high density housing developments in communities across the country would certainly suggest as much.)

Cramer wants to keep black and “foreign-born” people out of Marysville, Michigan. There’s no way to put this goal into action without acting in a discriminatory manner and creating a hostile environment for people of color who do move to Marysville. Rather than arguing with Cramer over whether or not she’s actually a racist—which keeps the turf in her head and thus on her terrain—the best approach might be to ask her what policies she would put in place to achieve her stated goal.

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