Drew G.I. Hart’s discussion of Paula Deen seems timely. This is from his fine book, Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism. Hart reviews the “really ugly comments” the celebrity chef made back in 2013, resulting in her near-universal condemnation in public:
Deen’s racism was too overt, and she broke all the rules. She used what we would call “old-school racism,” which is no longer acceptable in the public square, instead of “new school racism,” which has shifted its rhetoric to fit the times. Americans of almost all backgrounds and classes wagged their fingers at this woman in disgust. You could almost hear everyone thinking, “Bad Paula Deen!”
Well, guess what? Pointing to Deen’s racially offensive words was not particularly spectacular or courageous. Rather, it was the expected response within America’s 21st-century context.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not going to defend Paula Deen in the slightest. That would be absurd! I am not suggesting that we consider her comments anything other than racist ideology and speech. All I’m suggesting is this: the scapegoating of Paula Deen is the sophisticated cultural reflex of a highly racialized society that doesn’t want to own up to how racism works systemically. …
Paula Deen didn’t drop out of the sky, nor did she create these racialized ideologies on her own. She is not that slick. No. These ideologies were passed down from hundreds of years of white supremacy and, more specifically, handed to her through living communities that affected her. When mainstream America makes an example of Paula Deen, it both turns her into a scapegoat and also creatively claims its own innocence, because it limits the definition of racism to individual acts. In doing so, the dominant culture washes its hands of all the racial ideology that it permits, the racialized injustice that it ignores, and the racialized patterns of life in which it participates.
There’s something ritualistic and performative about this boilerplate public condemnation of what Hart calls “old-school racism.” The moral condemnation is appropriate, and necessary, but it seems to be secondary. The main function of this ritual condemnation is self-serving and exculpatory — what Hart describes as a creative claim of innocence.
We see this ritual repeated whenever some individual public figure gets caught dropping the N-bomb. And we see it whenever old-school racist organizations resurface to reclaim the public spotlight.
In a sense, this has become the main social function of groups like the Ku Klux Klan or of Neo-Nazi groups that still enthusiastically display all the hateful symbols of the Third Reich. Such groups may no longer wield the power and influence they once did to terrorize and intimidate whole communities, but they continue to serve their agenda by insulating “new school racism” from criticism and attention. They allow the injustice of the status quo to creatively claim its own innocence, thereby protecting it.
We’re watching this play out in the aftermath of this weekend’s ugly, and deadly, white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia. Public figures are lining up — correctly — to condemn the old-school white supremacists and Neo-Nazis and Klansmen who marched through that city chanting “Blood and soil!” and “MAGA.” But many of these denunciations seem defensive — defensive in intent as well as in character.
Consider, for example, this statement from white evangelical Trump adviser Johnnie Moore: “EVERY evangelical I know condemns antisemitism, white nationalism, & supremacism. The Christian church is proudly and increasingly the most ethnically diverse movement in the world.”
Moore is so busy insisting that it would be unfair to accuse him of failing to properly condemn “antisemitism, white nationalism, & supremacism” that he doesn’t quite bother to actually condemn those things. His statement isn’t even about the white-supremacists marching in Charlottesville — it’s about himself.
That’s from Kate Shellnut’s round-up of such statements from prominent Trump-aligned white evangelicals for Christianity Today — an article that seems, itself, to play the same defensive role as Moore’s indignantly defensive statement.
That article doesn’t mention statements from Christians like the one from the AME Church Council of Bishops. In one sense that seems fair enough, because the article is only about white evangelicals and those bishops are not part of that community. But that’s also precisely the problem here — the article is only about white evangelicals, centering them and their defensive, ritual performance of condemnation.
Such ritual condemnation is not difficult or complicated. It is, as Hart wrote, “the expected response.” The script for such condemnation is well-established and doesn’t require any particular eloquence, insight, or courage to recite. And, as Hart says, if functions less as actual condemnation than as a creative claim of innocence.
I don’t quite think such ritual condemnations are wholly useless, or that they have no value. It’s probably still better that someone like Robert Jeffress was compelled — for whatever combination of reasons — to publicly state, as he did, that “Racism is sin. Period.” That helps to contain, rather than further embolden, expressions of “old-school racism” like we’ve just witnessed in Charlottesville.
But it does so by exonerating “new school racism.” By suggesting that anything short of a parade of proudly sieg-heiling Neo-Nazis doesn’t fall into the category of the “racism” being condemned as a sin.
And thus what Jeffress is really saying, in part, is that his performance of this ritual condemnation shields him from any accusation of racism due to his unqualified devotion to Donald Trump or his zealous support for the confirmation of federal judges who will prevent black citizens from voting.
Is that still preferable to the statements of other white evangelicals who have defended the white-supremacists marching in Charlottesville? I guess, yes? Better than that, perhaps, but still a long way from good.