So there’s an old joke that, by the time I heard it, went like this (it’s a visual thing, but I’ll give you the gist of it):
Q: How does every racist joke begin?
A: [glances warily over one shoulder, then over the other, then leans in, conspiratorially]
That’s kind of a dicey joke in that getting the punchline depends on the audience recognizing both that something is shameful and that they are, themselves, familiar with that shameful thing. There’s almost a confession of complicity that goes along with laughing at — or telling — such a joke about racist jokes. It’s like a sardonic version of this Jason Isbell line:
I’m a white man looking in a black man’s eyes
Wishing I’d never been one of the guys
Who pretended not to hear another white man’s joke …
That song speaks with regret of a mistake and vows to correct it, to do better next time, and the joke above can (and should) be told in that same way. But it can also be told in a dismissive way, one that highlights the familiarity of what it describes as a way of shrugging off that regret by suggesting that if this is something we’re all familiar with, then it can’t really be that bad, right? There’s that fuzzy, dangerous line between “You’re dependent on grace, so be gracious to others” and “let us sin that grace may abound.”
The point of the visual punchline, I think, is that we all recognize that bigoted jokes are shameful — even those telling such jokes. That is, after all, why all that furtive glancing around before telling one is standard practice. The racist-joke-teller is checking to see who else is around who might overhear because they don’t want to get caught doing something they know they shouldn’t get caught doing. They’re trying to avoid the consequences that they know would follow if they were overheard doing what they’re about to do.
In a criminal courtroom, this kind of effort to avoid detection — to avoid getting caught — is considered evidence of a guilty mind. It’s regarded there as proof that the person trying to avoid getting caught knows that what they’re doing is wrong. That same guilty mind is revealed in that universal racist-joke-telling gesture of looking over both shoulders first, even if the joke-teller is trying to convince themselves otherwise with the hazy reassurance that it’s just something that “those people” would think is wrong. (“Wait … you’re not Polish, are you?” people would ask before telling one of the Polish jokes that were popular when I was a kid. If someone said yes, they’d change it to an Italian joke because they weren’t worried about it being wrong, they were worried about it meeting with disapproval.)
Anyway, here’s the interesting bit about this look-over-your-shoulder joke about racist jokes: It didn’t start out as a joke about the telling of racist jokes. It started out as a joke about the telling of “dirty” jokes. People were telling this joke before I was born, but back then, it started “How does every dirty joke begin?”
Back in the time of an earlier generation, it was raunchy or sexual jokes that were generally acknowledged to be shameful — that kind of jokes you wanted to avoid getting caught telling around certain people. The subject of sex was taboo in polite company and jokes about sex were likely to meet with condemnation, disapproval, and some form of social consequences. But while sex jokes were mostly off-limits back then, racist jokes weren’t.
Something changed. And the thing that changed was far larger, far more significant, than my trivial example here of this joke.
What changed was our idea of right and wrong — our categories of moral and immoral.
When and how and why that changed is described in many different ways, all of which can influence how we understand the cause and nature of that tectonic moral change. We can call it “the 1960s” or we can call it the “Civil Rights era.” We can try to sum it up with a single word and event — “Woodstock” — or describe it in terms of its most important figure, as historian Taylor Branch does in writing of “America in the King Years.” These different descriptions emphasize different aspects of what changed, subtly conveying either approval or disapproval.
Let’s look at this the way they teach high school physics — starting with overbroad, sweeping generalizations first. We can come back later to take a more focused look that accounts for nuance, exceptions, friction, and other details not included in that overview, but let’s start with the broadest of broad strokes.
When some people speak of “the ’60s,” they’re thinking primarily of what’s sometimes called the “sexual revolution.” And what they mean by that was that it was a Very Bad Thing — a dismaying rejection of traditional morality and the embrace of a shameful licentiousness that they’ll often characterize as “anything goes” or “if it feels good, do it.” The ’60s, in this view, was all about sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll, and they say that as though it’s self-evidently bad.
But when others speak of the same general time period, they’re thinking primarily of the Civil Rights revolution. And what they mean by that is that it was a Very Good Thing — an at-long-last acknowledgement of the injustice of injustice, a desperately needed repentance from the immorality of “traditional morality” that had for so long regarded millions of people as, at best, second-class citizens or, at worst, as subhuman property.
Sticking with our very broad generalization here, the folks in that first category tend to view the Civil Rights Movement as part and parcel of the rejection of traditional morality they condemn as sexual license and perverse depravity. It’s all the same “anything goes” philosophy as far as they’re concerned. The dirty hippies said there are no rules and now nobody knows their place anymore. Sometimes this is explicit — as in the way Jerry Falwell Sr. condemned Playboys at 7-Eleven in the same tone and with the same language he earlier used to condemn integrated schools. Sometimes it’s implicit, and perhaps only semi-conscious. But in broad terms, when we hear “the ’60s” lamented in a narrative of moral decline, the implication is almost always that “traditional morality” can only be restored by rolling back both the sexual revolution and the Civil Rights revolution.
For the latter group, though, the one that views “the ’60s” primarily as the Civil Rights era, there’s a recognition that any “traditional morality” involving sexual ethics was bound up with the same traditional immorality of hierarchical injustices that the Civil Rights Movement sought to correct. Their concern with the whole category of things that other group sneers at as the “sexual revolution” isn’t a matter of libertinism, but of liberation, leading to a very different set of conclusions about what is and is not moral or shameful.
For the last half-century, American politics has been shaped by the former group and it’s backlash against “Woodstock” — against sex and drugs and rock-n-roll, and against all of those mainly as proxies for being against equal rights for woman and people of color. Thanks to the Senate and the Electoral College, that faction has been able to control much of our government for the first decades of the 21st century. The political fight continues, and will continue for years to come.
But the argument itself is over. We can’t say it’s “settled,” because such things can never be settled such that they cannot later be unsettled by force. But brute force — brute political force, brute economic force, actual violence — is all that’s left to the losing side of the argument. The immorality of “traditional morality” has been conceded.
This is why everybody has to pay lip service to Martin Luther King Jr. It’s why every racist policy — and much of our policy certainly is still racist — has to be prefaced with yesbutofcourse language pretending that it’s not and acknowledging that we all now recognize that racism is a Bad Thing. It’s why even Neo-Nazis and white supremacist groups now scurry about trying to find less racist language for their racist views. It’s why the last refuge of so many groups still fighting for “traditional morality” is to loudly denounce everyone else as “the real racists.”
And it’s why today, as opposed to a few generations back, every racist joke now starts like this [glances over both shoulders, leans in, etc.].
For many Americans this change was bewildering and infuriating. It was — and is — especially traumatic for those who had previously regarded themselves and their institutions as the standard-bearers of traditional morality. A hard-won, massive change in our cultural perception of right and wrong required an equally massive change in their sense of identity, and humans’ sense of identity isn’t receptive to massive changes. These folks are still reeling from it.
They find themselves in a world where people who tell raunchy jokes no longer get locked up, but where the racist jokes that “everybody” used to laugh at can now get you in hot water. They see people disgracing themselves for things that wouldn’t have brought disgrace on anyone (in their circles) a generation ago, while things they have long regarded as disgraceful are no longer condemned (those two men are holding hands!). It makes them dizzy. And dangerous.