The other day Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a piece in the New York Times titled The Good, Racist People, pegged to the recent frisking of actor Forrest Whitaker in a Manhattan deli. Coates, who’s black, sees this as the tip of a racist iceberg–though the race of the deli employee who stopped Whitaker has never been publicly identified (and it’s statistically likely that he was nonwhite).
Since the Whitaker affair, I’ve read and listened to interviews with the owner of the establishment. He is apologetic to a fault and is sincerely mortified. He says that it was a “sincere mistake” made by a “decent man” who was “just doing his job.” I believe him. And yet for weeks now I have walked up Broadway, glancing through its windows with a mood somewhere between Marvin Gaye’s “Distant Lover” and Al Green’s “For the Good Times.”
In modern America we believe racism to be the property of the uniquely villainous and morally deformed, the ideology of trolls, gorgons and orcs. We believe this even when we are actually being racist.
Suffice to say that “we” means “they,” and that the rest of the essay offers scant evidence of endemic racism or even that racism accounts for what he calls “a wealth gap between blacks and whites that has actually gotten worse over the past 20 years.”
Noticeable by their absence is any mention of two facts: For four of those years we’ve had a black president, and for all of those years the percentage of black kids raised in fatherless homes by single mothers—an indisputable creator of poverty—was greater than for any other group. It’s now a breast-beating 72 percent, compared to 25 percent for the country overall.
But Coates does conclude with an anecdote that ironically proves his point about racists believing that racism is the province of others, not themselves.
The other day I walked past this particular deli. I believe its owners to be good people. I felt ashamed at withholding business for something far beyond the merchant’s reach. I mentioned this to my wife. My wife is not like me. When she was 6, a little white boy called her cousin a nigger, and it has been war ever since. “What if they did that to your son?” she asked.
And right then I knew that I was tired of good people, that I had had all the good people I could take.
As a thought experiment, let’s run back what Coates’s wife considered a casus belli decades ago but change a few details.
When she was 6, a
little white boy called her cousin a niggerblack man stole her mother’s car, and it has been war ever since.
There’s a word for such a woman. It’s right there on the tip of my tongue. I think it begins with an r.
If Ta-Nehisi Coates wants an example of real racism, he can read the book you see on the right of the screen–L.A. ’56. The black man in it who was wrongly accused of being a serial rapist would have welcomed a six-year-old’s ignorant epithet in place of what really happened to him.
Seems to me the difference between then and now is that back then you didn’t have to search high and low to find examples of racism. If you were black, they found you.