The dapper fascist has been given a makeover. This week The New York Times has advised us on how best to talk to a racist in order to dismantle white supremacy (spoiler: don’t call them racists, even if they post racist things on Facebook or visibly cringe when confronted with someone they think might be Muslim), and The Washington Post has informed us that many white people don’t like being in situations where they are the racial minority.
This new racist is cast as sympathetic, an inevitable byproduct of a culture of white supremacy in the South or a remote homogenous life that has left him ill-prepared for this terrifying new world where people speak Spanish sometimes, or where she’s the only white person in the room. They aren’t heroes. But, the Times and the Post tell us, they’re people with compelling backstories that forced them to be like they are. They were raised to it, or maybe they’re just poor.
It is paternalistic infantilizing nonsense.
Poverty doesn’t make you racist. It’s more that the exhaustion strips you of the ability to dissemble for long, so if you were inclined toward racism already, it shows. A life lived close to tears of sheer fatigue and stress is not one in which you can expend the energy to stop yourself spouting your resentments or wielding your fears as a weapon. The constant dull weight of oppression—and it is oppression—makes you resentful and distrustful. The anger makes hate seem reasonable, and each person must individually decide what to do with that.
Some people choose racism, full stop. There’s no mitigation, no gray area in which “otherwise good-hearted people use the same arguments that white Southerners used to discredit Uncle Tom’s Cabin more than 150 years ago: it couldn’t possibly have been that bad.” although that’s the assertion in the New York Times. There is no such thing as a good-hearted person who believes that slavery wasn’t that bad. One does not exist. Such a person might be kind to strangers. They might be of a cheerful and gracious nature. But they are not kind-hearted.
There are many reasons people believe racist things. White supremacy has never gone away, whatever gains racial and ethnic minorities have managed to claim. Unlearning racism is a lifelong process. Some people like cruelty. Others are loath to give up the advantages whiteness confers. Many people have been brought up to hate people who are not like them. None of these are reasons to tolerate bigotry.
We have elevated the least good and great among us to the highest of offices and glorified violence as a political tool. There is no time to waste worrying about the delicate sensibilities of those people who would prefer to enact racism without facing any personal consequences for that decision.
It’s true that an increasing conservative monopoly in rural media combined with whatever it is Facebook’s been doing for the last few years have resulted in a uniquely uneducated populace. Reality isn’t the same thing in the world of Fox News and Infowars as it is for the rest of us. But some things are beyond spin, and few people in the nation haven’t heard by now about the children in camps at the border.
White people are not inherently good; we are inherently human. We need not pretend otherwise while our racist grandpa talks about shithole countries and calls people animals and the hateful wing of the family cheers and claps along. Some white supremacists march in the streets with swastikas, and others merely call police because they spotted a black person three blocks away enjoying the sunshine too much.
It doesn’t matter what you have been taught your whole life; what matters is what you choose when you are confronted with a reality that opposes your education. That capacity to choose justice, to choose even sheer humanity, is not relegated to those who live above a certain income or population density. You can find it in those people who hold their friends and families accountable, the ones who challenge instead of excusing deadly beliefs. You find it in the locals who leave water in the desert for migrants and the single protester in some tiny town holding a hand-lettered sign that says FAMILIES BELONG TOGETHER in front of the courthouse.
Stop making excuses for my racist neighbors. It is not true that people from where I’m from have no choice but to continue the same deadly cycles of the generations before us, that we are too simple or unsophisticated to tell right from wrong when the choice between them is so astonishingly clear. There is bravery and right in places where we have been told we will not find them, and we are all responsible for our own moral decisions.
We have replaced the dapper fascist with the relatable bigot, though neither is worthy of praise or consideration. No matter how we rebrand it, there is no way to make bigotry less profane.