There’s a refrain that dominates conservative rhetoric: “It’s not about race.”
From white parents who insist they send their children to private, mostly segregated academies because “I’m only interested in a good education,” to politicians who insist there is only residual racism in America, to white Christians explaining their segregated congregations with, “They don’t worship like us,” to conservative writers arguing that racism is not the dominant trope of the nation, there’s a sense that people are denying so much to cover up so much actual racism.
The denial of racism has become the defense against charges of racism.
There’s a national debate on precisely this point now surrounding the writers Ta-Nehisi Coates and David Brooks. Brooks says, “This is what happens when race is everything.” According to Brooks, too much is made of the role of race in our culture. He writes, “Coates is, of course, well known for seeing the problem of racism in maximalist terms.”
It’s still about race
We need to rethink these arguments considering Donald Trump’s lunch with Ye and white supremacist Nick Fuentes. Trump supporters insist he plays “five-dimension chess.” He never does anything by accident. Everything has meaning. A Trump supporter said, “Every tweet, every misspelling, every typo, every strange capitalization — especially the capitalizations — has meaning. The truth is right there in what the media think are his mistakes. He doesn’t make mistakes.” If this is true, then the luncheon was not an accident; it was a message to MAGA: “It’s still about race.”
“The rhetoric of denial, while publicly engaging in acts of racism, serves as a kind of racist code language.”
This is not about Trump; he is the symbol of American racism, the face of its continued virulence. This is about us. The rhetoric of denial, while publicly engaging in acts of racism, serves as a kind of racist code language. Stuart Hall calls this “inferential racism.”
What if Coates is not a maximalist but a realist? What if he was right when he wrote, “It is often said that Trump has no real ideology, which is not true — his ideology is white supremacy, in all its truculent and sanctimonious power.”
This is not the proverbial elephant in the room; this is the behemoth from the depths of human degradation rising again and again to deny African Americans place and dignity. When people say, “It’s not about race,” it’s about race.
The presence of Nick Fuentes with Trump sends a message to MAGAland: “It’s still about race.” The Mar-a-Lago luncheon fits with the ongoing clamor that race is no longer an issue.
There’s Tucker Carlson and company spouting replacement theory and white supremacy. There are frightening voices growling about “wokeness” and Critical Race Theory. There are “lost cause” devotees pining for the glory of the old Confederacy in a spasm of death-wise melancholy. There are revisionist historians insisting that slavery wasn’t that bad, that segregation wasn’t really an issue, that there is no racism in the USA today.
The “white noise” threatens to drown out the cries of oppression that have lifted from the ground of the earth since the Hebrews were enslaved in Egypt.
Why so threatened, then?
If race and racism are no longer a problem, then why do so many whites still feel threatened by those who point out the overwhelming whiteness, both embodied and intellectually, of American life? Why do white people feel so threatened? Casey Ryan Kelly insightfully explains that “when one lives a life of entitlement, even the most modest demands for equality can be perceived as an assault.”
On the other side, there’s an array of voices demanding that we account for the issue of race in our nation’s history and life. There are voices insisting that systemic racism plagues our nation. There are voices still groaning under the oppression of poverty that has been induced by racism. There are voices insisting that in America, even when they say it’s not about race, it’s actually about race. Temple University communication scholar Darrel Wanzer-Serrano writes, “This isn’t a race problem; this is a racism problem.”
“The denial suggests self-delusion.”
The denial suggests self-delusion. The chorus shouting that racism no longer is a problem creates a kind of rhetorical South Dakota winter whiteout.
Robin DiAngelo, writing in “White People Are Still Raised to be Racially Illiterate. If We Don’t Recognize the System, Our Inaction Will Uphold It,” says defining racism as individual feelings “enables self-delusion.”
“Such self-delusion is what allows politicians, for example, to protest any hint of racism in the structure of our nation,” DiAngelo says. “Sen. Lindsey Graham claims, ‘America is not a racist country.’ Sen. Tim Scott, Republican from South Carolina, talks about how racism affected him as a Black man living in the Southern United States. He then pivoted to the claim that ‘America is not a racist country.’”
What will happen?
What happens when nothing is about race? What happens if the entire conversation about race disappears? Here are some possible repercussions.
First, history is revised and a false story is told. To remove race from the lessons of history is to “whitewash” American history. Collectively, it would be like looking at a naked Black body, the back riddled with the scars of the whips of masters, and saying, “It was no big deal. The disobedient must be punished.” It would be like walking down an imaginary boulevard where both sides are decorated with Black bodies dangling from poplar trees all lined up by the thousands and thinking that it was an aberration, and that lynching has passed from history and from memory.
Second, systemic issues will be ignored — poverty, prison reform, lack of opportunity for minorities, white dominance. Unjust laws will be ignored. Previously established laws around civil rights and voting rights and affirmative action will be canceled by a culture dominated by a conservative Supreme Court. Inalienable rights, now more than half a century old, will be diminished. Old racist ideas, disinterred from the graves, will return to mainstream American thought. Jim Crow, buried and thought begotten, will be resurrected, dressed in new clothes of respectability, declared color blind, and loosed upon the nation as a deranged Lazarus.
Third, racism returns full force. Kendi says, “It’s not enough to be ‘not racist.’ The ‘I’m not racist’ or ‘that’s not racist’ is the cop-out cousin to color blindness. The ‘not racist’ and ‘the color-blind’ individual, by ostensibly failing to see race, fails to see racism and falls into racist passivity.” The language of color blindness — like the language of “not racist” — is a mask to hide racism.
“The language of color blindness — like the language of ‘not racist’—is a mask to hide racism.”
Color-blindness has been claimed in America since our founding. The three-fifths of a person designation for African Americans was a built-in version of color blindness.
“Our Constitution is color-blind,” U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Harlan proclaimed in his dissent to Plessy v. Ferguson, the case that legalized Jim Crow segregation in 1896. “The white race deems itself to be the dominant race in this country. I doubt not, it will continue to be for all time, if it remains true to its great heritage.”
When you have a color-blind Constitution, a legalized Jim Crow segregation and a white supremacy code, you have the devastating results of the cop-out known as color blindness. We have a color-blind Constitution for a white-supremacist America, and that hasn’t worked out well for persons of color.
Absent the reality that racism is real, that it’s a big part of our history, racism will fade into the collective memory and amnesia will set in. If children ask about slavery, segregation, lynching, denial of voting rights, parents and teachers will sing the same chorus: “We don’t talk about that.” An ancient mantra of a certain type of Southern lady will return in force, “If we don’t talk about it, it didn’t happen.”
Then, the number of people willing to fight to eradicate racism will grow smaller.
A disservice to our children
Watching the Paramount Plus western series 1883, I was struck by the German and Russian immigrants willing to make the dangerous trek across the vast wilderness to Oregon. They had no wilderness skills. They couldn’t ride horses, shoot a gun or swim. Their only chance of survival was to follow the orders of the men who knew all the dangers, had faced all the dangers and possessed the skills required to survive. The immigrants didn’t need a naïve rhetoric of comfort, they needed usable skills.
Not teaching our children the history of race in America turns them into metaphorical immigrants with no skills to transverse an ever-growing nation of multiple colors and rising diversity. If making our children comfortable is the goal, then we are failing our children and our grandchildren.
There are prophetic voices offering to give us realistic visions of the struggle with systemic racism. There are those who pound away at keyboards and write the vision of an antiracist America.
We join wise scribes such as James Cone on how the cross and the lynching tree are linked across more than 2,000 years of history, or Cornel West on emerging fundamentalist ideologies of the Market God, aggressive militarism and creeping authoritarianism. We turn to scholars like Willie James Jennings and The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race and J. Kameron Carter, Race: A Theological Issue.
Read enough Cornel West (Race Matters; Democracy Matters) and Eddie S. Glaude Jr. (Democracy in Black) and you will know that from the African American experience racism is not ancient history.
The past racism is never dead. It is not even past.
Rodney W. Kennedy is a pastor in New York state and serves as a preaching instructor at Palmer Theological Seminary. He is the author of nine books, including the newly released The Immaculate Mistake, about how evangelical Christians gave birth to Donald Trump.
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