Tony Norman: At least racists in the old days admitted to it

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Racism is really getting silly these days, and it has to stop.

Because modern racists lack the courage of their convictions, racism has retreated into the shadows where it only emerges in the form of faux pas. Like so many things in American life, racism has been dumbed down and sissified, but it is still very much with us.

There was a time when racism was this nation's greatest export. As Richard Pryor once said, immigrants would come to this country and not know a word of English except the "n-word," which usually made them feel like full-fledged Americans the first time they used it. They at least had black folks to look down on after leaving the old country.

These days, the conservative majority of the U.S. Supreme Court insist that racism is no longer a factor in American life. Sure, that's incredibly ignorant and racist -- but it's the sneaky kind of racism that's in vogue today. The justices know better, but they're interpreting law in these mean and congenitally stupid times.

Even Photoshopped images of the first family as monkeys, or rows of watermelon patches on the White House lawn, are considered more tasteless than racist by the conservative apparatchiks who pass them around in email chain letters. After all, everyone knows racism is dead, thanks to Brown v. Board of Education, Sidney Poitier's dignity, Oprah's billions and the election of Barack Obama.

Even when "non-racists" are blatantly trying to roll back voting rights, they'd rather be loved than loathed. It's all in the name of fairness, they insist. Poll-watchers also said that back in the days when blacks had to guess exactly how many jelly beans were in a jar before they were handed a ballot.

Even then, disenfranchisement never had anything to do with race per se, only a desire for more "transparent voting." Times and tactics change, but the instinct to discriminate never falters. It just takes new forms.

There was once a boldness to American racism that is missing from today's weak-kneed discourse. It used to strut its stuff. Remember Bull Connor, who ran the police department in Birmingham, Ala.? The racists of his era had the intestinal fortitude to turn firehoses on black schoolchildren in full view of television cameras. They thought nothing of siccing police dogs on anyone brave enough to protest American apartheid because they were the guardians of white privilege.

Southern cops, judges and preachers all hurled bold racial epithets at protesters. They never would have dreamed of resorting to euphemisms or racial dog whistles like so many politicians and talk show hosts too numerous to be named. Maintaining white supremacy in all areas of life was considered a social good beyond question.

These days, the offenders are horrified if anyone considers them akin to the unreconstructed racists who ran much of the country a couple of generations ago.

You could take a poll of the whole country and come up with only a few thousand people who would admit to being Bull Connor-era racists. All the other racists in this country are pitiful liars who lack the courage of their convictions.

The Cliven Bundy and Donald Sterling controversies remind us that when racism went underground, it engaged in an inbreeding program that produced something far stupider than the original -- racists who lack the self-awareness of their predecessors.

Mr. Bundy, the Nevada rancher at war with the federal government, is an old-school bigot barely aware of how he's supposed to relate to blacks in the modern world. He has some of the oldest racial fantasies clanging around in his head.

Mr. Sterling, owner of the NBA's Los Angeles Clippers, is further along, but barely. He knows enough to hide his bigotry because he is directly profiting from the labor of black folks. He pays his black employees well, but allegedly treats blacks who want to rent apartments from him like criminals. He divides the world into house negroes (his black employees) and field negroes (his black renters). Neither group is composed of social equals.

Both of these men know enough to retreat from the racism that was typical of so many in older generations, but they lack the verbal finesse to rationalize or explain away their offensive comments. They are racists, but they want desperately to be thought of as men who don't have a bigoted bone in their bodies.

Unfortunately, they're also typical of far too many Americans, whether we want to acknowledge it or not.


Tony Norman's email: tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631; Twitter: @TonyNormanPG.

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