Fighting mutations of the racism virus

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Medical researchers are giving growing attention to the risk that the coronavirus will mutate so that it can evade the defenses our bodies build to defeat it. We should have been paying similar attention to mutations in another deadly virus stalking our society: racism.

In the early 1970s, much of the country wanted a return to normalcy after the Civil Rights revolution’s turmoil. In today’s language, it wanted to reopen.

Dialing back civil rights efforts while an epidemic of racism raged would mean admitting defeat, so the country found a way to obscure the infection rate. It assumed the racism virus would never mutate, that when present it would always appear in the same form that had caused so much sickness and death for so long. Ignoring the potential for mutations, it defined racism as belief in all five elements of the old Jim Crow regime’s white supremacist credo: that we have sufficient evidence to publicly state that African-Americans are all clearly inferior to whites. Finding a rapidly declining incidence of racism under this narrow definition, the nation congratulated itself and reopened.

But the virus had mutated. Although old-fashioned, sheet-wearing, cross-burning racists can be extremely dangerous, today far more harm is done by those infected with the mutant strains that attempt to evade detection by disavowing at least one of the Jim Crow credo’s five main points.

Someone may believe that it is possible — but not proven — that African Americans are inferior to whites. This strain of the virus, which may be termed “racial agnosticism,” may render carriers untroubled by seeing people of color underrepresented in good schools and executive suites — and overrepresented in prisons, unemployment lines, and police shootings. They may believe these discrepancies result from genuine merit. Conversely, they condemn affirmative action and efforts to rein in state violence against African Americans as attempts to override the natural results of a fair competition.

Another mutation allows carriers to recognize that public expressions of racial contempt are unseemly or impolitic, even if the carrier believes such contempt is justified. Those infected with this “mannered” strain of racism may discuss their beliefs quietly with trusted friends and co-workers but avoid public expressions that could generate unwelcome social, economic, or political consequences for the speaker. The Supreme Court has reinforced the line between mannered and uncouth racism by requiring civil rights litigants to present officials’ clear statements of discriminatory intent while limiting litigants’ access to what officials say in private meetings.

A third mutation induces carriers to shift their condemnation from African Americans to some other group that serves as a proxy. Persons infected with this “displaced” strain of the virus have an enormous range of euphemisms to preserve supposedly plausible deniability. Carriers of the displaced strain attack groups they believe include disproportionate numbers of people of color: recipients of public assistance, residents of center cities, people with criminal records, and so forth. And, of course, even as the displaced strain holds its carriers back from blanket condemnations by race it often allows them to condemn all gays and lesbians, all adherents of particular religions, all immigrants, and others.

A fourth mutation hides by tempering the absolutism of its condemnation of African Americans. Critics once caricatured carriers of this “exceptionalist” strain as insisting that “some of my best friends are Black.” Barack Obama’s election allowed them to claim that they are not “racists” because they are willing to acknowledge a “good Black” when one appears.

A fifth variant tries to hide by insisting that African Americans are simply different without necessarily being inferior. The Supreme Court saw through the ruse when segregationists tried selling “separate but equal” schools this way. But as residential segregation increased, racial separation was again on the table, and by the 1970s the Court was unwilling to intervene decisively. This “separatist” form has inspired opponents of other civil rights claims to insist that they, too, are only talking about difference, not inferiority: They say women are differently able to exercise authority, same-sex couples have different needs for recognition and permanence in their loving relationships, people with disabilities do not really belong in the workforce, and immigrant children have different needs to be with their parents.

These mutant forms of racism can cause great harm on their own and even more in combination. “Mannered racists” advance white applicants without explaining why, and “racial agnostics” assume the skewed results nonetheless must reflect merit. “Displaced racists” attack groups that broadly, but incompletely, overlap with their true targets, and “racial exceptionalists” happily call attention to the examples of mismatch. And when all of this creates conflict, “racial separatists” solemnly pronounce that this shows we need more distance from one another.

Perhaps the most deadly mutation is “racial opportunism.” Its carriers may or may not hold racial animus themselves, but they recognize the potential for personal and political gain from manipulating those that do. At least until recently, politicians dared not signal acceptance for the full Jim Crow credo, but far too many eagerly pandered to voters infected with one or another mutation of racism.

The honest dialogue and self-examination necessary to eradicate racism is hard — at least as hard as today’s social distancing. In our fatigue, we “re-opened” too soon and largely truncated those efforts. Since then, we have too often ignored the spread of virulent mutant forms.

White America’s willingness to accept any hedge, any equivocation from the old Jim Crow credo has left us with a society so thoroughly infected that we often see more indignation over the simple statement that “Black Lives Matter” than we do over the underlying senseless killings.

And the epidemic of racism has contributed directly to the epidemic of coronavirus: It is difficult to imagine the mobs of gun-waving pseudo-patriots invading state capitols demanding their “right” to spread the disease if COVID-19 affected whites as disproportionately as it actually affects people of color.

We must confront the virus in all its forms now, before the death toll rises even higher.

David A. Super is a professor of law at Georgetown Law. He also served for several years as the general counsel for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Follow him on Twitter @DavidASuper1 

Tags Barack Obama Civil rights movement Discrimination Hatred Jim Crow laws Laissez-faire racism race and society Racism in the United States

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