The subtler type of racism.

I occasionally bump into an odd phenomenon; one I briefly mentioned in my article on white Jesus. In short, it’s racism—the type people tend to get away with because it’s subtle.

But first, a big long bit of backstory.

Robert Edward Lee was the commanding general of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia during the United States Civil War. (The U.S. Army started burying soldiers on Lee’s front lawn during the war, as a way to stick it to him. It’s now Arlington National Cemetery.) Lee was one of the better generals in the war… and arguably it’s because he was such an effective general, the war lasted way longer, and killed more, than it ever should have.

Y’might get the idea I don’t think much of Lee, nor the reputation the American south has granted him in the 150 years since the Civil War. You’d be absolutely right.


Robert E. Lee, 1863. Wikipedia

Idol of Lee on his horse Traveller, erected in Charlottesville in 1925. Wikipedia

When Lee originally joined the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the man swore to defend the Constitution of the United States. Yet he participated in armed rebellion, supporting a separatist nation whose primary reason for existence, explicitly stated in their new state constitutions, was to perpetuate slavery. Southerners reimagined Lee as a noble man, conflicted ’cause he didn’t want to shatter the union his own wife’s grandfather had created. (Her grandfather? George Washington. Yes, that George Washington.) Despite his moral quandary, Lee simply couldn’t bring himself to fight and kill his fellow Virginians. Marylanders and Pennsylvanians, no problem.

Do I sound harsh? I’ve been accused of that. But even by standards of the day, Lee’s behavior is inexcusable. George Washington had recognized the immorality of slavery and freed his own slaves. His adoptive son, George Washington Custis, had freed some slaves, and the rest of Custis’s slaves also expected to be freed at his death, but that didn’t happen. Hence Lee held these very people, hundreds of them, in captivity. Kept ’em in shacks on his land. Worked ’em without pay. Had ’em flogged when they displeased him. As general, he permitted his troops to enslave any free blacks they encountered. And of course they killed American soldiers so they could continue all these offensive practices. Lee never spent an hour in jail for it; he was graciously given amnesty. If anything I’m being generous too.

Southerners are slowly starting to come round to the fact Lee is an embarrassing part of their history. Not someone to be celebrated.

The reason this process is so slow? White supremacy.

From the end of the war till 1877, white supremacists were suppressed by the Army. That stopped after the Republicans made a deal so they could steal the 1876 presidential election. Back then (before the parties traded worldviews in the 1960s), the Republicans were the liberal equal-rights party and the Democrats the super-racist conservative party. Democrat Samuel J. Tilden had unexpectedly won. Republicans were horrified. Congress had to ratify the election, so Republicans held it up for a bit while they struck a deal with the Democrats: If they conceded the election to Rutherford Hayes, the Republicans would pull the Army out of the south, and let the white supremacists do as they pleased. Whatever happened thereafter, happened.

What happened was Hayes was a useless one-term president. And southern Democrats created racist “Jim Crow” laws which made life utter hell for southern blacks for a century. White supremacists repainted the Civil War as a noble but failed cause, just like Gone With the Wind depicts it: They were just fighting for their slaveholding way of life; for their slaveholding heritage; for states’ rights to perpetuate slavery; nevermind northern states’ rights to not return runaway slaves.

And that’s when all the pro-Confederacy idols cropped up. Yes of course it’s civic idolatry. Racist style.

Including the idol of Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia. It was commissioned in 1917, built in 1925, and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1997. Currently the state of Virginia is trying to take it down in response to the Black Lives Matter protest—and it’s about time. But white supremacists have been fighting that for years. A judge is currently blocking its removal.

Back in April 2017 the Charlottesville city council decided to sell it, and rename Lee Park as Emancipation Park. So white supremacists threw a big rally in August at the University of Virginia campus, where one of the white supremacists ran a car into counter-protesters. Some of ’em were waving Nazi flags right alongside their Confederate flags. (Nazis are another group white supremacists are trying to repaint as a noble but failed cause.)

Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee had tweeted at the time,

I don’t care for everything Huckabee tweets (I don’t share his sense of humor at all), but I liked this one so I retweeted it. Didn’t take long before I got these two responses:

  • “[It’s wrong] for ANY race to think they are superior to another. There are racists on both sides.”
  • “No worse than black racism. Racism is racism. There no runner-up prize.”

And someone who tried to pivot to a discussion of black people’s sins. See, when you can’t defend your own behavior, deflect as best you can.

“Don’t forget there are black racists.”

Of course black racists exist. I’ve met a few. When I went to college in Sacramento, I lived in a predominantly black neighborhood. Worked for a black newspaper. And every so often, someone would come into the office who was a little bothered there was a white guy in there. Shouldn’t the jobs at a black newspaper, they figured, go exclusively to black people?

I tell this story to people and they respond, “Ah, that’s reverse racism.” Nah, it’s just racism. “Reverse” suggests maybe it’s normal for whites to be racist, and I definitely object to that idea.

Some of the racism came from the Nation of Islam. Its leaders have notoriously taught that white people were invented 6,600 years ago by a black scientist named Yakub, who bred people till they turned into white devils. (I’m not kidding.) True, many whites have acted profoundly devilish towards blacks and Muslims, and not just in the past. But their Yakub myth guarantees whites and the NOI aren’t gonna reconcile anytime soon.

And some of the racism came from people who had awful experiences with whites in the past, and didn’t expect me to behave any better. Kind and friendly to me to my face, but I overheard ’em when my back was turned. Sad to say, it wasn’t my first experience with this type of racist: My relatives are just the same. Friendly in public, racist in private. Any people of color they personally know are “one of the good ones,” yet everybody they don’t know is gauged by whatever offensive stereotypes they persist in believing.

Still, Huckabee’s comment is about how white supremacy is evil. Why’re people suddenly bringing up black racists? Yeah they exist; it goes without saying. So why do people suddenly feel the urge to say it anyway?

It reminds me, I told the commentators, of a little kid who’d just been caught disobeying. The parents told him, “Stay out of the cookie jar,” and caught him with his hand in it not two minutes later. As kids do, his defense was, “But the other kids got into it too.” Not too dissimilar from Adam pointing the finger at Eve when God caught ’em eating from the wrong tree. Ge 3.12

I hadn’t accused any of my Twitter followers of white supremacy. I’d simply agreed with Huckabee’s statement. And their response wasn’t, “That’s right, white supremacy is evil.” It was, “Don’t forget not all racists are white.” It’s the reaction of a kid whose hand was in the cookie jar.

Is that the button I pushed? Of course it is. These people identify with white people so strongly, they feel they need to respond to any objection to white misbehavior. They’re speaking up for their race. I never asked ’em to (and certainly don’t recognize them as any such spokesperson). But they felt it necessary.

Pity instead of defending themselves, or joining the condemnation of a sinful fringe group, they chose to point fingers: “Don’t forget their sins.”

Yeah yeah yeah. But let’s return to yours, shall we?

Passive racism.

A lot of racists are entirely sure they’re not racist… solely because they don’t hate other races.

Because they assume hatred is how we define racism. Racists hate. Ergo if you don’t hate, you’re no racist. That’s why the president says racist things, creates racist policies, yet insists he’s no racist: He doesn’t hate other races, so he’s clearly not racist.

These folks don’t love other races either. But all they focus on is how they don’t hate them.

So they imagine they’re not racist. Even as they quietly discriminate between one person and another, for better or worse, entirely based on the stereotypes they hold about different races, ethnicities, nations, religions, and cultures. That’s why my family members believe they’re not racist when they totally are.

At the foundation of all this is total depravity: Humans are self-centered. We primarily think of ourselves, and not so much others. We don’t love our neighbor as ourselves; we love ourselves, and don’t hate our neighbors, and figure that’s just as good. We love ourselves, our own, and however far we care to extend “our own.”

For some Christians, they love their fellow Christians. Or at least their fellow Protestants, or fellow Evangelicals, or fellow conservative Evangelicals. Or pretty much their own denomination. Or not even that; just their church. Or not their church either; just the people in their bible study. Well, a few of them.

For some Americans, they love their fellow Americans. So long that they’re “real Americans,” by which they mean Americans who share their politics. Or who “act American,” by which they mean act like them… or to be blunt, act white. Because white is “normal” and “regular,” and everything else, not so much.

Once we finally define those boundaries, whether they’re wide or narrow, we humans figure we’re in competition with everybody outside the boundaries. Us versus them. Our team versus theirs. Needy versus wealthy. Progressives versus conservatives. Christians versus Muslims—sometimes teaming up with the Jews, sometimes not. Whites versus nonwhites.

Usually we’re competing for power. Sometimes political, sometimes economic, sometimes for attention and resources.

So when white people get accused of racism, they defend the team, and counterpunch at the other team: “What about the black people?” After all, if we’re in competition, we’d better not be the only group getting a yellow card. Black folks have their racists too!

Yep, that’s the mindset behind their slogan, “All lives matter.” It’s their tone-deaf response to the Black Lives Matter movement, which was created to address the very real problem of institutional racism: When a black kid walks down the street, far too often white cops don’t think of him as a pedestrian, but as a perpetrator. They don’t know what he perpetrated, but they take it upon themselves to find out. And way too often it ends with a dead kid. All my life I’ve walked through neighborhoods at night, and never once been questioned by police. But my black friends got questioned as they were waiting for the morning school bus. Police departments need to train this mentality out of their cops, and some do… and some don’t. Hence Black Lives Matter.

The “All lives matter” slogan would make sense if all kids were hassled by the cops. They aren’t, so it doesn’t. It’s really just white idiots who don’t understand the issue at all… but they still want equal time. If it’s not about them, they wanna shoehorn themselves in there somehow. It’s more selfishness than racism.

But it does stem from racism: The passive stuff. The subtle racism. Closet racism. Whatever you care to call it: When people don’t love their neighbors enough to identify with them, come alongside them, love them, and surrender their power and privilege if only it might help them.

It confuses people because they realize something’s wrong with this mindset, but they can’t pinpoint the problem. They figure since they tend to see it among conservatives, it must be a form of conservatism. It’s actually not; I’ve known liberal and progressive racists who are insultingly condescending towards nonwhites. The jerkish behavior has nothing to do with politics, although it becomes painfully obvious when politics come up. It has to do with the absence of love. They don’t love their neighbors.

So call it what it is. Out it whenever it’s practiced. Rebuke it.

If Christians find ourselves in any position of privilege whatsoever, we’re meant to use it to help others So do love your neighbors. Speak out. And, in case you don’t figure these people legitimately are your neighbors, love your enemies and opponents too. That’ll work just as well.