I have a friend who is the only black person living in his luxury cooperative building. A few years back, there was a get-to-know-your-neighbor party. After the party, as he was riding back upstairs on the elevator, a white woman who lived in the building told him that there was a new neighbor, a Mr. X, who was “incredibly racist.” He told every hateful, supremacist joke in the book, she advised, and therefore “you should try to do something about him.” What struck my friend, even more than the assignment to him of “doing something,” was that he had seen her sitting with Mr. X for at least two hours during the party, nodding and listening but shocked, just shocked.
Two years later, Mr. X had worked his way up through the ranks of co-op board politics to become head of the committee interviewing prospective purchasers. It should be no surprise that by last September his candid attitudes toward minorities had earned the building a major discrimination suit. “Now it’s everybody’s problem,” says my friend, shaking his head. “And everybody’s shocked. Just shocked. They fall all over themselves apologizing to me–like I’m the plaintiff! But they’re still fighting the case. They see no reason they should have to pay damages.” If that weren’t bad enough, my friend is finding himself used as the symbol of the co-op board’s openness. “How could we be racist when we have a black person in the building?” the indignant Mr. X has asked, sounding for all the world like the Republican Party trying to resurrect itself as the born-again bastion of what it heretofore derided as the civil rights “establishment.”
We have a troublesome tradition of apologizing a bit too quickly, a bit too easily, like sobered-up frat boys plying authorities with theatrical renditions of remorse. There’s not a newspaper in the nation unadorned with elaborate expressions of contrition for one supreme mess or another. From Trent Lott to Cardinal Law, from Jerry Falwell to Michael Jackson–whether politicians, priests, athletes or financiers, they’re sorry about slavery, sorry about running over Korean schoolchildren, sorry about raping minors, sorry about defrauding all those stockholders, sorry about accidentally bombing our Canadian allies, sorry about dangling that baby over the abyss. As Maureen Dowd said of Lott’s sudden embrace of affirmative action (now that it’s as dead as Martin Luther King), “For the love of Amos ‘n’ Andy, hasn’t Mr. Lott punished the black man enough?”
Still, there are a few people from whom I’d like to hear an apologetic word or two: First, George W. Bush for the policies of his Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. New provisions, slipped by the press while reporters were off googling Lott’s past, will allow religious institutions like Bob Jones University to receive federal funding for charitable missionary work, even if their hiring practices violate various civil rights laws. Second, the long list of law professors, including many “liberals,” who supported Michael McConnell’s recent nomination to the federal bench, despite McConnell’s published stance that segregationist policies at religious institutions like Bob Jones University should not disqualify them from federal funding. Third, Bob Jones University, for abandoning its anti-miscegenist stance only in the year 2000, and then only out of concern that it might harm George W. Bush’s chances of being elected President; Bush campaigned there and was photographed seated in front of a giant mural of Jesus Christ, all but wrapped in the symbols of the Confederacy, a pose suspiciously like the closing scene of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. (And people wonder why 92 percent of blacks vote Democratic.)
But this is only the tip of a much larger iceberg that I have yet to see the media deal with–that is, the great historical power of the Christian Identity movement in this country. People are of course free to worship as they please, but if the American government has made it its business to monitor global religious extremism, we should be no less concerned about publicly funding domestic ideologies that an increasingly eloquent Lott, on the fourth–or was it the fifth?–try, called a “stain on our nation’s soul.” We should worry, in other words, about the legacy of Jim Crow’s theology no less than its laws. It is no accident, after all, that a burning cross became the calling card for the Klan’s deadly visitations. It is no accident that the Klan’s robes and hoods look so similar to those used in the Spanish Inquisition. “Polygenesis”–the theory that God made blacks and whites in separate, unmixable batches–is at the root of Bob Jones’s antimiscegenist beliefs. But it is also at the heart of many (certainly not all) creationists’ resistance to scientific conclusions that man and “the lower orders” are related.
Let me digress now to the little matter of Clarence Thomas’s “outburst” during arguments about a Virginia statute criminalizing cross-burning with an intent to threaten or intimidate. I’m no defender of Thomas, but I’m curious why so many in the media described his intervention as an “outburst.” Did he shout? Did he flap his robes while dancing on the bench? Bang his gavel? Foam at the mouth? As far as I can tell he merely spoke, if at some length. That was unusual for him, and newsworthy, but does not an outburst make. Some analysts described the rest of the Justices as looking “stunned,” or cowed in their respect for his sudden “moral authority.” To others, Thomas was criticized for having used the “passionate” first person, for having “hijacked” the Court’s objectivity or for “playing the race card.” It was peculiar–you’d swear they were talking about Al Sharpton. I am struck by how understated was the last decade’s media response to Lott’s long history of racist remarks; and how overstated was the response to Thomas’s straightforward description of cross-burning’s association with racial violence.
I’m glad that Lott’s statement provoked broad bipartisan soul-searching. But the very fact of Lott’s election to majority leader in the first place demands a much more protracted commitment to self-examination than we’ve seen, among white liberals as well as those on the right. It cannot always be the job of your best black friend to act as eternal partypooper.