Protecting Racist Ignorance

In 1964 my parents moved our family from inner-city Cleveland, Ohio to a rural area thirty miles outside the city. Despite the fact that our six-acre lot provided plenty of distance between our homes, our white neighbors were angry that a black family with seven kids was in such close proximity. They immediately erected a barbed-wire fence that stretched the length of our adjoining properties. On each of the posts, they placed NO TRESPASSING signs. They also flew a Confederate flag. They were joined by other town members with ploys used to get us to move: zoning laws were suddenly unearthed stating that our land was too narrow for building; school officials thought my sisters, brother and I would be better served if we attended another school district where there were already black children (they would graciously see that arrangements could be made); even our dog was cited for some now-forgotten reason.

I asked my mother why these people hated us so much. She explained their belief was just “pure ignorance.” I was confused by their “ignorance” and fearful of it.

Fifty years later, I am no longer confused but still fearful of such ignorance. Listening to an interview of a young man who participated in chatting “send her back,” at Trump's campaign rally, I recalled remarks made to our family to “go back to our country.” The young man seemed surprised that the reporter inquired about the racist nature of the chant. “It’s not racist,” he stated. “It’s patriotic.” My mother would call it “pure ignorance.”

As a psychologist, I give credence to my mother’s claim of ignorance as a practical attribution for many who do not fully understand racism. Modern forms especially those that are covert and often unintentional are confusing to the average citizen, and traditional forms of racism are now being reframed as justified, defensive responses to those who are unpatriotic and un-American.

Trump’s tweets and subsequent remarks sparked the same anxiety as living next door to our confederate flag neighbors in 1964. My anxiety was amplified by the voices of Republican political pundits (ironically, often racist themselves) invested in preserving this narrative and protecting this presidency. Their remarks provided the confused rally chanters talking points: The tweets weren’t racist but rather a response to the anti-Semitic and un-American ideology of four congresswomen of color. It wasn’t racism because people agreed with him. It was a shrewd political strategy being tested by Trump to win over Southern states which he had marginally lost in 2016. It wasn’t racism because Trump doesn’t have “a racist bone in his body.” Ignorance remains.

Not only would racist remarks remain, be reframed and justified, but racial ignorance would also be protected. One simply should not call out racism. Even other chief diversity officers cautioned me about calling out racism as institutions are sensitive to bringing up “politically charged issues.” I didn’t think racism was a political issue but a human rights issue, I responded.

Others cautioned that definitively naming Trump’s tweets as racist wasn’t a way to foster dialogue. It seemed odd to me that dialogue would be suggested if someone was hurling racist remarks at you. It was suddenly just as bad to call someone racist (even if they were) as it was to actually be a racist. And since no one, especially a racist, likes being called one, we should just avoid the “name calling.”

I’ve been told that calling the President racist is appalling and absurd. Trump has many friends of color, is married to an immigrant, and Ben Carson is in cabinet. They conveniently forget (or perhaps never knew) that the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, reportedly had five black children with enslaved Sally Hemings. Jefferson was publicly silent on issues of slavery and emancipation, yet his five children and Sally were slaves. It appears that President Trump may just be the first racist President in modern times.

Racial ignorance continues and controls the narrative. We protect racism by deflection and social privilege (another taboo topic), complicity by a few people of color, and minimization of its impact by those who choose passive tolerance rather than confronting those who make racist remarks.

It took eight years for our neighbors to begin talking to our family. A few years after that, they exchanged “To a Good Neighbor” Christmas cards, visited for coffee, shared tools, helped with fixing things, and brought over homemade bread and garden-grown vegetables. After twenty-six years of being neighbors, when my parents retired and moved back to the city, there were tears on both sides.

We never really knew what changed their hearts. We had never spoken a word to them before they started speaking to us. Yet, calling racism by its name was the first step toward eradicating their racist ignorance.