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The Spectrum of Racism


Eric Foner kind of eviscerates a new book on Lincoln and slavery that overplays Lincoln’s racism. The most important point is the last because it has great relevance for how many of us think about race.

Kaplan, in other words, employs racism as a deus ex machina — something that exists outside of history but that can be invoked as the ultimate explanation for historical events. Yet if racism is constant and immutable, how did millions of Northerners come to embrace emancipation and the laws and constitutional amendments of Reconstruction? A better approach is to see racism as part of history. Racism, like anything else, rises and falls over time. And sometimes people change.

This reminds me of some of the conversations we have here. When I write posts that argue moving to the suburbs for schools or putting your kids in private school is a racist act, which it is, a lot of people freak out. That’s because for them, racism is a THING that can be defined. You are either a racist or you are not a racist. And because racism is the worst thing in the world, people flip out when it is thrown back at them. But that’s an incorrect understanding of racism. Racism is a spectrum. We are all on that spectrum, including myself. For white people, that spectrum is more significant because they have the power to implement that racism on others. But like all forms of oppression, in a society that shapes us, we all share some of it. It’s unavoidable and can only be fought; like an addiction, one is never truly cured. It’s the same with sexism, homophobia, and classism (with the latter barely even recognized as a problem). Our society structures the choices we make, as it did in the 19th century. We recognize Lincoln as a racist today because in many ways he was a racist. But that in itself did not make him a bad person. Moreover, he was open to learning and changing, realizing the error of his ways and moving toward supporting greater racial equality. He never would have been perfect, but then neither are we. When we worry about our property values if too many minorities move in the neighborhood, or send our kids to mostly white suburban and private schools so they can have advantages, or when a bit of unexpected fear wells up in us when we walk by a young African-American male on the street, we are no different than someone in the 19th century. But we too can fight this and we too can learn and we too can act accordingly and try not to replicate the racism at the core of our society.

But the first step in this process is understanding what racism actually is and how it operates and to stop therefore using it as an epithet that only applies to others.

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