By Ta-Nehisi Coates
The question Cliven Bundy put to his audience last week—Was the black family better off as property?—is as immoral as it unoriginal. As both Adam Serwer and Jamelle Bouie point out, the roster of conservative theorists who imply that black people were better off being whipped, worked, and raped are legion. Their ranks include economists Walter Williams and Thomas Sowell, former congressman Allen West, sitting Representative Trent Franks, singer Ted Nugent, and presidential aspirants Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann.
A fair-minded reader will note that each of these conservatives is careful to not praise slavery and to note his or her disgust at the practice. This is neither distinction nor difference. Cliven Bundy’s disquisition begins with a similar hedge: “We’ve progressed quite a bit from that day until now and we sure don’t want to go back.” With so little substantive difference between Bundy and other conservatives, it becomes tough to understand last week’s backpedaling in any intellectually coherent way.
But style is the hero. Cliven Bundy is old, white, and male. He likes to wave an American flag while spurning the American government and pals around with the militia movement. He does not so much use the word “Negro”—which would be bad enough—but “nigra,” in the manner of villain from Mississippi Burning or A Time to Kill. In short, Cliven Bundy looks, and sounds, much like what white people take racism to be.
The problem with Cliven Bundy isn’t that he is a racist but that he is an oafish racist. He invokes the crudest stereotypes, like cotton picking. This makes white people feel bad. The elegant racist knows how to injure non-white people while never summoning the specter of white guilt. Elegant racism requires plausible deniability, as when Reagan just happened to stumble into the Neshoba County fair and mention state’s rights. Oafish racism leaves no escape hatch, as when Trent Lott praised Strom Thurmond’s singularly segregationist candidacy.
Elegant racism is invisible, supple, and enduring. It disguises itself in the national vocabulary, avoids epithets and didacticism. Grace is the singular marker of elegant racism. One should never underestimate the touch needed to, say, injure the voting rights of black people without ever saying their names. Elegant racism lives at the border of white shame. Elegant racism was the poll tax. Elegant racism is voter-ID laws.
“The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race,” John Roberts elegantly wrote. Liberals have yet to come up with a credible retort. That is because the theories of John Roberts are prettier than the theories of most liberals. But more, it is because liberals do not understand that America has never discriminated on the basis of race (which does not exist) but on the basis of racism (which most certainly does.)
Ideologies of hatred have never required coherent definitions of the hated. Islamophobes kill Sikhs as easily as they kill Muslims. Stalin needed no consistent definition of “Kulaks” to launch a war of Dekulakization. “I decide who is a Jew,” Karl Lueger said. Slaveholders decided who was a nigger and who wasn’t. The decision was arbitrary. The effects are not. Ahistorical liberals—like most Americans—still believe that race invented racism, when in fact the reverse is true. The hallmark of elegant racism is the acceptance of mainstream consensus, and exploitation of all its intellectual fault lines.
Here is a lovely illustration of elegant racism:
This graph is from Robert J. Sampson’s essential 2011 profile of Chicago, Great American City. Sampson’s data depicts incarceration rates in the early to mid-’90s in Chicago among black (black dots) and white neighborhoods (white dots.) Increasingly, sociologists like Sampson are showing us how our brute and strained vocabulary fails to articulate the problem of racism. Conservatives and liberals frequently wonder how it could be that unequal outcomes endure for blacks and whites, even after controlling for income or “class.” That is because conservatives and liberals underestimate the achievements of white supremacy and still believe that comparisons between a “black middle class” and a “white middle class” have actual meaning. In fact, black and white people—of any class—live in wholly different worlds.
A phrase like “mass incarceration” obviates the fact that “mass incarceration” is mostly localized in black neighborhoods. In Chicago during the ’90s, there was no overlap between the incarceration rates of black and white neighborhoods. The most incarcerated white neighborhoods in Chicago are still better off than the least incarcerated black neighborhoods. The most incarcerated black neighborhood in Chicago is 40 times worse than the most incarcerated white neighborhood.
Perhaps black people are for reasons of culture or genetics 40 times more criminal than white people. Or perhaps there is something more elegant at work:
The Justice Department announced today the largest monetary payment ever obtained by the department in the settlement of a case alleging housing discrimination in the rental of apartments. Los Angeles apartment owner Donald T. Sterling has agreed to pay $2.725 million to settle allegations that he discriminated against African-Americans, Hispanics and families with children at apartment buildings he controls in Los Angeles.
Throughout the 20th century—and perhaps even in the 21st—there was no more practiced advocate of housing segregation than the city of Chicago. Its mayors and aldermen razed neighborhoods and segregated public housing. Its businessmen lobbied for racial zoning. Its realtors block-busted whole neighborhoods, flipping them from black to white and then pocketing the profit. Its white citizens embraced racial covenants—in the ’50s, no city had more covenants in place than Chicago.
If you sought to advantage one group of Americans and disadvantage another, you could scarcely choose a more graceful method than housing discrimination. Housing determines access to transportation, green spaces, decent schools, decent food, decent jobs, and decent services. Housing affects your chances of being robbed and shot as well as your chances of being stopped and frisked. And housing discrimination is as quiet as it is deadly. It can be pursued through violence and terrorism, but it doesn’t need it. Housing discrimination is hard to detect, hard to prove, and hard to prosecute. Even today most people believe that Chicago is the work of organic sorting, as opposed segregationist social engineering. Housing segregation is the weapon that mortally injures, but does not bruise. The historic fumbling of such a formidable weapon could only ever be accomplished by a graceless halfwit—such as the present owner of the Los Angeles Clippers.
As Bomani Jones noted back in 2006, Donald Sterling has long been a practitioner of racism and the NBA could not have cared less. Jones is rightfully apoplectic at the present response. That is because he understands that the NBA, its players and its fans, don’t so much object to Donald Sterling’s racism—they object to his want of elegance.
Like Cliven Bundy, Donald Sterling confirms our comfortable view of racists. Donald Sterling is a “bad person.” He’s mean to women. He carouses with prostitutes. He uses the word “nigger.” He fits our idea of what an actual racist must look like: snarling, villainous, immoral, ignorant, gauche. The actual racism that Sterling long practiced, that this society has long practiced (and is still practicing) must attract significantly less note. That is because to see racism in all its elegance is to implicate not just its active practitioners, but to implicate ourselves.
How can it be that in a “black league,” as Charles Barkley calls the NBA, an on-the-record structural racist like Donald Sterling was allowed to thrive? Everyone now wants to speak to Elgin Baylor. Where were all these people before? Where was Kevin Johnson? Where was the Los Angeles NAACP? When Donald Sterling was driving black tenants out of his buildings, where was David Stern?
Far better to implicate Donald Sterling and be done with the whole business. Far better to banish Cliven Bundy and table the uncomfortable reality of our political system. A racism that invites the bipartisan condemnation of Barack Obama and Mitch McConnell must necessarily be minor. A racism that invites the condemnation of Sean Hannity can’t be much of a threat. But a racism, condemnable by all civilized people, must make itself manifest now and again so that we may celebrate how far we have come. Meanwhile racism, elegant, lovely, monstrous, carries on.