By Alan Bean
I came across two columns this morning making the case that white people can be riddled with racial bias without feeling any particular ill will toward racial minorities.
In a guest column in the New York Times, Ta-Nehisi Coates uses a grotesque incident of racial profiling involving academy award-winning actor Forest Whitaker as his jumping off point. The deli employee who accused Whitaker of shop lifting, and frisked him on the spot, claims to be a “good person” without a single racist bone in his body. Coates doesn’t argue with this self-assessment, but disputes the assumption that racism necessarily involves a conscious dislike of a particular racial group.
In modern America we believe racism to be the property of the uniquely villainous and morally deformed, the ideology of trolls, gorgons and orcs. We believe this even when we are actually being racist. In 1957, neighbors in Levittown, Pa., uniting under the flag of segregation, wrote: “As moral, religious and law-abiding citizens, we feel that we are unprejudiced and undiscriminating in our wish to keep our community a closed community.”
A half-century later little had changed. The comedian Michael Richards (Kramer on “Seinfeld”) once yelled at a black heckler from the stage: “He’s a nigger! He’s a nigger! He’s a nigger!” Confronted about this, Richards apologized and then said, “I’m not a racist,” and called the claim “insane.”
The idea that racism lives in the heart of particularly evil individuals, as opposed to the heart of a democratic society, is reinforcing to anyone who might, from time to time, find their tongue sprinting ahead of their discretion.
Friends of Justice, the non-profit I direct, ran up against this “ideology of trolls” problem when we opposed a misbegotten drug bust in Tulia, Texas. Every detail of the case was dripping with racial bias, but the white folks on the juries were generally nice, kind, well-intentioned church people. When journalists finally concluded that the drug bust was “racist” it was generally assumed that Tulia was therefore populated with unreconstructed, white sheet-wearing sons and daughters of the Klan.
The second piece that caught my attention was written by authorities on the neo-Confederate movement, Ed Sebesta and Dr. Euan Hague. The authors note that the only way defense attorneys can assess racial bias in a venire is by asking people if they ascribe to the ideology of trolls Mr. Coates talks about. If potential jurists belong to racist hate groups, they can be eliminated from the jury “for cause”; otherwise it is assumed that they are free of racial bias.
Sebesta and Hague suggest a different approach. Noting that at least 52% of whites who identify as “Southerners” proudly sympathize with the old Confederacy, they argue that defense attorneys should be able to probe this issue during voir dire. Here’s the meat of the argument:
The historical record irrefutably shows that the Confederacy was formed for the purpose of preserving white supremacy and slavery. Such sentiments are expressed is the declaration and resolutions of the seceding states, in the speeches of the leaders of the Confederacy, and in innumerable other sources, typically being expressed in a straight forward manner.It would be reasonable, therefore, to ‘challenge for cause’ potential jurors identifying with the Confederacy because of their identification with a white supremacist regime that sought to keep in African Americans enslaved. These potential jurors identifying with the Confederacy might object that they would not be biased as jurors, but elements of the pro-Confederate Lost Cause mythology inherently lead to bias. One element is that African American slaves were well treated and content as slaves, and that slavery was like being a part of a large family, rather than that it was a grave and often horrific condition. At some psychological level, Lost Cause rationalizations are embraced and accepted because for that individual, an African American’s freedom and humanity are valued less than their own.
All of which leads to a simple conclusion: “It is difficult to understand how a person who expresses pro-Confederate views and does not reject Lost Cause myths of slavery, can reasonably and objectively serve on a jury of peers for an African American defendant.”