Being the token American overseas for the better half of two decades now I have had the “American Racism” conversation many times. Usually my stock response is something like this:
“Bigotry is the norm. I’ve seen, though not often experienced racism everywhere I’ve lived and most places I’ve traveled — all over Europe and many places in Southeast Asia. The big difference between racism in American and everywhere else is that America has an ongoing, very public discussion of its own racism. Most places don’t. Americans are racist. So are The British. And the Chinese. The Japanese and the Swedish are racist. The mix of passive vs. active racism differs, but it seems that racism is a universal human trait (really bigotry in all its ugly -isms: racism, sexism, ageism, chauvinism, etc.). America’s history of slavery and global immigration means that in many places, where the melting pot extends beyond Europeans, we are confronted daily with the reality of people who are visibly different, and not just their skin. We have a much longer history of this than most places, with the possible exception of London with its imperial heritage. Even places far from the city have, in my lifetime — in my adult lifetime — experienced a large growth in diversity. The number of Hispanics in my home town or in Northern Virginia where I attended college is a good example. The number of Somali refugees in Souix Falls, South Dakota near my grandparents farm, dead smack in the middle of corn-fed white America.
When I lived in London there was a big news story about a murder, I don’t remember the details but the story sticks in my mind because of an observation one of my dorm mates made of a press conference. They pointed out the police official stumbled over the correct word to use to describe the man’s race. This was the first time I had the thought that the public discussion of racism in America meant they everyone knows the acceptable terms for people of different races. There are norms about how you refer to people of this or that race. There are norms of speech and behaviour that when crossed will get someone accused of racism. It’s not to say that people don’t say things that are racist or act in racist ways, just that they know what is legal and what is socially acceptable. This does not fix the problem, it pushes active racism to the fringes though passive racism persists. It’s a step in the right direction but we have a long way to go to realise our founding principle of equality.”
Now those norms have been challenged, Trump has emboldened those who want to return to active, in-your-face racism. My hometown has become ground zero for the new race war [nytimes.com]. I don’t even know what to say about it. I abhor what the bigoted fucks who showed up for the “Unite the Right” rally stand for. At the same time I believe in the liberal idea of free speech. Free speech isn’t absolute but, except very few and specific things, people should be free and feel free to voice their opinions. No other system works, just imagine if your opinion was the unpopular or “wrong” one… should you be prevented from voicing it? I Guess all I can say is that I absolutely believe bigotry in all its guises is wrong, I try to live that way and we need people who believe that to scream it at the top of their lungs to drown out the bigots and drive them back beyond the fringes.