When I listen to someone say, “I’m not racist, but…,” what I hear is, “I’m a racist who has found a way to rationalize my bigotry.” It often goes like this: “I’m not racist, but we have a real problem protecting our border.” Let us parse.
Perhaps some people weren’t paying attention when Sister Rosetta Stone and Sister Mary Elephant explained coordinating conjunctions. There is certainly evidence the current White House occupants and staff weren’t attuned to grammatical instruction. [NYT] That said, “but” is a coordinating conjunction presenting a contrast or an exception. It’s the exception part that gives the game away. The basic construction of the sentence underpins the notion the speaker is granting himself or herself an exception to the general classification of racist to which he or she doesn’t wish to be associated. In other words, what the person is about to say is generally considered racist, and what comes after the coordinating conjunction will be good old fashioned self preserving rationalization. Now that we’ve parsed we can move on to that rationalization.
Borders can be both statutory and personal. We have statutory borders marking territorial jurisdiction. We have land and maritime boundaries with Canada and Mexico. We have maritime boundaries with the Bahamas, Cuba, and Russia. The boundaries of personal space appear to give some bigots the most problems. Witness: The person who called the police when a black man was sighted moving into his new apartment in New York City. [CBS] Three black women were reported as burglars when leaving an Air BnB because a neighbor got nervous. [CNN] A white woman created a scene in Oakland, CA calling the police because there were people at Lake Merritt barbecuing while black. [Root] For white bigots there are two invasions. One occurs when a non-white person seeks to pass a statutory land or maritime boundary, and the other happens when a non-white person seeks to do the normal things normal people do in spaces too close to the hyper-sensitive bigots.
Simple minds conflate the two. “I’m not a racist; nevertheless, I’m experiencing an invasion of my space by people who don’t look like me.” Sister Mary Elephant would inform us “nevertheless” is a conjunctive adverb. Those who aren’t burdened by their own bigotry would inform us a van filled with farm workers doesn’t constitute a host of Midianites at the city walls. A family seeking asylum doesn’t meet the definition of a horde of Goths at the gates.
However, to a basic bigot the visibility of people who speak Spanish at gas stations, [NBC] or who are persons who “look Muslim” doing complex mathematical computations on an airplane, [WaPo] or are two Native American youngsters on a college tour in Colorado, [CNN] who make a white woman “nervous,’ is central to their sense of space. If only the bigots could exclude the dark skinned, straight or curly haired, Spanish speaking, or quiet, people from getting too close to their spaces they would feel comfortable again. They could “take their country back.” They could MAGA to their heart’s content.
The increasing possibility that the neighborhood will have more black or Hispanic residents, or that the malls will have more diverse shoppers, or that the parks will have more non-white barbecuers, frightens our bigots. In some cases it makes them melt down in public, and sometimes we get the belated apology which rings hollow after a racist rant in a Fresh Kitchens restaurant in NYC. [TMZ]
Sadly, this isn’t the worst we can do. It’s bad enough when people are falsely accused of burglary or shoplifting because a bigot felt nervous. It’s bad enough when an award winning Italian economist is profiled for working on differential equations. It’s bad enough when people aren’t free to enjoy that All American pastime — grilling meat with home made renditions of Uncle Freddy’s Secret Sauce, the recipe for which he wouldn’t even share with Aunt Hazel. It’s bad enough when two kids on a college tour make a bigot nervous just by looking like the Native Americans they are. The poor bigot said she was nervous because they didn’t look like they belonged on a college campus. Question: Madam, are you really telling me YOU don’t think they match YOUR notion of who should be allowed on college campuses? It’s one easy step from this exclusionary view to the worst possible outcomes. It’s even worse when the bigots are allowed to establish the standards by which we measure the humanity of our fellow human beings.
One doesn’t have to leap over a gaping chasm to move from “they don’t look like they belong,” to “they’re animals.” It’s the conflation game. We’ve already seen the movie. As Maria Hinajosa explained, it was titled Sophie’s Choice. There is absolutely nothing comforting about seeing the current administration choosing to use its prosecutorial discretion to force the separation of children from their asylum seeking parents. Further, to use this discretion as a so-called ‘deterrent’ to efforts by future asylum seekers from South and Central American is blatantly exclusionist, and serves no other purpose than to make the bigots more comfortable. There will be fewer of ‘them,’ even if we are speaking of toddlers. We’ve heard this before as well.
When the Wagner-Rogers Act was being debated in Congress in 1939, most labor and religious organizations were in favor of the bill to allow the entry into the US of 20,000 Jewish refugee children in the wake of Kristallnacht in Germany. American nationalist organizations, such as the DAR and American Legion, opposed it. Laura D. Houghteling, the wife of the US Immigration Commissioner opined, “20,000 charming children would all too soon grow into 20,000 ugly adults.” She would, without doubt, take some joy hearing the President describe children of refugee parents as “they’re all animals.” [RollingStone] The bill failed.
Since when has it become acceptable in this nation to use children, some mere toddlers, as deterrents to force non-white refugees into a decision not to come to this country, not to escape peril, not to hope for a safer environment for those children? Why is it acceptable to farm those children out into a foster system or “whatever.” What’s a “whatever?” A warehouse? When did we become a nation that punishes children for the hopes and dreams of their parents?
Perhaps it’s when we chose to listen to the carefully inserted coordinating conjunctions in the grammar of bigots. “I’m not a racist, but I’d be ever so much more comfortable if everyone looked and sounded just like me.”