My apologies, but this is a long reply.
Okay, to start, I’d like to address this quote: “ To use one of your examples, to donate used clothes to black families was charitable, but to demean those same black families when they were out of earshot wholly undermines if not negates or even eclipses that very act of charity.”
I quite agree. In fact, if you’ll read my writings again, you’d see that’s pretty much in line with what I said:
So not only did we not realize that we were racist, we never grasped how severely our private racism affected our public, social, and political attitudes to the point that our racism was pervasive, an integral part of nearly every public, social, and political interaction.
I’m not for even a moment excusing the racism. As with the law, ignorance is no excuse. But it was ignorance nonetheless.
My story was actually a shortened version of an article I wrote for Quora (before being banned for being too partisan). Here’s something from that article:
Sure, we’d swap the n-word jokes and all the old accusations and allegations about blacks as soon as the blacks were out of earshot, but we didn’t think there was anything wrong with that, ’cause surely the blacks did the same about us, right?
Not only did we think we weren’t really racist, but we assumed that the blacks were just as racist against us. I remember when the miniseries Roots aired in 1977 (or was it ‘76?), we thought that the quote by Kunta Kinte that whites “smell like wet chickens” was proof that blacks were just as racist.
This is a very human thing: those who do wrong have a marked tendency to assume that others are just as corrupt as themselves. Those who steal from others tend to assume that others are just as full of larceny. Liars tend to assume that everyone else lies just as much (e.g. Trump). And racists tend to think that everyone else is just as racist. Again, my aim isn’t to excuse any of their actions, but to understand the motives that lay behind them.
a lie is the practical opposite of the truth, regardless of what the person thinks of their own actions. Otherwise, the Nazis’ belief that they were doing their country a favor with their ethnic cleansing removes the sheer hatred, horror, and vulgarity from those actions.
You’re absolutely right…but that wasn’t my point. A person who honestly believes a lie and tells that lie to others is not a liar, but simply someone who is ignorant and is spreading that ignorance to others. Look at all the evil done by so many religions — the believers of almost all those religions believe the lies that the preachers, the leaders of those religions have told them…and when they committed great evil in the name of religion, many (though certainly not all) of their adherents thought they were doing what was good and right in the eyes of their god(s) as they slaughtered those who were guilty of nothing more than believing in a different religion. Again, this does NOT excuse for even a moment the “sheer hatred, horror, and vulgarity” of their actions.
Now compare the example of the torture and massacres committed by religions to the lynchings of blacks in the Deep South. Almost without exception, the excuse for the torture and murder of the victim was that he raped a white girl, or looked at a white girl in a lascivious way and so was sure to rape her. As a result, many of those who attended the lynchings (and treated them as parties and family outings) honestly believed that they were there to see justice done…and it was generally only some of those present who knew the truth, that the black man being lynched was innocent of everything except for being born the wrong color.
Again, the vast majority of people - including racists - want to believe (and do believe) that they are good-hearted and well-meaning people. It really is as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said: “To do evil, a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good”. Yes, many criminals know that they are doing evil and even revel in the deed (e.g. the leaders and instigators of the religious massacres and of the lynchings)…but the great majority of people (the rank-and-file, the everyday people who work at the store or in the factories or on the farms) believe that they themselves are good-hearted and well-meaning people who are doing what is good and right.
This isn’t just with religion and racism, either, but with any evil of grand scale involving entire populations. Look again at what Herman Goering (who was certainly quite evil) said:
“Why of course the people don’t want war. Why should some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece? Naturally the common people don’t want war: neither in Russia, nor in England, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But after all it is the leaders of a country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or fascist dictorship, or a parliament or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peace makers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.”
War, religious massacres, endemic and pervasive and government-encouraged racism…these are all evils of grand scale (and are often interrelated as I’m sure you know). Now take Goering’s quote and change ‘war’ to ‘racial war’…and it becomes obvious: Of course the common people don’t want to dehumanize an entire race of people…but voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peace makers for lack of patriotism (and lack of racial pride) and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.
The German people were taught to dehumanize the Jews, to see them as less than human…and so tens of millions of otherwise good-hearted and well-meaning Germans followed the bidding of their leaders and thought that what they were doing was good and right. As a result, even the common everyday folk became horribly racist against Jews…and thought that it was good and right to do so, never realizing how they had been deliberately led down that path by their leaders. Of course, this does not by any means excuse their evil. It only means that they allowed themselves to be seduced into committing great evil just as Goering described above.
If you’ll think about it, this has a great deal in common with “mob psychology” in which people wind up doing what they would never otherwise do. But what happens when that “mob psychology” is extended not just across decades, but is self-perpetuated across generations, across even centuries? When people are taught from cradle to grave by parents, family, and friends to be so racist even as they are taught to otherwise be good-hearted and well-meaning?
There’s thousands of videos available today showing whites being horridly racist towards nonwhites…but in the great majority of those cases, if you were to be able to talk to them in a different, calm setting and found that except for the racism they’d been taught since birth, they were otherwise truly good-hearted and well-meaning people who were guilty of nothing more than being seduced as Goering described? Should they then still be considered morally bankrupt?
And that brings me to the main reason behind my too-long diatribe above, to the key to applying the solution you yourself presented:
I’m about educating people as to how their behavior and beliefs are unacceptable (racist). And that usually comes from people being exposed to other points of view or spending time in the company of “others” or having their behavior called out.
Yes, you are absolutely right that that’s what needs to be done, but the “how” is every bit as important. When it comes to the common people, yes, point out that this or that act was racist…but do not be too quick to accuse them of being racist, for when a person (who believes himself to be good and well-meaning and not evil) is accused of evil, all that person will do is harden his heart. Sun Tzu said, “Build your enemy a golden bridge to retreat across.” In human interaction, this means to judge the person’s actions, and not the person himself…and thus give the person a chance to correct his attitude and conduct (and so earn their eventual gratitude) instead of socially condemning that person (thus earning their unending enmity).
That’s for the common, everyday folk like you and me. But as with so much else in life, it’s the leaders who most certainly are to be judged, to be exposed and castigated as evil, as racists, as reprobates who are not to be emulated, much less used as role models for one’s children.
My apologies for having typed such a long reply, but it’s a real pleasure for me to have such discussions, and I sincerely appreciate constructive criticism and accurate rebukes.