I spent last Sunday reading condemnations of others’ racism after Charlottesville. I read few investigations of self.
I’ve just returned from a road trip through Utah, Nevada, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming – country I’ve traversed, and loved, for years. Impassable red rock craters and spires. Rigid fields of irrigated potatoes. Windy plains evoking Mongolian steppes, dotted with antelope.
And every fifty miles or so, a town – sickening, dying, or dead. I’ve watched these little towns over the years, stopped in their gas stations and eaten in their cafes. I’ve seen how the movie house closed because it couldn’t afford a digital projector. How the musty old hotel restaurant, where you could get a steak under the stare of a stuffed buffalo head, has become a Denny’s. How a grocery store’s converted to an antique shop, as the keepsakes of a rural community bleed out through its last open orifice. How the diner we used to stop at because of the row of pickups out front is now empty, its windows painted over with dust-covered bald eagles and American flags. How it doesn’t take long, once the last business goes, for the buildings to bleach like bones.
Of course this is hardcore Trump country. Businesses are festooned with “Make America Great” signs. People’s country courtesy comes edged with resentment. I’ve always been an outsider, and I’m still a customer. But I’ve felt increasingly like an enemy. This trip, a motorcyclist passing the other direction flipped us off – I guess just for our Colorado plates.
Still, even after Charlottesville, I carry these people in my heart.
It goes deeper. My mother’s family came from northern Virginia. They owned a large farm, worked by slaves. They lost it to foreclosure around the Civil War, and two separate battles were fought near their land. The night Richmond fell, a boy of sixteen – my great-grandfather — guarded a dry-goods store with a pistol against fire, Union troops and looting locals. The landscape lay devastated by combat, the white social structure morally ravaged by slavery. Its people faced a terrifying future. My great-aunt wrote, in a memoir depicting our family’s struggle out of that awful shadow: “As a race we were afraid of negroes. That is the truth. The talk of keeping them in their place was merely a way of saying, ‘We’ll make them scared of us, so scared they won’t try anything.’” My great-uncle beat up a black man he’d been friends with as a child — at midday in the town square — because the man refused to call him “mister.”
Outwardly, I am none of these things. A professional, progressive Boulderite, I harbor no ideologies of racial separation or superiority. I have no trouble condemning the KKK. But we do not live in the world of Indiana Jones, where good guys punch out cartoon Nazis. The racism we must confront is not merely the tiki-torch variety. It’s our own in-group out-group hard wiring, overlaid with the history, power structures and acculturation of our regional, familial, and personal roots. By this standard, of course Donald Trump is racist. But so am I. When I meet a person, among the first things I notice is their race. Also, a quick flash of wariness. It has always been there.
The great damage wrought by Bannon and Trump is that they align such deep-rooted racism with our often legitimate sense of economic loss and cultural fear, and meld them into tribal resentment. People thus incited do not experience themselves as haters. What they feel is allegiance and safety. So they deny being – or at least feeling — racist. But the hatred and violence engendered are no less real.
Humans as a species are universally vulnerable to race-baiting like Bannon’s. Democracy’s defenders should condemn and confront it. But we — especially people of privilege — should also be honest about ourselves. The therapy for racism is not righteousness. It is understanding: of other, of self.
One morning last week we set out before dawn on Highway 50. The Great Basin opened up ahead, a carpet of black sage stopping at silhouetted cliffs, thrusting to indistinct peaks and ridgelines and tumbling bruises of cloud, dark grey, burgundy, pink — then suddenly breaking into orange fire. What had been a wash of soulful gloom abruptly turned every color, green, yellow, lavender, each proclaiming its particular self. Oncoming headlights faded to twinkles, like morning stars. Mary Chapin Carpenter crooned:
Oh my darling, oh my love,
The things we are made of.