Riley Cooper is a racist, but that doesn't necessarily make him a bad guy. Does it?
There has been a lot of hubbub about the Eagles wide receiver's "N-bomb." Cooper immediately apologized for the slur, and teammates, including quarterback Michael Vick, have publicly forgiven him. For a number of the black players, at least the ones who have spoken up so far, Cooper is a man they have known for several years, and they don't believe that he is a racist. They have too much everyday evidence to the contrary.
But the Cooper case is an important example of just how poorly most Americans understand racism. Or even what a racist is.
Part of the reason for our ignorance is the fact that we haven't had all that much time dealing with a world where people can't just be unabashed racists. Until the 1960s, a wide receiver could have hurled the N-word just about anytime and anywhere. Even elected officials were doing it. Some even gave speeches championing segregation. And not just in the Deep South. Being a racist was far from a dirty word.
One thing we've accomplished over the last 40 years is that we've made it hard for anyone to be a public racist, not if he wants to be taken seriously. Even when you do something ostensibly racist, like angrily calling someone the N-word, you still have to deny any real racial animus. Deny, deny, deny.
Cooper is clearly embarrassed. He wasn't raised that way, he says. And he doesn't believe himself to be a racist. And I think he means it. But if his outburst wasn't a textbook case of racism, what is?
For many Americans, if you aren't donning a white sheet and burning a cross on some black family's lawn, you can't really be a racist. Racism is supposed to be a 24/7 preoccupation. Hitler is your hero, and you openly sneer at anyone different from you.
That is certainly one version of what racism looks like, and its adherents are still out there. But racism has never worked exclusively that way, not even during chattel slavery and Jim Crow segregation, though society's institutional commitments to racial inequality have always been nonstop assaults on black bodies and spirits - and on the very humanity of its white beneficiaries.
Most people can't maintain the kind of single-minded hatred that such a caricature presupposes. It is time-consuming work. Even members of the Klan find other things to do. Because racists are never only racists. They are other things, too.
When I wrote about controversies like this one in my book Racial Paranoia: The Unintended Consequences of Political Correctness, I wanted to make a few claims that seem relevant in light of the Riley Cooper controversy.
First, it isn't as if we have the luxury of throwing people "off the island" whenever they say something racist or sexist. There is no place to send them. And if there were, eventually, there would be nobody left to banish.
Second, racism isn't something that we can intellectualize our way out of. It isn't just in our heads. It is in our hearts and souls, too. That's part of the reason it can bubble up in people who should ostensibly know better - or who don't seem to have many other explicit and ongoing racist commitments.
Third, black people who have substantive relationships with folks like Cooper have more of an incentive to do something other than just write them off and never speak to them again. We are always saying that we want to have "honest" conversations about race in America, but those are least effective when they are conversations between strangers. There's nothing to keep us talking once the dialogue starts getting intense, as any honest discussion about race would become.
Racism isn't a disease that some people have and others don't. It also can't be cured with a magic elixir or a good night's sleep. It takes work - and a vow to work in good faith with people from across the proverbial racial tracks, even when they display signs of their socialization by a racist society.
Our deep-seated commitments to race and racism actually work most powerfully when we don't see them working at all. When they sneak up on us, surprising us and those around us with what just came out of our mouths. Racism is hard to eradicate because it is good at fooling us into believing it isn't there to begin with - in the criminal justice system's racially lopsided scales or in residential segregation's economic, social, and cultural implications.
And even when racism jumps out and stares us in the face, we are way too invested in the rhetoric of colorblindness to even acknowledge its presence.