In light of Dylann Roof's repeated insistence, to both churchgoers and law officers, that he shot nine people to death in an attempt to start a race war, I found myself wondering why certain media outlets (oh, screw it, Fox News) and political candidates were so desperate to deny that's why he did it. Rick Santorum, for example, claimed Roof's motive was persecution of Christians and added, "What other rationale could there be?" I'm no telepath, so I can't say for sure, but it seems to me right-wing folks are so tired of being accused of racist motives that they'd like to pretend racism died around 2008. We often hear we live in a postracial world. Unfortunately, no matter how much we'd love for that assessment to be true, it just isn't.
I mean, I'm no racist. You're no racist, I'm sure. We're good people. We'd never burn a cross on someone's lawn or refuse someone housing on the basis of race or even call someone the N word. Right? So I guess that means none of us are racist.
Because Jon Stewart  is right: for many people in this country, racist attitudes and expressions and institutions are wallpaper, an everyday background to life. If you're African-American, getting pulled over by cops is a vastly different experience for you than it is for me. I know even if I'm guilty, the worst I'll probably get is a ticket. You don't know that, because you can't.
I'm biracial, genetically speaking. My father is Mexican-American, what some people (not my father, by the way) would call Chicano, and my mother is Clorox white. Yet I speak little Spanish. Truth be told, I feel white. In our twenty-first-century parlance, I "identify as" white. In some ways, I guess that makes me white. I look about as Hispanic as most of you do. When people meet me, unless they're concentrating on my last name, they don't see me as Latino, so I've gone through life facing little of the widespread dismissal faced by other members of my race. Is that a kind of "white privilege?" I suppose it probably is.
So I don't know the pain of racism firsthand. I was lucky enough to be raised in a religion that flatly rejects the worst behaviors and attitudes of racists. Mixed marriages were common in my congregation, and my babysitters were people of numerous races. When I moved to Oklahoma at age 14, I was shocked to hear slave-trader language come out of my grandfather's mouth. It wasn't long before I refused to ever speak with him again. I say this, not to wave away criticism, but to explain why I've been so slow to come around to the realization that I might be a little bit racist myself.
See, it depends on how deeply I see the problem. No, I would NEVER, EVER use the N word to describe anyone. EVER. I deplore it. I would never commit any violent act against a person because he or she had skin of a differing color from mine. I would never deny housing to a black family or tell hateful jokes about people of any given ethnicity. And that makes me wonderfully progressive...if this were 1959.
I ask that you join me in looking deeper. I ask that you join me in seeing, truly seeing, the racist wallpaper around us as a first step toward tearing it down. Because I've been guilty of some of what you'll read below. Very likely you have, too. And because of that, you'll immediately think to yourself, "But that's not racist!" because what you're really thinking is "I can't be racist! Racists are horrible people! I'm a good person! I love everyone!" And you do. I believe that. You do. We are all terrific people. But even terrific people can have wrong ideas or assumptions, and the longer we allow that to go on, the less livable our country becomes for so many of our friends and coinhabitants. I will not be a part of that anymore.
Racism is the belief that when you learn someone's ethnicity, you know something about their behavior. "Ah, she's Asian. I bet her mom was tough." "Ah, he's Hispanic. I bet he supports illegal immigration." "Ah, that family is Irish. Hide your liquor!"
Racism is the claim that they, whomever "they" are, "don't value life the way we do." It's the claim that "they don't value freedom the way we do." It's the claim that "they have so many kids, losing one doesn't make much of a difference to them."
Racism is the continued display of the Confederate flag...on anything, let alone a state building. And before you say, "It's tradition," remind yourself that Confederate tradition was all about slavery: the ownership of living, thinking, feeling human beings like yourself.
Racism is being more afraid of a dark man behind you at night than a light man behind you.
Racism is the fear of lingering or using ATMs in "black neighborhoods."
Racism is "It's okay for them to say it. They say it all the time. So why can't I say it?"
Racism is frowning at a seemingly ethnic name on a job application.
Racism is comedy that hinges on the notion that most members of a certain race possess a given quality.
Racism is the use of expressions like "gyp," "manifest destiny," "awful white of you," "jewed him down," "from the other side of the tracks," "Indian giver," "sold down the river," "paddy wagon," "mongoloid," and so on.
Racism is the idea that God ever had a "chosen people."
Racism is often referring to your friend, who happens to be black, as "my black friend."
Racism is asking the sole person of a given ethnicity in a room to speak for that entire ethnicity.
Racism is making sure the protagonist of a movie you're producing about a civil rights movement is white. You know: so people can relate.
Racism is "They're taking over our country" and/or "We need to take our country back."
Racism is "There goes the neighborhood."
Racism is "I can't be racist; I have black friends."
Racism is "They only voted for him because he's black."
Racism is the insistence that people should use the phrase "Islamic terrorism" more often.
Racism is the idea that Christianity or Judaism are inherently more peaceful than Islam.
Racism is annoyance about a Spanish-language option on a phone tree.
Racism is the feeling that immigrants should learn English--not because it would improve their economic opportunities, but because they just owe it to us.
Racism is discomfort around a doctor with an accent.
Racism is the belief that things were better before all this political correctness.
Racism is the belief that things were better back when everyone "knew their place."
Racism is the belief that black children are less innocent than white children, black teenagers less innocent than white teenagers.
Racism is the belief that even if a black man who was arrested (or perhaps even beaten) turns out to be innocent of that charge, he was probably guilty of something else anyway.
Racism is global. It is deep down in all of us. ALL of us. Me. It's in me. Sociologists tell us we operate on an algorithm called "kin selection," in which our tendency to protect and care for someone varies directly by how much that person physically reminds us of ourselves. Ergo, we love our families more than our neighbors, our neighbors more than other Americans, other Americans more than anyone else. I don't imagine that biological tendency will go away anytime soon; it's been inherited for thousands of generations. Yet we can keep a watchful eye out for its negative side effects. We can worry more about policing ourselves and less about keeping "them" in check.
I know you don't want to be racist. I don't, either. But racism isn't merely its most vicious or violent offshoots. It's the feelings we hide away, partly to be polite, partly to stay out of trouble, and partly because we're so prone to self-justification that we deny our own biases. Enough is enough. We may never be as racist as Dylann Roof--and yet all of us, myself included, can be better than we are.