One of the strangest things you do when you fiction is to inhabit your characters in real time. One responds not as MIchael Gruber (incidentally, a really terrific guy, loving, kind to a fault, mild) but as Mr. (or Ms.) X, a fictive person. I may discover myself feeling sorrowful on behalf of this character, for example, yet I am actually happy at that moment and were I sorrowful I would not be sorrowful in quite that way. It's an uncanny sensation and hard to convey to those who are, well, just one person most of the time. Why writers tend to be a little nuts.
This gets tricky, of course, when the character is a son of a bitch. Inhabiting such a person is painful, which is why it's not often done, and why most villains in popular fiction are cardboard melodrama bad guys or grotesque bogeyman. And what if your guy is a racist? What does that feel like? What combination of hate, fear, guilt? Where derived and how expressed?
And what you find when you really let this material come into your conscious life is that, contrary to what you had believed, there is plenty of latent racism working around down there where the Shadow dwells. This has a sobering effect, because any hatred of racism you may feel is now not a mere social gesture, like not chewing with your mouth open, but personal, deep, and angry, and also, paradoxically, you have also become capable of real sympathy with racism and racists. They have a story too, even if can't be told in public anymore.
There are joys in racism. There must be, or so many people would not have embraced it and indeed constructed their whole lives around it. The existence of an underclass, and the ability of the overclass to define itself as naturally superior to it, is a huge psychological support. The member of the superior caste may be ignorant, abused by his employer, poor, and oppressed, but he is at least not an underperson. No one can take that away from him--it is his birthright. It's what we have in America instead of aristocracy; is in fact a democratization of aristocracy--all the people in the overclass, white people in our nation, are little lordlings in relation to the canaille, who are black. And, when the frustrations of his miserable life and the status anxieties that eat away at his sense of self-worth get to be too much, he can find a random underclassman and do violence to him, or her, without fear of punishment. This makes him feel better, which is another part of his birthright.
But such caste relationships are untenable given the core American belief about human relations--that we are all equal before the law and as members of society. Our aristocracy is supposed to be one of achievement rather than birth. Even Jim Crow was at one time ludicrously defined as being merely "separate but equal." In fact, though, the underclass cannot be seen as equal, else the abuse loaded upon it by the overclass would be unjust and rot the consciences of its members who, this one thing aside, consider themselves models of decency, as we all do. So the abuse must be the fault of the underclass. They must be (if black, for example) lazy, violent, sexually loose, criminal. If Jews, for example, they must be unfairly clever, greedy, dishonest, disloyal, lascivious and bent on world domination.
The problem with this convenient belief is that it can be easily belied. It is relatively easy to find black people who are superior to extremely large numbers of white people in talent, intellect, and moral stature , and the same with Jews (unclever, honest, continent and uninterested in world domination) or with any other underclass. The racist response to this showing is either that the example is an extreme outlier and therefore irrelevant to the class arrangement, or, in the particular case of black Americans, that the achievement was fraudulently gained, and not deserved, unlike the achievements of the overclass, which are believed the result of a perfectly fair playing field.
Racism is hard to get past because it is not an intellectual position, but a character defense and a source of deep psychological satisfaction. (The intellectual positions cocked up as a result of prior racism are typically nonsense.). These satisfactions cannot now be voiced, except in little covens of white supremacy, which makes them even harder to deal with. No one can stand up before the broad public and say, "White people have a God-given right to cheat, abuse, injure, kill or rape any black person, without consequence, and exclude them if possible from any social good whatever." Even in the old days people couldn't really say that. They just talked malarkey about tradition and separate but equal. Then came the civil rights revolution. a great event of which, the I Have a Dream Speech, has it's anniversary today. After which, the racist can only fume, deprived of his outlet, his scapegoat. He hates that it is now civil death to utter naked racism in public, but as we understand from the perpetual outbursts that make the news, it continues to flow strongly in the deep hidden currents of the national psyche. They are twisty and paradoxical currents to be sure. No nation has done better at integrating people from different ethnicities and cultures than the US, and yet in no nation is race so central a preoccupation, and with this preoccupation comes a horror of actually dealing with the problem. This is our true national psychosis.
It has poisoned politics from the beginning of the republic, the poison more toxic in that it was denied by those who practiced it. The Civil War was not about slavery, for example. Our darkies are content, or would be without these outside agitators. We are beyond racial barriers to voting, so we can safely scuttle the Voting Rights Act. We have a Black President so we can congratulate ourselves on having solved the problem. But the problem continues. Does anyone believe that the support of the Republican Party in the old South is unconnected with its racial history? The switch from a solidly Dem south to a solidly GOP south is the most significant change in American politics in my lifetime and it is very largely due to race and the forced end to Jim Crow engineered by LBJ and the Supreme Court.
We tend to underestimate the power of shame and conventional morality: even modern Nazis are forced to deny the Holocaust. None with any public following now urges a resumption of the Holocaust, lauding it as a good thing. Even the original Nazis tried to keep their exterminations a secret. Shame made the civil rights movement succeed. "We're not like that," said the majority of Americans when they saw on TV what southern policemen were doing to peaceful black demonstrators,or the famous photos of hate-filled white faces directed at peaceful kids who just wanted a good education. So the civil rights movement triumphed and we are a better nation for it, but every white person was by that triumph made free to dump their shame, and deny responsibility for the social catastrophe represented by the presence in their midst of a population crushed by generations of misery and abuse.
The fashion for rabid styles of racism having faded, racists have learned to be nice. They say, in effect, you made us get rid of institutional racism and look here! So many black people are poor and miserable even though there is no more racism. It must be their own damn fault! Thus the emergence of the nice non-racist racist, full of advice for the improvement of the black family. Here we see the true depth of the racism we all share. It is not even necessary to hate. Those charitably disposed (and guilty) toward the black population can be just as racist as guys with forehead swastikas, a fact black people are not slow to point out. That fixing the ills brought on by three centuries of racism may require a period of compensatory racism is a non-starter in America, of course. Why? Because we hate racism! Especially anti-white racism.
The efforts of those who deplore this denial and promote a retention of shame are fitful now and fading in power, because shame is an extremely unpleasant emotion to carry. Much more bearable is a sense of victimhood, our famous white whine, now raised to the status of nearly a political party. Much of this is nonsense--the ruling class of the most powerful and richest nation in human history bewailing its sad fate--but some of it is not, is the beginning of genuine terror. One generation hence the US will no longer be a white majority nation. The right populism we currently observe is just the latest occurrence of a familiar national trope. It was marshaled against foreign Catholics in the 1850s, against immigrants in the 1890s, and now here it is again, railing against Mexican immigrants and the alien in the White House. And as before it is being controlled and manipulated by a feral capitalism that wants freedom from the constraints imposed by government. It is for this reason that lower-middle-class people will continually and enthusiastically vote for the boot that crushes their faces. They will surrender everything--their work, their homes, their hopes for their children, their health--as long as they can get back at the hated Other, and the friends of the hated Other, "who give them everything."
Again, nothing of this can be voiced. What presents instead is a smokescreen of crackpot economics, and abortion and prayer in schools and homosexuals and guns, as we shuffle toward becoming a gigantic Honduras, and I believe the true hope of this movement is that somehow it will happen that there will again be a caste below their feet. It may not even be black people, or all black people, but someone.
I'm not saying racists shouldn't be shamed; but we have to be careful not to do to racists what racists do to those in groups they despise. We can't say, I am pure and thou art not and therefore I am free from the national curse. It's like original sin--everybody got some, and the people we call saints are saints because they fully recognize it in themselves, they relinquish the easy comfort of denial and thus avoid spiritual pride. I've committed racist acts, and had racist thoughts, and made racist statements, like virtually every American, black or white or other. It shames me, but I am required to bear the shame, and try to do better. Otherwise the dream voiced fifty years ago remains a mere pretty fantasy.