I'm not. And it's time for your shock to subside, too. There's a reason that people like this guy make complete fools of themselves in public. I'll tell you why, because I grew up with it.
I'm not sure if he's said it publicly, but in my correspondence with Tim Wise, he's noted that sometimes it's us, the white, liberal southern guys, who wind up with the largest cache of recognition for both blatant and not-so-blatant racism. And if he's right, it's because we've made it through decades of experiences that make displays at CPAC look like a meeting of Social Acceptance Club.
So you want to know why people like that guy exist? It's because his mindset is taught, enforced, reinforced, and bolstered in social institutions throughout the South. This sort of insidious hatred may be commonplace elsewhere, but I'll speak only of the area with which I'm most familiar.
A couple of years ago, I attended a church service at a large, well-attended Presbyterian church in the heart of Charleston, South Carolina. I was there with my girlfriend, and this being at the height of my personal theological exploration, I was highly skeptical of what I might hear. I'd been engaged in an intellectual struggle that many people that age tangle with - to God or not to God? I expected my disgust or distaste to center on comments made by the pastor on what theological item or another.
Then the children's sermon happened. All kids aged eight or younger were invited to the front of the church. A man who identified himself as an associate pastor began to speak. His words were aimed at the malleable kids, but they were loud enough for all to hear. He explained that this church was a pioneering institution in a city where slaves were openly traded on the streets. I knew better than to think I was about to hear some story of inspiration, though.
Rather, he went on to describe that church's role in the slavery movement. His characterization of the church made it sound so pure, until his details gave away the game. The church loathed slavery so much that it had donated its bell to the Confederacy so that they could make cannonballs. Imagine that sort of resolve? Wanting to do away with slavery so much that you volunteer to produce the very artillery designed to keep people in bondage.
He went on to describe the church's founder, who, according to that esteemed minister, was a model citizen. I began to think about the possibilities. Could it be? Was I sitting in the church started by a brave man who fought the slave machine in the hideous streets of beautiful Charleston? As it turned out, this particular church founder had actually owned slaves. But he was one of the good guys. I heard the clincher shortly there after.
Yes, kids, he did own slaves. But he made sure they were treated well.My face dropped in noticeable disgust, and I let out an audible sound somewhere between a "huh" and a sigh. The little heads at the front of the church nodded. And there wasn't any noticeable outrage in the pews. Just another day at the office in racist South Carolina.
A few years before that, my sister was getting married in a beautiful church a hundred miles up the South Carolina coast. It was Belin Methodist, a setting more known for its startling inlet views than its theology. The officiator of the wedding paused during the rehearsal, as he decided to provide a history lesson on a man named John Belin. That man, as you might guess, founded the church. In front of about a hundred people, this associate pastor told the story of John Belin, and it went something like this:
John Belin was a good man. He owned slaves...(pause)...but he treated them well.It's a fiction often repeated in homes, schools, and churches across states like South Carolina. The notion that you can rip a person from his home, drag him across the ocean, and put him into forced labor, but if you give him food and a roof, you're treating him well. The notion that a man can be treated well while having his basic dignity and humanity violated is both absurd and disgusting. But it's a routine opinion where I'm from.
After all, who wouldn't want to live under the hand of vile racists? The opinion is often buttressed by claims that "we" did "them" a favor by bringing them to the United States. Some things stay with you. I can still remember the first time I heard a classmate, aged seven, tell my teacher that she was wrong, and that the Civil War was really the War of Northern Aggression. I can still remember too clearly the words of an elementary school classmate who opined in class that we had actually helped those people by giving them a free ride to America.
You don't have to be a child psychologist to know that children don't come to these sorts of opinions on their own. Those opinions are pounded into them at home, where dads tell jokes about starving a black man by hiding his food stamps in his work boots. They're reinforced in Sunday school classes, where otherwise respected "teachers" tell kids that the Christian thing to do was to treat your slave well. After all, those were the times.
It's a historical fiction repeated often in conversations about the country's founding. Confront one of these racists about why the country should rely upon the moral opinions of men who thought it was alright to own other men, and you'll be corrected quickly. Those founders might have owned people and exploited those people for economic gain, but they didn't like it.
Is it any surprise that gains in racial equality have been slowed and stifled over the last few years? In our communities - homes, churches, schools - across a large chunk of the country, many kids are taught to not even be ashamed of the racist slave heritage. If we can't get these people to admit that slavery is an abhorrent stain on the legacy of this country, do we have any chance of convincing them that disproportionate arrest and prosecution rates are another form of Jim Crow? How can we convince a South Carolina state legislature that passing voter ID laws to disenfranchise black voters is wrong when they're not even convinced that slavery was all that bad? You know, as long as you treated your slave well, it wasn't all that bad. And as long as there's a line - even if it's 10 hours long - in which a person can vote, it isn't all that bad, right?
People like this very small man at CPAC do not surprise. In fact, they are the norm in places all over the South, where overt racism does not even earn a person status as a social pariah. I played golf with a person - a friend of a friend - over Christmas who stated his opinion that he might try to cheat on his taxes this year, because, you know, 99% of niggers do it.
Right there, in my cart, I was left a bit shocked, and more than that, wondering how in the world I was involved in a golf foursome with a person who thinks it's fine to characterize an entire race of people as dishonest while using the most hideous word in the language.
But there I was, reading putts with him, a guy who undoubtedly learned in elementary school that slavery was just "a way of life during that time." I realized quite quickly that his mindset wasn't the outlier. In fact, it might have been the default in some of the backward towns across the Confederate South.
When you see the people like the man at CPAC, don't be surprised. Realize that this is what we're up against, and the liberty of all people depends upon our ability to ensure that these mindsets are not institutionalized in the laws of either our nation or our states.