ONTD Political

The Good, Racist People

Last month the actor Forest Whitaker was stopped in a Manhattan delicatessen by an employee. Whitaker is one of the pre-eminent actors of his generation, with a diverse and celebrated catalog ranging from “The Great Debaters” to “The Crying Game” to “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai.” By now it is likely that he has adjusted to random strangers who can’t get his turn as Idi Amin out of their heads. But the man who approached the Oscar winner at the deli last month was in no mood for autographs. The employee stopped Whitaker, accused him of shoplifting and then promptly frisked him. The act of self-deputization was futile. Whitaker had stolen nothing. On the contrary, he’d been robbed.

The deli where Whitaker was harassed happens to be in my neighborhood. Columbia University is up the street. Broadway, the main drag, is dotted with nice restaurants and classy bars that cater to beautiful people. I like my neighborhood. And I’ve patronized the deli with some regularity, often several times in a single day. I’ve sent my son in my stead. My wife would often trade small talk with whoever was working checkout. Last year when my beautiful niece visited, she loved the deli so much that I felt myself a sideshow. But it’s understandable. It’s a good deli.

Since the Whitaker affair, I’ve read and listened to interviews with the owner of the establishment. He is apologetic to a fault and is sincerely mortified. He says that it was a “sincere mistake” made by a “decent man” who was “just doing his job.” I believe him. And yet for weeks now I have walked up Broadway, glancing through its windows with a mood somewhere between Marvin Gaye’s “Distant Lover” and Al Green’s “For the Good Times.”

In modern America we believe racism to be the property of the uniquely villainous and morally deformed, the ideology of trolls, gorgons and orcs. We believe this even when we are actually being racist. In 1957, neighbors in Levittown, Pa., uniting under the flag of segregation, wrote: “As moral, religious and law-abiding citizens, we feel that we are unprejudiced and undiscriminating in our wish to keep our community a closed community.”

A half-century later little had changed. The comedian Michael Richards (Kramer on “Seinfeld”) once yelled at a black heckler from the stage: “He’s a nigger! He’s a nigger! He’s a nigger!” Confronted about this, Richards apologized and then said, “I’m not a racist,” and called the claim “insane.”

The idea that racism lives in the heart of particularly evil individuals, as opposed to the heart of a democratic society, is reinforcing to anyone who might, from time to time, find their tongue sprinting ahead of their discretion. We can forgive Whitaker’s assailant. Much harder to forgive is all that makes Whitaker stand out in the first place. New York is a city, like most in America, that bears the scars of redlining, blockbusting and urban renewal. The ghost of those policies haunts us in a wealth gap between blacks and whites that has actually gotten worse over the past 20 years.

But much worse, it haunts black people with a kind of invisible violence that is given tell only when the victim happens to be an Oscar winner. The promise of America is that those who play by the rules, who observe the norms of the “middle class,” will be treated as such. But this injunction is only half-enforced when it comes to black people, in large part because we were never meant to be part of the American story. Forest Whitaker fits that bill, and he was addressed as such.

I am trying to imagine a white president forced to show his papers at a national news conference, and coming up blank. I am trying to a imagine a prominent white Harvard professor arrested for breaking into his own home, and coming up with nothing. I am trying to see Sean Penn or Nicolas Cage being frisked at an upscale deli, and I find myself laughing in the dark. It is worth considering the messaging here. It says to black kids: “Don’t leave home. They don’t want you around.” It is messaging propagated by moral people.

</b>The other day I walked past this particular deli. I believe its owners to be good people. I felt ashamed at withholding business for something far beyond the merchant’s reach. I mentioned this to my wife. My wife is not like me. When she was 6, a little white boy called her cousin a nigger, and it has been war ever since. “What if they did that to your son?” she asked.</b>

And right then I knew that I was tired of good people, that I had had all the good people I could take.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, a senior editor at The Atlantic, is a guest columnist. Nicholas D. Kristof is on book leave.

The incomparable Ta Nehisi Coates, writing for the New York Times
romp 8th-Mar-2013 07:46 am (UTC)
This is good. I like how he shows exhaustion but his wife reminding him of why the fight matters. It should have be white people questioning the deli owner however.
kagehikario 8th-Mar-2013 02:30 pm (UTC)
Thank you for sharing this.

It makes me think of a supermarket back in Alberta, in a small town down the highway. They have long posted a sign stating "no students at lunch hour", in response to perceived shoplifting by students from the nearby highschool. That school happens to be where the majority of first nations students and kids from the reserve attend.

This made me wonder, for the first time, would my white highschool self have been asked to leave?
lurkch 8th-Mar-2013 07:26 pm (UTC)
Maybe. The Canex at CFB Kingston had that attitude toward teenagers as well.
redstar826 8th-Mar-2013 08:34 pm (UTC)
In my experience just from working in retail, some stores don't like groups of teenagers in general. However, they can also be especially hostile to groups of teenagers who aren't white.
lb_x 8th-Mar-2013 10:55 pm (UTC)
I'm in Ontario, and there have been lunch hour bans on students in places near (predominantly white) high schools in my city. So while race might have something to do with it, it's also a teenager thing.
soleiltropiques 8th-Mar-2013 03:13 pm (UTC)
Thank you for posting this.

This is a really good piece, and very true.
moonshaz 8th-Mar-2013 03:19 pm (UTC)

I hate white people. We fucking SUCK.
shipperx 8th-Mar-2013 03:26 pm (UTC)
Good article. Thanks for posting.
redstar826 8th-Mar-2013 03:38 pm (UTC)
I see this a lot (and not just with race). Living in the north in a suburban area where most of my friends are Democrats or further to the left, you get a lot of the 'racism/sexism/homophobia etc aren't our problems' attitude. It's blamed on those other 'bad people', often with with a big dose of classism thrown in
yeats 8th-Mar-2013 04:50 pm (UTC)
TNC can be problematic when he writes about gender, but when he's on, he's fucking on. thanks for sharing this, OP.
maynardsong 8th-Mar-2013 07:00 pm (UTC)
What's he said wrong on gender? He's not like bill maher right?
yeats 8th-Mar-2013 07:09 pm (UTC)
oh no, nothing like that.... honestly i just find him so compelling on issues of race that sometimes when he makes a misstep in talking about gender (iirc he had a post about how "it's dumb that people call christina hendricks fat because men think she's hot") it disappoints me more than it probably ought to.
maenads_dance 8th-Mar-2013 09:07 pm (UTC)
Honestly I feel a lot safer over at TNC's blog as a woman than I do at some of the feminist blogs I read; he does say dumb stuff sometimes - part and parcel with being a man - but he's a lot better at walking back his mistakes.
yeats 8th-Mar-2013 09:32 pm (UTC)
yeah, it's definitely a personal quibble. i guess i felt burned by the christina hendricks thing -- and then a couple months after that, when he posted about the young, white civil rights activist and the comments involved a lot of people being amazed at how pretty she was. he writes good stuff, and i'm glad that the times has him, but as someone who got lambasted in the comments on both occasions, i felt let down by TNC. but that was a couple years ago, so maybe he's gotten better.
belleweather 8th-Mar-2013 11:17 pm (UTC)
Yes, and he ACTIVELY talked back to those commenters pretty hard-core in the moderation of that piece, and then the community as a whole went on to have a big and very intelligent discussion about why the people who said she was beautiful (me among them) said that, and what they meant, and why the people who felt that was inappropriate felt that way and what that means about women and how they're looked at in the world.

Seriously, dude is no saint. But if you're looking to critique him about not being perfect about gender, I think you may be cutting off your nose to spite your face, kind of.
yeats 8th-Mar-2013 11:43 pm (UTC)
:-/ ...i don't really know what to tell you? like, if it wasn't clear enough, i was one of those commenters -- on both occasions -- and i ended up feeling isolated and ganged up on in this post. after that, i checked myself out of the posts as a self-preservation method, so i don't know how the conversation developed. but the interactions here were painful enough that i don't really like rereading them, and i don't appreciate the intimation that i'm looking for "perfection."
belleweather 9th-Mar-2013 12:12 am (UTC)
I don't know... the thing I respect the most about TNC is that he's willing to fuck up, admit he fucked up and/or is clueless and try to learn better. And the whole "He's bad about women!!11eleventy!" (which might not be what you said, but is kind of what I heard?) thing bugs me because I learned a lot from that post, and I don't think we (like the movement of people for greater consciousness "we") get anywhere by expecting everyone to be perfect on all issues all the time. He's got great stuff to say about race from his lived and considered experience. He's not so great about women -- perhaps from a lack of lived experience? -- but is willing to admit he fucked up when he does fuck up. That goes a loooooong way for me. Maybe not for you, which is okay too.
yeats 9th-Mar-2013 12:18 am (UTC)
i just reread my comments, and i don't think i said what you're ascribing to me. like, at all. but i understand how easy it is to come out guns ablazin' when someone criticizes something you like, and i do appreciate what TNC has to say about race. as i said in the original comment to which you replied, i'm glad that the times is giving him a platform. my interactions with his work are just colored by this event, and i felt expressing that was relevant to the post at hand.
maenads_dance 9th-Mar-2013 04:15 am (UTC)
I don't think you're wrong to feel the way you do at all. I think TNC's place is worth a second look if you haven't been in the discussions for a while, but I totally respect you not wanting to comment there a lot.
cinnamontoast 8th-Mar-2013 05:49 pm (UTC)
I'm so happy to see this posted here. It was such a wonderful op/ed and the reader's picks for comments were really good.
apostle_of_eris 9th-Mar-2013 04:23 am (UTC)
No, actually. Physically assaulting customers is not part of his job.
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