Adam Mansbach 2008

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"I am not a racist."

“I am not a racist.”

So said former president Bill Clinton this week, reflecting on his role in his wife’s failed campaign during an interview with ABC News – a campaign during which he was accused of race-baiting, and which has undoubtedly left his once-strong relationship with the black community in tatters.

“I’m not a racist, that’s what’s so insane about this.”

So said Seinfeld’s Michael Richards in 2006, explaining himself on The David Letterman Show after a video surfaced of him dropping multiple n-bombs on a black heckler at a comedy club. 

So says, inevitably, everyone accused of racism, whether rightly or wrongly.  My point is not to conflate Clinton with Richards, though they share a love of cigars and a certain sense of comic timing, but rather to unpack the word itself. 

This isn’t a fourth-grade essay, so I won’t be quoting Websters.  The question is not what it says after ‘racist’ in the dictionary, but what we take the term to mean – and in particular, the ways in which we seem willing, even eager, to divorce a deed from the mindstate that birthed it. 

Richards, clearly in a state of shock, sought to explain his own perplexity by assuring us that he was not a racist, just a guy who did something incredibly racist.  Mel Gibson, who disgraced himself with an anti-Semitic rant the same year, made a similar argument..  Racism, both men seem to agree, is a mindstate, and one they do not hold.  Thus, they should be forgiven for acting racist, and we should accept that even they are baffled by where such sentiments come from.  Realize that they were flustered, or drunk, and write it off.

It is a dramatic reversal of the standard criteria for judgment.  Usually, we seek to be judged by our actions, not our thoughts, and we accept that the former is a manifestation of the latter.  But in Richards’ statement, and Gibson’s – and, if one reads between the lines, Clinton’s as well – there is a circular logic at work, one that cuts to the very heart of a certain pervasive strain of racism.

I speak not of outright, Klan-style racism, backed by dogma, but of the unconscious racism that is in many ways a more dire fact of life in this country.  Of those who, to quote KRS-One,  “say, ‘I’m not a racist, I’m not a bigot/yet they allow it to go on and won’t admit it.”  

Because he defines himself as progressive and colorblind (never mind the privileges his skin color affords him, whether he knows it or not),  the “unconscious racist” – to borrow KRS’s term – concludes that nothing he says is racist.  Mindstate trumps action; self-image defines mindstate.  And thus, anything that comes out of his mouth is, pre-approved, stamped as Not Racist.  How could it be?  He’s got a black golf partner, an Asian wife!  He gives money to the NAACP, for crying out loud!

Whether Clinton himself is a racist or merely a politician willing to exploit the racism of others ­– and specifically that of unconscious racists, since conscious ones were never going to support Obama anyway – is insignificant.  The matrix of self-justification that allows racism to flourish, unchecked – until it just slips out! From out of nowhere! What the…? –  will be around long after the former president folds his losing hand of race cards.


Adam Mansbach  books  events  bio  music  interviews  other writing