Two Ways to be Wrong

I discovered a piece of racist literature on my walk yesterday.

At first glance it looks quite innocuous. The flyer that was up on the lamppost is two-thirds picture, showing a smiling woman holding a smiling child, the woman looking quite modern in shorts and close-cropped hair, the child of indeterminate gender. And under the picture, these exact words:

We must secure the existence of our people and a future for White children”

It struck me, when I first read that sentence, how it could become an almost universal statement with the removal of that single word, “White.” So it is almost subtle, and even with that critical word included, it is still framed in such a way that someone concerned with children and heritage could be taken in by it. And that troubled me.

It also troubled me that, until I noticed the word “White” that I thought nothing of the fact that both woman and child in the picture are, in fact, white.

Moreover it troubled me that the person who posted this flyer—apparently a recruiter for an organization I’ll not name—picked the neighborhood well: Bridgeport is a historically white neighborhood with some dark patches in its past, bordered to the north by Chinatown and to the east by Bronzeville, the historic heart of Chicago’s black population.

But none of that troubled me as much as this: Adrian and I started finding these flyers around the neighborhood months ago, last fall. If I had to guess, I would say that the recruiter came through, put up a bunch of flyers, and then left. The two that Adrian and I found months ago were in good shape; this one, that I found yesterday, has clearly been through the Chicago winter.

Which means that this flyer has probably been up for several months and nobody took it down.

Now, I walked past it myself any number of times and simply never noticed it. But I cannot believe that nobody stopped to read it between when it first went up and when I finally spotted it. I am certain that at least some people read it. Yet there it was on that warm March afternoon when I came along and did what I did with the other two: I ripped it down.

So there are two ways to be wrong. Two ways to be racist. One way is positive, and that is rare: actively recruiting people for a white supremacist/white separatist movement, creating fancy flyers and distributing them through the neighborhood. The other way is negative, and that is all too abundant: passively doing nothing to oppose the actions of the active few. You don’t have to agree with such racist speech in order to be racist: you merely have to let it go by without taking a stand against it. Racism, in the technical definition, is prejudice plus power. In the case of the flyer-distributors, there’s not a lot of power—it’s not on the same level as slavery or the War on Drugs, by any means—but there’s some, and their separatism is an echo of the old “Free Soil” and “separate but equal” laws. In the case of those people who saw the flyer, read it, and did nothing, however, the power in question is much more obvious: they had the power to do what I did, to make the world a slightly safer place for people of color. The failure to use power to do good is abuse of that power. As Jay Smooth put it recently: “There is nothing that does more to perpetuate injustice than good people who assume that injustice is caused by bad people.” Or as John Stuart Mill (not Edmund Burke) put it: “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.”

To make myself plain: I do not deny the white supremacists their right to free speech. The First Amendment, however, says nothing about the right to speak without having to take any consequences whatsoever. The flyer-makers have every right to print out their hate speech and plaster it all over Chicago. But I have an equal right to follow them around and tear it all down again. Indeed, I have a duty—not constitutional but ethical and moral. “Love your neighbor as yourself,” I am commanded; well, I shall. I shall love my neighbors of color by tearing down such signs and I shall love my racist flyer-distributor neighbors by keeping them from harming anyone with their words.

But everyone else has a similar duty to love their neighbors. Some have failed in that duty by speaking hate. Most have failed in that duty by not holding the hateful to account.

There is this much hope: I presume the flyer-distributor did not print just three copies. Yet Adrian and I have only seen those three. So other people out there are doing their job.

In the end, racial justice in the United States is not determined by the few white people who post racist flyers or the few black people who become president, but by the mass of us in the middle. It is determined by those who refuse to look away, who refuse to cross to the other side of the road and Not Get Involved. Racism will not end if most of us simply try not to be racist. It will only end if most of us actively set out to destroy it, for the sakes of all our neighbors.

8 thoughts on “Two Ways to be Wrong

  1. What if the flyer had read this way?

    ““We must secure the existence of our people and a future for Black children”

    What would your reaction have been? Would you have seen that as racist? Just curious.

    • My reaction to something like that? Wholehearted approval, especially with the large number of young black people being killed (by cops, white people, or each other) or locked away for years.

      Would a flyer like that have been racist? No, not at all. Remember, racism is prejudice + power. Black people have rarely held much power in this country, the current occupant of the White House notwithstanding. So a flyer like the one you describe would be one that would be supporting the weak, whereas the one I tore down was essentially trying to reinforce the already strong.

      Consider this: if you’d been alive during World War II and, walking down the street, you’d seen a flyer that said “We must save the Jews of Germany”, wouldn’t that provoke a completely different reaction than a flyer that said “We must save the Germans of Jewlandia”? The former would be an appeal to right a real wrong; the latter would basically be nonsense, because the Germans weren’t the ones being threatened.

      Same thing here. White people in the US, with vanishingly few exceptions, have never been generally threatened by black people. Black people, in contrast, have been generally threatened by white people right along.

  2. “large number of young black people being killed”

    In reality the vast majority of blacks who are killed are killed by other blacks. Those killed by police are a tiny number in comparison. Blacks typically commit about 52% of all homicides in the U.S. where the race of the offender is known although they are less than 15% of the population. Blacks are almost 8 times more likely to kill someone than a whites. That comes from FBI statistics over the last 20 years or more.

    “racism is prejudice + power.”

    Personally I don’t buy that definition. Racism is racism regardless of color or power. It is however a convenient definition that allows many blacks to pretend their own racism does not exist.

    The reality is when you see people of another race and reach judgments about them based on that fact then you are racist. Period.

    I am old enough to have seen signs in train stations in America with signs designating which race was designated to drink from them. I also saw Dr. King deliver his “I Have A Dream Speech” live on a black and white TV. At that time white racism was a very big problem in this country. My observation, having seen a lot of American history and having participated in it, is that black racism is as big a problem today. Just my view.

    I wrote the following on my blog a while back:

    Racism is inherent in the human condition. Humans are wired to see differences and draw conclusions about the meaning of those differences based on experience. Humans are wired to identify “we” and “them” and differences of sex and color are two big and obvious differences.

    There is nothing immoral or inhuman about naturally drawing such conclusions. The mechanisms are largely below the conscious threshold. This is as true of black, yellow, and red children as of white children. All are born natural racists and bigots.

    The point of education is to bring the rational mind and the heart into the conversation and help it see the evidence that there is more that unites than divides, to see the humanity in all that underlies the differences. There is nothing inherently awful about starting out life as a racist and a bigot. It is the human condition. The tragedy is is not in how we start, but in how we end.


  3. Why yes, most black murder victims are in fact killed by other black people — and most white murder victims are killed by other white people. This is likely due to the rather considerable segregation which still exists: black people mostly live around black people and white people live around white people. And yes, police-caused killings are indeed only a fraction of total shootings (though how much of one, we can’t really say — the FBI statistics you mention are incomplete, as police departments have not been good about reporting police shooting statistics).

    As to the definition of racism: yes, it does sound wrong, doesn’t it? However, it’s a fairly new re-definition that’s gaining traction. According to the folks who thought it up, what you’re describing is prejudice, and you’re quite right that it flows in all directions.

    The key, however, is that while many black people are indeed prejudiced against whites, there hasn’t been a centuries-long history of black people having the power to act on that prejudice. There has been no equivalent of white Americans being carried off to Africa to be enslaved, no “Jim Dove” laws that made white people sit in the back of the bus, no black version of the Klan. In short, the US has never had a system where blacks dominated and whites were subjugated. So many historians and theorists felt they needed to distinguish between individual people being horrible to each other for no reason besides skin color, and a *system* in which large groups of people were stomped on by another. They’ve decided that prejudice is a good word for personal bigotry, whereas racism is a good word for the systemic problem. It’s entirely fair to quibble about the exact terms so long as you recognize the very real historical pattern of unbalanced power — a pattern which still has a terrible effect on the present day, though it has become rather more subtle.

    In short: yes, there are black people who are bigots, and that’s something that they and their friends and family should look to, on a case by case basis. But it’s the white bigots who made the *rules* for generation upon generation — and to deal with that problem, we all need to contribute, white people most of all. Personal bigotry needs personal solutions. System-wide problems require everyone living in the system to work for change.

    Does that make sense?

    • “…there hasn’t been a centuries-long history of black people having the power to act on that prejudice.”

      Actually slavery is an age old tradition in Africa and still exists in parts of Africa. The religion of Islam sanctions slavery and more Africans died being transported to Muslim countries than died being transported to the Americas in that era. Black author Thomas Sowell discusses this in some of his books.

      Thomas Sowell in his book “Black Rednecks And White Liberals” points out that there were more than a few free blacks before the Civil War who also owned black slaves (he mentions in particular New Orleans). It is a good read by the way.

      Slavery is a human tradition going back before pre-history. No race has been immune from being slaves, and being slave-masters.

      “There has been no equivalent of white Americans being carried off to Africa…”

      Do you know where them modern word “slave” comes from? Ever heard of a race in Europe called the Slavs?


      “…there was a time not so long ago when Europe exported slaves on a large scale. Between 1500 and 1650, Eastern Europe exported 1.5 million slaves to North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia (Fisher, 1972; Kolodziejczyk, 2006). Western Europe exported a little over a million between 1530 and 1780 (Davis, 2004).”

      The true glory of Western Civilization, and particularly Britain and the U.S., is that it was successful in eliminating slavery in large parts of the world. Britain sent warships to the S. Atlantic to stop it at great expense to themselves.

      Instead of being ashamed of our history with slavery, we should be proud of our role in banishing it from most of the civilized world (and I mean both white and black Americans should share that pride). Both black and white Americans died in the Civil War to end slavery, the bloodiest war America has ever fought.

      “They’ve decided that prejudice is a good word for personal bigotry, whereas racism is a good word for the systemic problem.”

      Modern black violence and racism are a systemic problem and given the current proclivities of the Left and the media it looks to get a lot worse.

      “System-wide problems require everyone living in the system to work for change.”

      I don’t disagree, but before you can solve a problem you must fully come to understand it. Blacks need to look to their own culture and see its very glaring deficiencies (read the Sowell book I mentioned) and stop blaming whites and history for all of their problems. Also if whites really are interested in helping blacks the first thing they need to discard is unearned guilt over what happened in the past beyond their control. Whites also need to remember the very real sacrifices they have made to end racism and prejudice in modern America. On their side they have been very successful – I say that as witness to what happened from the 1950s to today.

      Unfortunately much of that goodwill and sacrifice has been wasted due to politics, but that is another discussion.


  4. Friend, I don’t think we’re going to come to any agreement online, since I don’t think we’re communicating properly. If there were a more expressive way to take up this conversation elsewhere, I’d be interested. But for now I’m just going to call it a day and leave this here:


    That is an amusing cartoon. 🙂

    Good luck in your studies. I would make one suggestion, a method a friend once told me about in regards to finding truth. Figure out which way the majority is looking, then turn around and look in the opposite direction. A lot of truth can be found looking in the opposite direction of the crowd.


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