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.