“And more often than not,” observed Elizabeth Davis, “white people see racism as an issue of manners more than anything else.” Her remark was prompted by a recent debacle within the Romance Writers of America but almost immediately it struck me again just days later as white people like Judy Woodruff and Joe Scarborough reacted to the death of Don Imus, conveniently ignoring his racism because, after all, he’d been good to them.
(Contrast with, once upon a time, the late, great Gwen Ifill taking to task both Tim Russert and David Brooks—to their faces—over their silence regarding Don Imus. Parenthetically, keep this in mind the next time you’re worshipping at the Russert altar just because Chuck Todd is overly and objectively bad at Russert’s old job.)
It’s almost always more uncouth to white people to call out racism than to be racist (or to ignore the racism of people who have been good to us), and it should be no surprise that other media figures whitewashed Imus’ meanness and his ugliness out of some sense of decorum apparently owed the racist deceased and their families—or, indeed, to these other media themselves. There’s always some reason why white people aren’t supposed to talk about white people being racist, and Davis is right that somehow it always seems wrapped up in a question of manners.
It’s not real racism, we believe, if its genteel or at least merely subtextual. It’s not nice, we insist, to speak ill of the racist dead.
White people are nothing if not adept at using manners for the sake of our own comfort and convenience. For some reason, we never consider it to be a problem of manners that we inflict, adding insult to their injury, our self-protective sense of decorum upon the targets of people like Don Imus.