Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

How Northam, Neeson Can Represent 'Racism Without Racists'

Virginia governor Ralph Northam's medical school yearbook page, showing a photo of a man in blackface and another man in a Klu Klux Klan costume.
The Washington Post
Getty Images
Virginia governor Ralph Northam's medical school yearbook page, showing a photo of a man in blackface and another man in a Klu Klux Klan costume.

Editor's note: This story contains offensive language.

A photo and a confession, both widely condemned as racist: The first, a page in the medical school yearbook of Virginia governor Ralph Northam, showing a picture of two men in blackface and KKK garb. The second, actor Liam Neeson's confession that he once went looking to kill an innocent black man after a friend was raped. Both men expressed regret, both denied they were racist. But how can there be racism without racists?

When Neeson blurted out the story of his racist vendetta after a close friend was raped 40 years ago, University of Texas history professor Peniel Joseph was shocked, not so much by what Neeson confessed to, as by his brutal honesty about hoping some "black bastard" would provoke him to murder.

Such candor is rare and welcome when it comes to race, says Joseph. He thought something good might come out of Neeson's painful revelation — but then the actor went on Good Morning America and declared "I'm not racist. This was nearly 40 years ago."

For Joseph, hearing that was frustrating, but not surprising. He says Neeson wanted to be forgiven and move on without really understanding the painful effect of both his past actions and his shocking confession. It seemed aimed at shutting down any further discussion, an impulse that Joseph says is shared by others in his position. "White people who get caught are quick to either claim a kind of racial ignorance, that 'I didn't know that this was bad,' a racial innocence, that 'I'm a good person' — or just, you know, 'I'm the victim right now.'"

And, he says, that kind of flat-out denial results in the strange phenomenon of racism without racists. "We live in a world of anti-black racism, but really no individuals who want to say, yes, proudly, 'I am a racist,' or 'I have these terrible feelings towards black people.'"

Stony Brook University professor Crystal Fleming says Neeson's vengeful hunt for an innocent black person to kill was racism of the highest order. "For me, I think immediately of the logic of lynch mobs, right, how so many innocent black men in particular were murdered because white mobs were just out looking for someone to kill."

Fleming says Neeson couldn't see the connection between lynch mobs and his own violent racial impulse, so he couldn't understand how his story might affect black people. Fleming, who is also the author of How to Be Less Stupid About Race: On Racism, White Supremacy, and the Racial Divide, says that since the civil rights movement, most whites have learned to keep their racist thoughts to themselves, even as systemic racism has continued.

"It became increasingly problematic to admit to one's racist views in public," she says. "And in the context that we've been living in for the last few decades, we have the persistence of gross inequalities, the persistence of institutionalized racism. And yet, you look around, very few people admit to having a role in perpetuating racism or benefiting from it."

The belief that racism ended a long time ago is very common among white people, Fleming says, and they view racism simply in terms of their personal dealings. Governor Northam is a good example. Here's how he's described his behavior as a practicing doctor: "I can tell you I treat everyone the same way. Nobody has ever thought or accused me of being racist, and if and when I practice again, I will continue that same direction."

When Christopher Emdin met Northam at a conference for educators, he was impressed by the Governor's views on race. He thought of Northam as "one of the good guys." Then, his yearbook photo came out. Emdin, a professor at Columbia's Teachers College, felt betrayed. "You really feel like you have an ally," he says, "and when you realize that you don't, there's a bit of a feeling of being duped."

Emdin says a lot of white people talk a good game, but he believes blacks and whites have a very different idea about what it means to be racist. "There are a lot of white folks who think, well, I understand social justice. I can say black lives matter, and because of that I am absolved of any past racist practices, or I can confess or profess to be not racist."

"I mean, what qualifies as racism in the average white person's mind?" asks Robin DiAngelo. "It would appear that nothing does." DiAngelo is the author of White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Race. She says most white people think a racist has to be an overtly bad person, like a Ku Klux Klansman — and even members of the KKK deny they are racist. Racism, she says, can be more subtle than that. "More and more, I think about being white as never having to bear witness to the pain of racism on people of color, and rarely ever being held accountable for the pain that I have caused people of color."

Some people think all we need to solve our racial problems is more open conversations, says Crystal Fleming, when what we really need is more action. "The question is, what are you actually doing to fight racism, because if you are not challenging it, you are reproducing the racial status quo." Racism is learned, Fleming says. And it's time to teach everyone about the history of racism and its hard aftermath. Then, perhaps, an informed conversation can begin.

This story was edited by Ellen Silva and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Lynn Neary is an NPR arts correspondent covering books and publishing.