What It Means When They Say, “I am not a Racist, but”

I’m sure you’ve heard someone say, “I am not a racist, but…” and then go on to make some offensively racist remark. You hear it all the time in America these days.

City Councilman and local radio host Steve Blair of Prescott, Arizona, said it recently, in an attempt to whitewash opposition to “dark” faces appearing in a school mural.

Here’s Blair’s quote:

I am not a racist individual, but I will tell you depicting a black guy in the middle of that mural, based upon who’s president of the United States today and based upon the history of this community when I grew up, we had four black families – who I have been very good friends with for years – to depict the biggest picture on that building as a black person, I would have to ask the question, “Why?”

I’m not a racist by any stretch of the imagination, but whenever people start talking about diversity, it’s a word I can’t stand …. The focus doesn’t need to be on what’s different; the focus doesn’t need to be on the minority all the time…. Art is in the eye of the beholder, but I say [the Miller Valley mural] looks like graffiti in L.A….. I don’t see anything that ties the community into that mural.

The children depicted in the mural are actual students at the Miller Valley elementary school. And the boy that drew Blair’s criticism is of Mexican descent – as are many residents of the region. But that did not deter critics.

Randall Amster, an author, activist, and educator who lives in Arizona, explains in a “Truthout” article today that:

Blair was giving voice to a point of view that has dominated the political discourse here for generations. Indeed, R.E. Wall, director of the Prescott Downtown Mural Project, reported that he and the other artists experienced weeks of “tense working conditions” at the site, including regular racial slurs shouted from vehicles and passersby such as: “You’re desecrating our school,” “Get the ni–ers off the wall,” and “Get the sp-c off the wall.”

The initial article detailing the mural’s completion drew a spate of vitriolic and racially-charged online comments that mirrored these verbal assaults, which helped to trigger the furor. In an interview with the local newspaper, Wall observed that “the pressure stayed up consistently. We had two months of cars shouting at us.” Eventually, he said, the demands reached such a level that his group was asked by school officials to lighten the faces of the mural’s main subject, as well as the other children in the mural.

That’s the way it is in Arizona, where racism has become unusually blatant recently.

The border state has drawn fire for passing a law that – in effect – forces olive-skinned people to carry papers showing they have a legal right to be in the United States. And there’s more. Amster’s article points out that Arizona’s political leaders have also banned ethnic studies, dismissed teachers with accents, lauded “ethnic cleansing” policies, militarized the border, and tried to abolish the 14th Amendment (which makes anyone born here a citizen, even children of illegal immigrants).

You might dismiss this surge in racism as unique to Arizona, which has a history of outrageous behavior. But that would be misguided.

Polls show that most Americans support Arizona’s racist law as a way of coping with illegal immigration. And many of the signs and slogans carried by Tea Party protesters across the country are clearly racist.

Of course, racism is not universal in America. Racists are a minority – even in Arizona. The original mural had a lot of supporters in Prescott (photo above shows residents protesting the “lightening” of faces in the mural). And Blair’s remarks cost him his job at the radio station.

But, obviously, the influx of illegal immigrants from Mexico has ignited a spark of  racism that has been smoldering beneath the surface in America. And, just as obviously, the election of America’s first black president has triggered a racist backlash among a segment of the population.

But these bigots won’t admit their true motivation when they discriminate against ethnic minorities – or take potshots at President Obama. They find other reasons for their unfair – and often vicious – criticism. They insist they aren’t racist, but…