How Northam, Neeson Can Represent 'Racism Without Racists' Virgnia Gov. Ralph Northam and actor Liam Neeson were both involved in actions widely condemned as racist. Both denied they are racist. It's a phenomenon known as "racism without racists."

How Northam, Neeson Can Represent 'Racism Without Racists'

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Virginia's governor, Ralph Northam, tried to get back to business as usual yesterday, meeting with state lawmakers about his agenda. Still looming, though - the controversy about that photo in his medical yearbook of a man in blackface, another in a white KKK hood. Recently, the actor Liam Neeson also got embroiled in a racial controversy. He confessed that he once went looking to kill an innocent black man after a friend was raped.

Both men expressed regret. Both denied they were racists. But can there be racism without racists? NPR's Lynn Neary explores that question. We should note her report includes language that may offend some listeners.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: When Liam Neeson blurted out the story of his racist vendetta after a close friend was raped 40 years ago, Peniel Joseph was shocked not so much by what Neeson confessed as by his brutal honesty.


LIAM NEESON: And I did it for maybe a week, hoping some black bastard would come out of a pub and have a go at me about something, you know, so that I could kill him.

NEARY: Such candor is rare and welcome when it comes to race, says Joseph, a professor of history at the University of Texas in Austin. He thought something good might come out of Neeson's painful revelation, but then the actor went on "Good Morning America" and declared...


NEESON: I'm not racist. I - this was nearly 40 years ago.

NEARY: Hearing that, says Peniel, was frustrating but not surprising. 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, says Peniel, that is shared by others in his position.

PENIEL JOSEPH: 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.

NEARY: That kind of flat-out denial, says Peniel, results in the strange phenomenon of racism without racists.

JOSEPH: 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.

NEARY: Neeson's vengeful hunt for an innocent black person to kill, says Stony Brook University professor Crystal Fleming, is racism of the highest order.

CRYSTAL FLEMING: 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.

NEARY: 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," says since the civil rights movement, most whites have learned to keep their racist thoughts to themselves even as systematic racism has continued.

FLEMING: It became increasingly problematic to admit to one's racist views in public. And in the contexts 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.

NEARY: The belief that racism ended a long time ago is very common among white people, says Fleming. And they view racism simply in terms of their personal dealings. Governor Northam is a good example. Here, he describes his behavior as a practicing doctor.


RALPH NORTHAM: And 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.

NEARY: 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.

CHRISTOPHER EMDIN: You know, you really feel like you have an ally, and when you realize that you don't, there's a bit of feeling of being duped.

NEARY: 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.

EMDIN: There are a lot of white folks who think, well, you know, I understand social justice. You know, I can say Black Lives Matter. And because of that, I'm absolved of any past racist practices, or I can confess or profess to be not racist.

ROBIN DIANGELO: I mean, what qualifies as racism in the average white person's mind? It would appear that nothing does.

NEARY: Robin DiAngelo is the author of "White Fragility." 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.

DIANGELO: 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've caused people of color.

NEARY: Some people think all we need to solve our racial problems is more open conversation, says Crystal Fleming, when what we really need is more action.

FLEMING: The question is, what are you actually doing to fight racism? Because if you're not actively challenging it, you're reproducing the racial status quo.

NEARY: Racism is learned, says Fleming. And it's time to teach everyone about the history of racism and its hard aftermath. Then, perhaps, an informed conversation can begin.

Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.


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