Quiet Racism

A reading and watching list in progress.

Brady G

Brady Gerber’s “7 For Seven”: Seven links on writing and creativity in your inbox by 7 AM EST every Wednesday and Headphone Nation and ARTS & FARTS music reviews. 1st Friday: a new short story. 2nd and 4th Fridays: interviews with writers. Read on your browser.


look closely

**NOTE: this newsletter with this mostly white cartoon originally went out right before a certain white out hashtag attempted to trend, which aimed to discredit the current legal protests that are drawing attention to targeted racial violence. If you were to glance at this cartoon on social media, it might have appeared to be in support of that hashtag. That is not the case, and that was not my intention. I’m sorry for causing any confusion.

It’s Wednesday morning. Oof.

And this week will be another long one. This will probably be my longest newsletter yet. I appreciate your patience and flexibility for this week, and I hope you take the time to read it all. Also, heads up that this Friday will feature a new short story.

Here are at least seven things to make your week more interesting:

  1. James Baldwin: “How to cool it”

    ESQ: “How can we get the black people to cool it?”

    BALDWIN: “It is not for us to cool it.”

    ESQ: “But aren't you the ones who are getting hurt the most?”

    BALDWIN: “No, we are only the ones who are dying fastest.”

  2. Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time / Nicholas Buccola’s The Fire Is Upon Us

    Staying on Baldwin for a moment. One of the best books I’ve read in a long time is The Fire Is Upon Us, a duel history on Baldwin and the influential National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr. before, during, and after their famous 1965 Cambridge Union debate on the question: “Is the American Dream at the expense of the American Negro?

    Baldwin is absolutely worth reading. His novels and essays are outstanding and frightening in their clarity. The Fire Next Time really is that good.

    Buckley also is worth studying. In fact, I believe that if anyone is to seriously study American politics and racism, it’s also worth learning about Buckley, one of the most articulate and influential leaders of late 20th-century “racism is bad, but law & order is more important” racism. Because for every one cartoony Trump supporter, there are dozens of quiet supporters, conservative and liberal, who embody what Buckley sold so well. These supporters don’t necessarily agree with Trump, yet they’ll stand by a President who also values a specific version of law & order that, whether they realize it or not, hurts more people than it helps people in our country - the kind of law & order that, when left alone, encourages the disproportioned hurting and killing of black people and other non-white people. Trump is a vessel for bratty, teenage racism. Buckley is the quiet, intelligent, behind-the-scenes racism.

    This week, I want to explore this quiet racism. Because I believe quiet racism upholds a very specific aspect of law & order that needs to change. (Trump is not helping, but these issues have existed before his Presidency.) Because this is the racism that hides in the background and, if you’re white like me, you might not see it unless you’re intentionally looking for it. Because it’s this quiet racism that we all encounter every day, in obvious and less obvious ways. Understanding the root of this quiet racism - how to identify it - I think is the key to learning how we can fix it. This is not the only solution we should address; I can only cover so much in one newsletter. It is not a solution to fix everything overnight. It is a practical first step that you and I can take, starting this morning. Educating ourselves - especially my fellow white friends - is an action. I love seeing all the call-to-actions on social media. I also want more of us to quietly (and offline) think about why certain things don’t change; to think and not just RT. It’s something that I think this newsletter can be a space for.

    Full disclosure for newer subscribers: I’m a straight cis white dude who grew up religious in a conservative part of the country. My home state also has historical and modern strong ties to the Ku Klux Klan ... the joke I heard about Indiana growing up is that, as a major headquarters of the KKK, it is the most northern southern state. So my home state - the environment where I was raised and educated - is a bizarre fusion of southern loud racism and northern quiet racism. (More on that later.) Moreso than usual, this week I’m writing to address my peers who also come from similar white backgrounds.

    I rightfully am not your first go-to as an authority to explain the pitfalls of modern politics, as someone who benefits the most from how this world is set up. I’m able to join protests when it’s convenient. I’m also able to step away knowing that I’m not the first target of any riot police. I have regretfully used the “there are good people on both sides” argument in the past without understanding what that implied. I’m a peacekeeper by nature, so my gut doesn’t want to immediately dismiss one’s desire to say “all lives matter.” I understand that, more often than not, your intentions are probably good by saying this phrase.

    (And yes, all lives do matter … including black lives. And black lives right now need more help than white lives. Wanting to support black lives does not make you anti-white. “All lives matter,” even when you don’t mean to, takes away the attention of those who need help right now; I’ve heard the comparison that it’s like going up to someone drowning and saying, “I matter, too!”)

    I also am writing about quiet racism from experience, as I can recall many moments in the past when I used quiet racism with my attitude, my language, and my actions without realizing what I was doing. I am ashamed and sorry for this. Instead of pretending that I was never part of the problem, I want to learn from it. Instead of “woke” grandstanding (I understand the irony of saying this in a very long personal newsletter), I want to explore us changing our minds and consider that maybe we’re part of the problem without realizing it … and that it is a positive to realize that we can change our attitudes and actions. I am not interested in liberal guilt. You can find plenty of that on social media. I am interested in how we can allow ourselves to change to be part of the solution. I believe it starts with knowledge and attitudes.

    This week’s newsletter, more likely than not, will come across as finger-pointing or preachy when I don’t mean to. From my few years of living in the world that I know and understand, I believe that most quiet racism - the kind of racism that you and I are involved with on a day-to-day basis - can be comparable to a sickness, and that we’re not always aware of its symptoms or understand where all it comes from. Forget the cartoony Trump supporters on Fox News; most people you probably know don’t go out of their way to be racist, so they get confused when people call them racist. But it is not a sickness that we can sleep or rest away. It first requires us to know that there is a sickness. I think that scares a lot of us because we don’t want to consider ourselves to be racist; as if acknowledging that we can be, and are sometimes, racist implies that we are doomed to be racists forever. To acknowledge a problem and then believe that we are doomed to be the problem forever. Yet we cannot solve a problem without understanding that there is a problem. To take ownership of our quiet racism and then try to fix it does not doom us to be racist forever. It is acknowledging that we want to be part of a solution.

    I bring all this up because I truly believe that most people don’t think they’re racist, even when they’re doing racist things. When someone wants to defend law & order - when they want people to stop protesting and looting and just have everyone stand in a circle and hold hands and sing “We Shall Overcome” together - I truly don’t believe that they understand that the current nature of some law & order - in its default “stand in a circle and hold hands” form - hurts black people. I didn’t understand this for a long time. That the status quo does active damage to black people. This might be obvious to you. I know that it is not obvious when you’re white and you grow up surrounded only by white people and everyone is so nice and polite to you and you wonder why anyone would ever complain about the status quo when the status quo … makes you feel safe? That is the quiet racism I want to explore.

    I don’t expect you to agree with everything I’m saying. I also don’t pretend to be an expert. I have tried reading, learning, and listening as much as I can from as many different people and sources as I can. This week, I am sharing some key sources that have greatly shaped how I learned about quiet racism. And if I’m totally off on a point, I want to hear from you, and I will listen.

    Also: Everything I’m saying here already has been said by black leaders, black politicians, black colleagues, and black friends. I cannot claim these realizations as my own, as they’ve come out of conversations with friends and colleagues and from reading and listening to black leaders who are smarter than me. The most important thing is to listen. If you want to be proactive at this very second, walk away from your screen and reach out to a black friend or colleague and check in with them. Ask how they are doing. And listen. Don’t explain anything to them. Just listen. This newsletter is my attempt to convey what all I’ve heard and read from listening. If you and I have talked recently about this week’s newsletter, thank you for your openness in sharing your grief, your anger, and your ideas on how other people can help in meaningful ways. And a special thanks to Jerome and Alex, who have been sending me a lot of great things to read and consider.

    Back to Baldwin and Buckley.

    The Fire Is Upon Us hinges on a central argument between Baldwin and Buckley that I’ve shared before in this newsletter: “Known goods vs unknown betters.” I actually pulled this phrase directly from Buccola’s book. “Known goods vs unknown betters” was a comparable idea that Buckley used a lot in his defense of traditional American values and law & order, which he defined as a sort of “known goods.” Baldwin fought for the realization of the “unknown betters” for the people who did not benefit from known goods. Baldwin believed that known goods could make room for unknown betters. Buckley disagreed.

    According to The Fire Is Upon Us, Buckley’s favorite example of a known good: The Constitution. The Constitution wasn’t perfect, Buckley admitted, but it was stable. It gave our country identity and a structure. It gave our country law & order. It worked. It was good enough. It allowed people like Buckley - straight, cis, white, the son of a lawyer and oil developer - to feel comfortable and safe and to have the opportunity to remain comfortable and safe. The Constitution created law & order. If it worked for him, it must work for everyone, right? Or at least, it worked for all the people he knew and loved in his life. And you can really only worry about the people directly in your life, right? That was good enough. An imperfect reality was still a reality. It’s a shame that other people were hurting, he knew. But is that your responsibility? This country’s gift, he argued, was that it freed you of the burden of worrying about other people you didn’t know; the unknown betters of strangers. Buckley devoted his entire life to defending the gift of these known goods.

    Buckley never argued against Civil Rights. Civil Rights, he argued, were not evil. In fact, Civil Rights were good, beautiful ideas worth exploring. But to him, that’s all they were: ideas. More specifically: they were ideas that were not included in the Constitution. If our founding fathers thought they were important, he argued, wouldn’t they have included Civil Rights and equality for slaves in their definition of law & order? So to him, Civil Rights were “unknown betters.” Civil Rights did not exist in his reality. They were just nice-sounding ideas. And do we live in ideas or realities?

    A key Buckley point: racial equality was not literally part of the master plan. Including more rights for black people meant changing the Constitution, and thus changing a known good. So he argued that when you argue for change, you run the potential risk of things … actually changing. This runs the risk of messing with known goods. Things could be better. Things also could be worse. Is that a chance you’re willing to take? He argued: Do you really want to risk losing our current stability - the risk of changing and potentially losing our known goods - for the sake of “maybes”? Our laws did not account for these unknown betters. So they are not known goods. America was built on defending known goods. And now you want to change that? So if you question the law, Buckley argued, you are questioning the authority and wisdom of the brave men who have given us our home, the United States of America.

    You … can imagine how Baldwin felt about Buckley’s all-or-nothing defense of “known goods.”

    Not great, bob.

    I think about Baldwin and Buckley again now. I think about the fire and fury that Baldwin so clearly wrote about; the anger and frustration of dealing with the cartoony loud racism of people who saw him as less than human, and the quiet racism of well-intentioned people who hated racism but who were more afraid of living in a world without the comforts of what they understood as law & order - the exact same law & order that protected them while also hurting black people.

    I also think about Buckley and his “brilliance” (he was a gifted debater and, like Baldwin, a clear and confident writer) in arguing, convincingly, that laws were inherently known goods. There was no arguing if a law was “good” or “bad.” The law was law. It’s like arguing with God. Buckley’s “brilliance,” which The Fire Is Upon Us goes into, also was connecting the dots between Christianity and a popular strain of conservatism; he drove home the idea that the United States was founded specifically as a Christian nation. You didn’t have to be a Christian to be an American, Buckley said. But America’s law & order was based on Christian values. And you might not agree with everything God does to you or to other people. A good Christian should wrestle with God. Yet in the end, he argued, a believer ultimately puts faith into a higher power: the law & order of the universe. Good Christians are good rule followers. (I know: I used to be one.) You pray that God will take care of the unfortunate people who are being hurt, and you allow yourself to carry on about your day, believing in a higher power that will help other people in need. If you offer thoughts and prayers, Jesus will take care of the rest. Your passive nature is actually you trusting God and allowing him to take care of other people. Buckley’s religious point: You being passive is what God wants you to do. He argued that you not doing anything against the law means that you are putting your faith in Jesus and that he will take care of the people you do not know. You trust God’s law. You trust God’s order. Because this is what brings peace, continued Buckley. This is what will get you into heaven; your trust in law & order in all forms.

    Again … you can imagine how Baldwin, the son of a pastor and a trained minister himself, felt about Buckley and his interpretation of a Jesus who wanted you to sit around and wait for law & order to fix racism.

    Yeah, not great, bob.

    I’m harping on law & order so much because of the next book I want to recommend, which literally goes into the specifics of law & order …

  3. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow.

    If you hate a man because he’s black, you’re a racist. If you hate a man because he’s a criminal, you’re a proactive citizen. So if you want to control the destiny of another man - if you want to channel your hatred for another human being - you define what it means to be a criminal. And then you don’t target black men. You target criminals … who happen to be black. And how do we define criminals? Law & order. Literal laws, and the literal tactics of enforcing that order.

    This was one of several key takeaways from Alexander’s groundbreaking 2010 book The New Jim Crow, easily one of the better nonfiction books I’ve read and another book I’ve talked about before in this newsletter. I’ve just spent several paragraphs talking about quiet racism and how it upholds many harmful forms of law & order. This is the book that goes into the actual logistics of what that law & order looks like. This is the book with the facts and figures of why black men (this book focuses on black men) are targeted more by police and the driving forces behind mass incarceration that, more likely than not, will target black men.

    The book jacket itself explains so much:

    As the United States celebrates its ‘triumph over race’ with the election of Barack Obama, the majority of black men in major urban areas are under correctional control or saddled with criminal records for life. Jim Crow laws were wiped off the books decades ago, but today an extraordinary percentage of the African American community is warehoused in prisons or trapped in a parallel social universe, denied basic civil and human rights—including the right to vote; the right to serve on juries; and the right to be free of legal discrimination in employment, housing, access to education and public benefits. Today, it is no longer socially permissible to use race explicitly as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. Yet as civil-rights-lawyer-turned-legal-scholar Michelle Alexander demonstrates, it is perfectly legal to discriminate against convicted criminals in nearly all the ways in which it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once labeled a felon, even for a minor drug crime, the old forms of discrimination are suddenly legal again. In her words, ‘we have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.’”

    You also can read the book’s introduction, which does a good job of explaining this form of quiet racism that is not obvious until you look for it. It’s this kind of law & order that, among many other things, needs to change in order for any actual progress to happen. It’s this law & order that political leaders who don’t mind quiet racism have allowed through federal and state laws. It’s the kind of law & order that fits right into the law & order of the Constitution. It’s the kind of law & order that Buckley would have allowed. Maybe he would not have agreed with it all. But he would have allowed it. Because law & order. It’s this law & order that the police are sworn to protect and uphold.

    Speaking of police …

  4. Stephen Maing’s Crime + Punishment (you can stream now on Hulu)

    In 2018, I watched Maing’s documentary Crime + Punishment, which did an incredible job of conveying one specific (yet revealing) role of police in law & order that I had no idea existed. I think back to this documentary when I ask myself: Why are there so many cops who target black people specifically?

    The film gives one answer. It follows a group of whistleblower black and Latino NYPD cops, who were attempting to bring to light the department’s illegal use of policing quotas, which technically was banned in 2010 but was still happening. According to their testimonies, police officers had to meet monthly quotas for arrests and summonses. If you did not arrest X amount of people in Y amount of time, your job would be in jeopardy, or you would be penalized. Your job not only depended on keeping the peace but on actively searching for people to arrest whom you might overwise never think to arrest.

    This was conflicting with my previous understanding of the day-to-day work of a police officer. I had previously seen police as a reaction force; when there is trouble, the police arrive. When there are people who need to be protected, they go to protect. When someone calls 911, they arrive. Their job was to stop the bad guys from doing bad things. As Delia Cai pointed out in her newsletter, these are what all the cops did in all the TV shows and movies I grew up watching. They were the peacekeepers. Why would you ever think such nice-looking peacekeepers would do harm to people who didn’t do anything wrong?

    What these NYPD cops were explaining was revealing: It is now literally their job to also seek out individuals to arrest, in order to match a quota. This work was not reactionary. They were actively seeking arrests based on a number, not necessarily the seriousness of the crime if there even was one. And if you’re looking for people to arrest, what kinds of people are the most vulnerable? Crime + Punishment also offers another scary thought: With the NYPD being such a vast and influential police force, how many other police departments across the country look to their quota system and think, “If they’re doing it, we should do it”?

    This documentary can’t explain away the police officer who murdered George Floyd; that was a man driven by hatred and more than just a need to fill a quota. Instead, the doc touches on the quiet racism of the police who, whether they want to or not, are actively making arrests to keep their jobs, so they target the demographic most at risk for arrest: black men. Quiet racism comes from this drive to actively search for more people to arrest and diminish, and the reward that comes from making these same arrests. Not only does law & order allow New Jim Crow, but it also rewards it.

  5. Linda Gordon’s The Second Coming of the KKK

    Like I mentioned before, I feel shame that the KKK has a large presence in the state where I grew up, and I wonder how their normalization in my part of the country affects my own outlook on the world. Yet I recommend this book specifically because Gordon addresses a specific attitude. It also taught me something that I didn’t know: There are three klans.

    The first KKK technically existed in the era of Reconstruction, in a form that embraced direct violence and the lynching of black people. The third and current incarnation of the KKK was founded in response to Civil Rights, around the time that Baldwin and Buckley were coming into their intellectual own.

    Gordon’s book focuses on the Second KKK, which was at its political and popular peak in the late 1910s and throughout the 1920s. (This version of the klan was partly inspired by D. W. Griffith’s 1915 The Birth of a Nation and its mythology of the original klan.) This version of the klan was created in an effort to still attack black people and other non-white groups. Why I bring up this book, however, is what the second klan did so differently. Instead of lynching and direct violence, these new klan leaders used an entirely new approach: Do literally everything, except direct violence. This is the klan that introduced cross burnings and embraced mass parades and mass media; intimidation tactics that never directly and physically attacked anyone, all of which are coming from strangers wearing masks. Everything they did was terrifying and confrontational and in your face. It also was all legal. It was within their freedoms. Their goal: to work as much as possible within the law. Anyone who went beyond the law and physically attacked people was condemned after the fact. But they were not stopped.

    This new klan also was the most active in politics, both on the left and right. This paragraph from the NYT’s excellent review of Gordon’s book explores this idea well:

    Like the alt-right today, the Klan was never a political party, but it wielded sizable influence in politics. Klan members or Klan-endorsed politicians held the governor’s office in Oregon, Texas and Colorado; it controlled mayor’s offices from Portland, Me., to Portland, Ore. And lest we criticize the current president for being uniquely unable to condemn the alt-right, bear in mind that no president in the post-World War I era from Woodrow Wilson to Herbert Hoover would condemn the Klan either, for fear of losing public support.”

    This whole new change in attitude confused me at first; why was there no direct violence like in the original KKK? Then I kept reading, and I learned the new slogan that the klan leaders chose for their modern reboot of the KKK: We are not anti-black. We are pro-American.

    I’m thinking about this slogan again. This idea of “pro-” anything that is at the direct expense of something else. It was easy to condemn anyone for being anti-black. But these klan leaders understood that it was harder to condemn “pro-white” or “pro-American.” And they went even further to twist their logic into, “Well, if people are pro-black, why can’t we be pro-white?” (This is a similar attitude to when white people are upset that there is no White History Month.) They also understood how to absolutely push the limits of the law without ever going over the line. It’s like when someone points their finger at you as close as possible and you ask them to please stop and they said they’re not touching you, so what’s the problem? Are you denying my freedom to point my finger at you? I have the right to do this. I am pro expressing my freedoms.

    It’s a strange sort of quiet racism: racism described as pro-something else, or that the focus is on something else at the direct expense of other people, whether it’s intentional or not. In different ways, it reminds me of some of the previous points:

    … We are not anti-black. We just need to fill our quotas. (Crime + Punishment)
    … We are not anti-black. We are anti-felons. (The New Jim Crow)
    … We are not anti-black. We just cannot mess with the status quo. (Buckley)

    And so on.

  6. “Freedom from” vs. “freedom to.”

    Speaking of “I have the right to do this.”

    Political theorists have long made a distinction between negative freedom and positive freedom, or, as the social psychologist Erich Fromm put it, “freedom from” and “freedom to.” Negative freedom is the freedom from constraint, the sort of freedom that teen-agers demand when they want you to stop telling them what to do. This is also the sort of freedom Americans most often mean when we talk about freedom: individual liberty.”

  7. Paul Beatty’s The Sellout

    And finally, because I also write fiction and believe in the power of art and fiction, I want to recommend a novel that I keep coming back to: Beatty’s 2015 brilliant and biting satire, The Sellout.

    Its one-sentence blurb is pretty remarkable: An Los Angeles black man wants to reinstate slavery and segregation. In any other hands, this satire would be a mess, yet Beatty masterfully tells the story of a man who is so sick of the illusion of freedom as a black man in America that he would rather bring back slavery; to him, at least slavery had clear rules of law & order that everyone could understand and follow. This also is one of the funniest novels I’ve ever read. I know that might be bizarre to note, but I recommend this book because it is so funny, and how Beatty is able to use humor to directly address very unfunny things.

    And so …

    To end this newsletter, I have a request.

    All across social media, I’m seeing hundreds of funds and organizations to donate your time and money to if you want to get more involved. I think these are all wonderful. I do not discredit people who want to help. I’m also am aware of the unintentional numbness that comes from checking your Instagram and being told to buy these 50+ books, read these 100+ articles, and donate to these 100+ funds all at the same time, all right now. It can cause us to freeze. More times than not, we probably feel too overwhelmed. So we don’t do anything.

    You can find some great starting links here, but I have one specific request of you. Because I think it’s more important to actually do one thing than to want to do a million things and not do any of them. When you have time today or later this week: Google “local community board.”

    That’s it.

    Based on your location, you should come across certain links that will direct you to the specific community board that represents where you live. Most will have email updates that you can sign up for to find out about upcoming town halls and open community meetings. Most board meetings that are open to the public have moved onto zoom meetings. If you want to get involved, this is a wonderful first step. And it’s a more meaningful one. I don’t ever want to discourage anyone from donating to national organizations or being active on social media. I also believe that the key to making things better is to focus on our direct neighborhoods. We don’t need more woke influencers or brands; we need better communities. Strong communities are made up of engaged citizens. Citizens are those who are physically in a space. This is now the time to think about your physical space and your neighborhood and how you’re contributing to it. Literally visualize it - how are the state of things on my block, or my street? What are the direct laws that affect my literal block in my neighborhood? Are my neighbors OK? How are the laws affecting them differently from me? Who could I talk to to learn more? There are many ways to do this. Your local community board is a place to start, in-person. RTing your community board is not sexy and doesn’t make sense for your Insta story. Perhaps that’s for the best.

    I think this is a next step: take a moment, be still, listen, and see what quiet racism means to you, which I’ll also be doing this week. Take a break from social media and take a look at your backyard. And then go from there.

    Love you all,


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Brady writes about music (and other things) and draws cartoons. You can find him in New York MagazineRolling StoneInterviewPitchforkMcSweeney’sElectric LiteratureLiterary Hub, and more. Check out his website, where you’ll find his reading list this year, his latest features, and more ways to connect. Brady is a freelancer for hire who can do interviews, reporting, criticism, and playlists - get in touch if you need a writer.

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