In his famous “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” Martin Luther King observed that the “great stumbling block” in the Civil Rights struggle might not be the White Citizens’ Councilors or the Klu Klux Klanners, but rather the “‘white moderate’… more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.” MLK allowed that for all their “shallow understanding” the white moderates were “people of good will.” This concession was, perhaps, tactically sound at that time, but likely overly generous. Little doubt here that the “moderates” were stealth racists.

Racism is a belief in the inferiority of a group of people based on their race. But racism also appropriately covers animus against a race even in the absence of ascribed inferiority and, additionally, support of public policies that perpetuate discrimination and subjugation.

“Stealth racists” should be distinguished from “celebratory racists.” The latter filled the ranks of the White Citizens Councils at the time of MLK; and, presently, the lingering KKK, other white supremacist groups, and the White House (the “wall,” for example, with the fevered support it arouses, is appropriately considered as nothing more than a monument to bigotry, as much as the statute of Nathan Bedford Forest in Nashville).

Identifying celebratory racists is, obviously, not a challenge. They brazenly luxuriate in their hate, popularly by displaying the Confederate battle flag, representing as it does that aspect of Southern heritage that produced mass slaughter in the defense of slavery and, thereafter, murderous Jim Crow segregation.

In this overly simplistic typology of racists, the “stealth” subset itself contains varieties, including self-aware types who attempt to closet their hate for some personal advantage, failing in that effort when they don their red MAGA caps. And then there are those who may not consciously hate and, who genuinely resent the accusation, but nevertheless hold to a political and social outlook that is racist. Both will deny it.

Whereas the unprovoked, primitive hate of the celebratory racist is surely impenetrable, a path to probe the outlook of the stealth racist is offered by the simple question “is this country the land of equal opportunity?” Many — especially those who smugly self-identify as “conservative” or “libertarian” — will instinctively answer “yes.” The immediate follow-up question is: “In a country of equal opportunity, would you not expect the conventional indices of life’s successes and failures to be equally distributed among all racial and ethnic groups?” Whether the answer is “yes” or “no,” the final query is: “Then how do you account for the statistical variances on health, education, incarceration rates, life expectancy, income levels and wealth that exist between racial and ethnic groupings?” At that point the stealth racist must either abandon the mythology of equal opportunity or fall back on a racist explanation for the gaps. Either our society is rigged (it is not a level playing field) or there are innate racial differences (inferiorities) that render some groups less successful. It’s one or the other: logic generates no other explanatory choices. 

Greg Mumm is an Oak Park resident.

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