Novelist Michael Chabon writes about his childhood growing up in a somewhat utopian Maryland community, a planned town that was intended overcome the separation between whites and blacks — and that worked, at least in his childhood. But then he grew up, and one day, a Los Angeles jury let the wife-killer O.J. Simpson off, and to Chabon’s great shock, black people rejoiced. Chabon reflects:
And on that morning of the Simpson verdict, I discovered, to my shame, to my absolute wonder and horror, that in the course of that journey I had, somehow, become a racist. To qualify as a racist you don’t have to go to the extreme of slurring, stereotyping or discriminating against people of another race. All you have to do, as I realized on that autumn morning in 1995, is feel completely disconnected from them. All you have to do is look at those people in a kind of almost scientific surprise, as I looked at the African-Americans I passed in the streets of L.A. in the days after the Simpson verdict, and realize you have been passing them by in just this way, for months, for years at a time. They were here all along, thinking what they think now, believing what they now believe, and somehow you failed to notice.
OK, stop right there. Why is his shock and awareness of his disconnect enough evidence to convict Chabon (in his own mind) of racism? I seriously do not understand this mindset. How many black folks wonder if they’re racist because they fail to understand why white people react the way they do to things like this? Are there any leading black novelists who accuse themselves of racism because they didn’t understand why many whites were appalled that O.J. got off? I bet there’s not a single one — and why should there be? This is the kind of exquisite self-torture that only white liberals indulge in. Only a white liberal would see his shock at black people cheering the acquittal of a murderer as evidence not of the depravity of the cheering crowd’s judgment, but as evidence of his own depravity.
I don’t mean this as a SWPL-bashing post. That’s too easy. The dream Chabon was raised with, and enjoyed in his youth, was a noble one. I understand, or at least I think I understand, why it hurts him that his life has taken him so far from it. It really is tragic that race is so fundamental to our way of seeing things that it can seem like a chasm that cannot be bridged, no matter how hard we try. That is not an American tragedy so much as a human one, and it’s the source of great fiction. I bet Chabon has written a good book about it — the failed idealism, I mean.
But you know another good topic for a novel? Exploring the mind of white people who see evidence of moral failure among minorities as nothing more than, or at least primarily as, an indictment of themselves and their culture. It is a peculiar form of narcissism — and the source, I think, of “diversity” as a kind of moralistic status competition among educated whites.
I mean, think of it: Michael Chabon sees black folks celebrating the acquittal of a man he is certain viciously murdered his wife and her friend, and he thinks, “I sure am messed up.” All these years later, he still does. To me, that is at least as interesting as the failed utopian experiment he mourns, and which was the source of inspiration for his latest novel. I wonder: does he consider himself to be “completely disconnected” from the community of, say, rural working-class whites? If so, does he think this is a matter of his being a bad person? I bet not.