Paul LePage, the Republican governor of Maine, got into a bit of hot water last week for leaving an expletive-laced voicemail for Drew Gattine, a Democratic state legislator, after a reporter apparently insinuated that the legislator had called the governor a racist. LePage also later told reporters that he wished it were 1825 so that he could challenge his “snot-nosed” opponent to a duel.
The whole situation was hilariously inappropriate, certainly worthy of censure and undoubtedly calling into question LePage’s fitness for public office. More striking than anything, though, were LePage’s follow-up remarks. He seems more worried about being called a racist than by any other aspect of the situation.
At first, the governor stood by his remarks, claiming that they were justified because Gattine had called him “the absolute worst, most vile thing.” Later, in a radio appearance, LePage said of being called a racist that “it’s like calling a black man the N-word or a woman the C-word. It just absolutely knocked me off my feet.”
Hmm. Take it from a black person who is also a woman: It’s not.
The most head-scratching aspect of LePage’s defense is not that, as a white man, he can have only a limited understanding of the deeply painful nature of both the N- and C-words. Rather, it’s the revelation that “racist” is now seen as the worst possible epithet, the lowest insult a decent person could deploy. Somewhere along the way, many people seem to have convinced themselves that being called a racist is worse than anything else. Heck, it’s even worse than racism.
This fear of the R-word isn’t totally new. In his memoir “Decision Points,” George W. Bush disclosed that being called a racist by rapper Kanye West in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was the “all-time low” of his presidency. (Not the actual hurricane? Okay.) More recently, Donald Trump accused Hillary Clinton of deploying “a tired, disgusting argument” by portraying his campaign and its supporters as racists.
But when did this view become so deeply lodged? Looked at optimistically, the aversion to being called a racist does show that the continued fight for racial equality in the United States has had some major successes. Now, at least, we’re all generally in agreement that racism is real, and actually a Very Bad Thing: Openly declaring that you just don’t care for nonwhite people relegates you to the alt-right and/or Stormfront.org.
Perhaps as a result of the way in which this progress has taken shape, racism today connotes a lack of class — “unsubtle rednecks are racist, not me”; suggests that someone is out of step with current mores — “old, out-of-touch people are racist, and I’m not one of those”; and is perhaps one offense for which you can actually fear reprisal — “No one would ever hire a racist; I’m polite enough to be employable.” So on some level, I suppose I can sympathize: It’s generally not nice to be called a racist, for a number of reasons.
Unfortunately, taking the less cheerful view, it’s increasingly clear that the scurry to avoid being seen as racist has in many ways overtaken the actual work of …not being racist. When racism is boiled down to only a small set of outrageous, explicit actions that we just need to make sure to avoid — don’t say the wrong words, don’t wear a white hood, avoid burning a cross on someone’s lawn — it becomes easy to pat ourselves on the back, satisfied that we aren’t “one of those people” while ignoring or even continuing to partake in the more insidious forms of racism: the stereotyping, the not-in-my-backyard-ing, the persistent lack of concern for those not like ourselves.
Not being seen a racist becomes the end goal, rather than the real work of ending racism — cultivating integration, perhaps even friendship with those of other races; acknowledging and seeking to rectify one’s own implicit biases; starting conversations about race within one’s own community; advocating for and enacting non-racist policies. Satisfying ourselves with ostracizing “the real racists,” we can telegraph optimism about the future of race relations while doing nothing to further it.
It may be that LePage has secretly been fighting to end racism all along, in which case maybe his feeling of being unfairly maligned is justified (his comments that people of color and Hispanics are “the enemy” suggest not.) It’s possible that by swearing off the “gotcha” press and seeking spiritual guidance, LePage can avoid another name-calling-induced dark night of the soul. But for the rest of us, this episode should serve as reminder: Hurt feelings about being called a racist matter much less than the fact that racism still abounds. Not being “a racist” is not enough.