Racism is just a theory

Why is it so easy to jump to the conclusion that racists are bad people?

Isn’t that conclusion almost as narrow-sighted as racism itself?

I just listened to an episode of This American Life about a white supremacist speech writer who later changed his whole persona and published a best-selling book about tolerance for others and respect for nature. The radio show asserts that this writer “pulled a 180” – completely changed course.

I don’t see it that way at all. As truly terrible as racism is, the evidence is that racists tend to have just as good intentions as everyone else. The white supremacist speech writer believed that blacks and Jews were the cause of many social and political problems. It followed that the way to improve society and work for good was to promote segregation and white supremacy. The theory turned out to be wrong, but the underlying goal was simply to fix society’s problems, not to cause harm.

An old friend of this writer, who is also a white supremacist and southern conservative, was quoted on the show saying the book was not a change of course at all. To him, the book is all about the problems with big government and the importance of honoring the natural order of things.

The way I see it, the speech writer did eventually realize that the white supremacy theory was wrong. But this wasn’t a change to his underlying values. It was merely a change to one of the multitudes of theories he held – such as “things fall when you drop them” and “people enjoy receiving gifts”. However, there was so much tied up in this supremacy theory, socially and politically, that he felt the need to pretend to be a new person entirely.

Why is it so hard to believe that people can update their theories? If you have any doubt, just listen to the Silver Dollar episode of Love+Radio, where a black man befriends dozens of Ku Klux Klan members and gently, lovingly disproves their theory that black people are the problem. Through this process, many Klan leaders updated their theories, and as a result, entire branches of the Klan were quietly dismantled.

No one wants to be wrong! And very few want to be a bad person. If you treat people with the assumption that they are good, they will tend to prove you right. You just need to provide a graceful way to be wrong, so that everyone has the chance to reconsider and update their theories.

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