This morning over oatmeal I listened to a great NPR story on the 50th Anniversary of the first black student bravely reporting to class at Ole Miss, escorted by the National Guard while hundreds of segregationists shouted their rage.
What was true 50 years ago remains true today: racism is (only) made possible by the absence of relationship. It’s only by treating the other as other, as invisible, that prejudice is allowed to grow or fester.
This is how novelist Michael Chabon puts it in an essay, in which he reflects on the many friendships he had with African Americans as a child and teenager compared with how few he had as a college graduate:
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…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.
The quote is from this Sunday’s NY Times Magazine in which Chabon unpacks the inspiration for his new novel, Telegraph Avenue. The novel is wonderful and the best prose I’ve read in a long, long time.