Scene from To Kill A Mockingbird Credit: Wikimedia Commons
What does a racist look like?
One Oscar voter has a familiar answer. Anonymously interviewed about her decision-making process, the Academy member poo-pooed the idea that racism had hurt Selma in the nomination process.
"And as far as the accusations about the Academy being racist? Yes, most members are white males, but they are not the cast of Deliverance—they had to get into the Academy to begin with, so they're not cretinous, snaggletoothed hillbillies."
Racists, then, look like "the cast of Deliverance"; they are "cretinous, snaggletoothed hillbillies." Wealthy, cultured, good-looking people in tuxedoes do not harbor racial prejudice. Such animus is restricted to the backwards, the marginal, the poor, and the deformed.
The quote is perfect in part because it's so obviously—and gratuitously—self-refuting. The Academy member says that wealthy people don't have prejudices—and buttresses this by defaulting to invidious stereotypes of poor Southerners, complete with "hillbilly" slur.
But beyond the logical fallacy, I think the Academy member demonstrates, inadvertently, some of the most poisonous dynamics of racism in this country. Specifically, racism, in 2015, is defined as—simultaneously—a deformation, a breach of manners, and a failure of intelligence. It is seen as marginal—the property of poor white monsters. The Academy voter was put out by the fact that the cast of Selma wore "I Can't Breathe" T-shirts to a premiere, but that doesn't make her racist. Wearing "I Can't Breathe" T-shirts is a faux pas; it's poor form; it's lacking in class. And racism, for the Academy voter, is, by definition, lacking in class. Since racism is about class (or lack thereof), how can pointing out a breach of etiquette possibly be racist?
For the Academy voter, the right sort of people, with the right sort of education and connections, can't be racist. Nor is this voter alone. The "cretinous, snaggletoothed hillbillies" are a familiar trope in discussions of race—most visibly, and painfully, perhaps, in that beloved American classic, To Kill a Mockingbird.
Harper Lee's novel is a staple of high school curricula, and is supposed to be a signature work of American anti-racism. But re-reading it, it's clear that Lee's imagined racist looks much like the Oscar voter's. The bad guys in the book, the evil, vile racists, are, as ever, the poorest whites, the debased, lazy, shiftless, no-account Ewells. "They were people, but they lived like animals," the novel says, and gleefully describes their vicious, dirty existence. The first view we get of an Ewell is of the lice crawling on a child's head; the last is of Bob Ewell dead with a knife in him, as the respectable people of the town cover up his murder. The Ewell's are subhuman trash, who "ain't worth the bullet it takes to shoot 'em." And their racism is specifically linked to their poverty and their lack of education. When Scout uses a racist insult, Attitcus corrects her: "Don't say Nigger, Scout. That's common." Racism is wrong because it's lower class.
The Ewells aren't the only racists in Maycomb of course; they're just the only irredeemable ones. The good people of Maycomb, the educated ones like Atticus, are working to raise up their brethren, though those good people are of course baffled by the recalcitrance of their community. "Why reasonable people go stark raving mad when anything involving a Negro comes up, is something I don't pretend to understand," Atticus muses; his education does not, apparently, include a reading of W.E.B. Dubois, or, for that matter, a historical memory of slavery. For him, racism is a regrettable cognitive error, which can be solved, slowly but surely, by more rationality, better intelligence, and more class consciousness. Eventually, in the fullness of time, people in Maycomb will recognize that "a respectable Negro" like the falsely accused Tom Robinson is better than shiftless trash like Bob Ewell. Then class order will be restored, racism will end, and everyone will be in their proper place - with, of course, Atticus and the Oscar voter comfortably and guiltlessly on top.
To Kill a Mockingbird isn't the first appearance of the Ewells, either. They show up, for example, in Gone With the Wind, where they're named the Slatterlys. Again, they're debased, lazy freeloaders—you can tell they're lazy because they don't own slaves to do their work for them. The only real difference between the Ewells and the Slatterlys is that Mitchell is openly neo-Confederate, so her no-account white people aren't racist. Instead, they're allied with Northerners who advocate for black equality.
You could see that change as an improvement. When Gone With the Wind was published in 1939, anti-racism was lower-class and common. By 1960, when To Kill a Mockingbird was published, norms had flipped, and racism was declassé. Once, you were a drooling Deliverance reject if you liked black people; now you're a drooling Deliverance reject if you don't. Progress.
But in truth the dynamics haven't changed that much. In Gone With the Wind the Slatterlys, like the Ewells, are carefully defined as more despicable "respectable" black people. Even in the racist Gone With the Wind, in other words, the Slatterlys are a way to deflect racism. Yes, Scarlett thinks black people are inferior, but she thinks white people are inferior too, and even moreso. She's not racist; she's just discriminating. As long as black people know their place and don't wear "I Can't Breathe" T-shirts, she recognizes their worth and superiority to Ewell and Slatterly alike.
For Mitchell, for Lee, and for that Oscar voter, prejudice against poor whites is a shield from accusations of prejudice; sneering at the Ewells is a guarantor of virtue. The question of whether or not you hate black people becomes secondary to the question of whether or not you are intelligent, cultured—the right kind of person. The issue of racism is replaced by the issue of status. If you're in the Academy, you can't be racist, because smart urbanites with power are by definition not racist. Atticus is a good man, even if, or especially because, by the end of the novel both Tom Robinson and Bob Ewell are dead.