Why do white people want me to call them racist?

A Indiana protest Sunday after the violence in Charlottesville.
A Indiana protest Sunday after the violence in Charlottesville. AP

An odd thing has been happening recently. I’ve been hearing from a growing number of white people who want me to call them racist. It’s not that they believe they are racist, just that they find the label useful, as a kind of inoculation against having to be involved in difficult conversations or stand on the front lines against the racial ugliness we are experiencing.

It’s weird to have to passionately argue with someone that they are not racist even as they insist that I must think they are. Supporters of Donald Trump have grown expert at this, which is why they so quickly adopted the term “deplorables” after Hillary Clinton made that controversial speech during the election cycle. But it’s not just them. White friends and associates, liberal and conservative, have been doing it as well, as though they are desperate for you to hurl that word their way.

Issac Bailey Steve Jessmore

Why? Because the instant you label them racist, the conversation about the complex issue of race – when and how to deal with Confederate monuments in the public square; what does it mean that nearly 60 percent of white people voted for Trump despite his open use of bigotry; what constitutes a justified shooting, etc. – gets derailed and it quickly morphs into a discussion about their feelings and need to be comforted. And you either have to spend time soothing their ego – “Why, of course you aren’t racist; you are a loving person and long-time friend!” – or have the discussion devolve into a seemingly-endless list of reasons why they aren’t racist.

They have black friends.

They admire the Obamas.

They had Hispanic colleagues over for dinner just this past week.

I no longer participate in those kinds of backs-and-forth, or at least try to minimize them. They are beyond useless and just waste energy. Instead, I tell them what I really feel, that the majority of Trump voters weren’t racist, that opposing race-based affirmative action doesn’t make you racist, that being a member of the Republican Party – even during times like these – does not make you a racist.

They don’t seem to realize that during times like these, when moral clarity and courage are needed more than ever but are in short supply, simply not being a racist is nothing to be proud of. Good people supporting a man who openly uses bigotry for his own ends is worse than racism. Good people being OK with the racial inequities that remain in the 21st century, including the recent finding by the Marshall Project that the killing of a black man by a white person is eight times more likely to be deemed justified, while a black man killing a white person is almost never found to be legally warranted, no matter the circumstances. That’s in addition to cops shooting unarmed black men on video and found not guilty, if they are charged at all.

Good people supporting policies designed to strip vulnerable people of their right to vote or being comfortable with our system of mass incarceration is worse than racism – because they are good people, because they are not racist. It’s akin to bragging about being a man who doesn’t beat his wife while supporting a buddy who does.

In times like these, when white supremacist groups feel they are in the midst of a kind of revival and have been killing Americans at a higher rate on American soil than ISIS-inspired terrorists, we don’t have the luxury of letting good people think not being racist is good enough. Too much is at stake.