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Does Being Racist Make You Dumb?

May 5, 2009

Ta-Nehisi Coates at the Atlantic Monthly with an interesting take on some of the fringe commentary coming out of the recent Fox News Tea Parties wrapped up with some historical analysis of systemic prejudice and legalized racism. The crux of his argument:

One common refrain of black Southerners from Robert Smalls to Booker T. Washington to Martin Luther King is the notion that white Supremacy has actually corrupted the white South, that while it is a blight on the physical conditions of blacks, it is a greater blight on the spiritual, moral, and mental conditions of whites.

He outlines how race, ethnic and class superiority as a mindset has had not just morally negative effects on those who subscribe to it, but how that mindset’s refusal to acknowledge or incorporate facts incompatible with its conclusions–that whites are superior, for example–has led to the dumbing down of those who practice it:

Of course the problem with mental corruption is that it doesn’t really respect borders. There’s a short step from Farrakhanesque numerology to believing in little green men. Likewise, a group conditioned to, at once, believe that they are “the greatest people that have ever trod this earth,” that the stars and bars actually stand for barbecue, NASCAR and rugged individualism, that the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery, are exactly the sort of people conditioned to believe that man once hunted dinosaurs, that Obama is (all at once) a radical Christian and a closet Muslim, that global warming is a liberal hoax, that a neurological diagnoses can be done via video-tape. To be sure, history is littered with smart, well-read racists.But they weren’t any smarter for it.

I think this amazing quote from Joe the Plumber says it all:

Queer means strange and unusual. It’s not like a slur, like you would call a white person a honky or something like that. You know, God is pretty explicit in what we’re supposed to do–what man and woman are for. Now, at the same time, we’re supposed to love everybody and accept people, and preach against the sins. I’ve had some friends that are actually homosexual. And, I mean, they know where I stand, and they know that I wouldn’t have them anywhere near my children.

When we were kids, we were taught that racism was evidence of ignorance. That, in effect, if you were a racist, you weren’t very bright. I’ve found that to be a useful tool even in my adult life. But Coates takes that formula and turns it on its head: one is not very bright because one is racist. I have to say that I like that conclusion, as far as it goes. It provides just one more incentive for people to give up their prejudices…because to refuse to do so may result in a diminishment of their own mental acuity. And, not coincidentally, because they might wind up sounding like Joe the Plumber.

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