Vintage Racism: The "We Don't Want Trouble" Defense Makes a Comeback

Posted by Nona Willis Aronowitz

Back in the Jim Crow days, there were two basic approaches to racism in the segregated South. You were an aggressor—a lawmaker wedded to segregation, a member of a lynch mob, a scientist trying to prove non-white people were inferior, or your garden variety white person who might use a racial epithet. Or you were a bystander—someone who maintained the status quo by saying, "We don't want any trouble."

Nowadays, being racist in public is less acceptable, so people come up with all kinds of excuses for prejudice. Like, "Just kidding!" Or, "I'm not racist, I'm just honest. (Variation: I'm just exercising my First Amendment Rights.)" "I have black friends." "Posting on Facebook can't be racist." And so on. Even amid claims that America is now post-racial, one of the tried-and-true ways to be racist has endured: the argument that fighting against bigotry is more trouble than it's worth. 

Take, for instance, what happened recently at an Arkansas graduation: A black teen mom named Kymberly Wimberly was the top student at McGehee Secondary School in Little Rock. Despite these accomplishments, a white co-valedictorian was named along with her. Was it because this white student had the same GPA? Nope, it was because school officials worried that making Wimberly valedictorian would result in a "big mess" at the majority-white school.

This response may seem antiquated, but it's not uncommon—and neither is the old-school racism it defends. When Prescott, Arizona, residents shouted racial epiphets at non-white students while they were painting a school mural, the administration's first thought wasn't to speak out against racism. It was to lighten the skin of the Hispanic boy depicted on the mural. Why? They wanted to avoid "a controversy."

As late as last year, schools in states like GeorgiaMississippi, and Alabama have held segregated proms for black and white (and sometimes Hispanic) students. Overt racism still exists—one parent in Charleston, Mississippi reportedly said in 2008, "I'm not going to have any of those niggers rubbing up against my daughter"—but others prefer these divided dances because they want to side-step "racial flareups, a fight."

In this case, fear of violence is code for fear of change. And that's not much different from the Jim Crow era. A student named Chasidy Buckley, ensnared in the Mississippi prom fight, didn't mince words when she described what was at the heart of the segregation: "The [school] said, 'why change now? Let's just keep going.' That's the whole thing with our town. Everybody's afraid of change. It's just horrible."