The thought and the deed

Some friends have asked me to comment on Liam Neeson’s confession that after a black person did harm to one of his friends he wanted to do harm to the first black person he encountered at the pub. This happened some forty years ago. After this public confession on a few talk shows some publicist pulled him from giving media interviews about the film he was supposed to be promoting. Most white Americans think of racism as individual acts, feelings, use of language and so on. They reserve their harshest censure about racism for those who transgress by revealing their racism openly. Remember Paula Deen the southern celebrity chef who admitted that she had used the “n word?” She lost her show and was a pariah for a while. Will Mr. Neeson suffer some penalty in his career for admitting to racist thoughts? Spike Lee has already said he will not hire him in the future. Should he?

First of all I must admit I am much more concerned with who these folks are in the present day than who they were forty years ago. Michelle Rodriguz leapt to Neeson’s defense by stating that he could not be a racist because he had kissed Viola Davis in his most recent movie. This may seem like a strange defense until you look at it more closely. Hollywood has a long history of avoiding interracial kisses and several actors have refused to participate in them. At best this proves that Neeson is an actor who is willing to do what the script calls for whatever his own person inclinations. It in no way proves that Neeson is not a racist any more than having a gay person kiss a member of the opposite sex means they have given up their homosexuality. A better test would be how do the black folks who have worked him view him, has he worked for anti-racist causes, or has he participated in racist ones. I do not know the answers to these questions so I don’t know if he is racist or not. I am not willing to condemn him over thoughts he had forty years ago.

Secondly I am not willing to condemn him for thoughts he had rather than deeds he did. For better or worse he did not run into any black person while he had these thoughts and to my knowledge there is no evidence that he has actually committed racist acts. He seems genuinely remorseful for even thinking these thoughts. The forty-years-older version of him has learned a few things in the interim. I hope no one judges me on the thoughts I had forty years ago rather than the deeds I have done since then. I hope I, you,  and Mr. Neeson have grown.

Finally, we can’t make any headway against racism as long as we define it solely as individual racist actions or thoughts. Many whites feel that as long as they don’t harbor any racist thoughts, don’t use the “n word,” don’t discriminate in their daily lives, and don’t attend white supremacist rallies, they cannot be racist. This is of course nonsense and people rationalizing their behavior or making themselves feel good. As I have said many times in different discussions the United States is built upon a racist and white supremacist structure and all whites, even the poorest ones, have benefited from that structure. All people of color, even the successful ones, have had to struggle against that structure. What is that old line “the greatest trick the devil ever did was to convince us that he doesn’t exist.” The most important support upon which structural racism and white supremacy are built is the belief that the structure doesn’t exist. To truly overturn that structure will take white folks willing to see it and give up the privileges that it has and continues to confer on them. Condemning Mr. Neeson for thoughts, not deeds, he had forty years ago does not help us do that and is a waste of time.

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