Nice, decent folks

*Nice and decent don’t preclude bigotry.*

Two days after the election, I was scrolling down a friend’s Facebook page. My friend posted an article about all of the hate crimes that occurred after Tr*mp was elected. Several comments down, a friend of my friend declared that voting for Tr*mp didn’t make a person racist or a bad person. The next thing I knew, there were people on social media (Facebook mostly) declaring that the election wasn’t about race or gender (I mean, what the hell). Some of these folks noted that our country should unite rather than protest. As the days passed by, I noticed more and more of this “we’re nice, decent people” rhetoric. Trump voters claimed that they weren’t racist, sexist, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, ableist, homophobic, and/or transphobic. News outlets urged us (I guess those of us who didn’t vote for Trump) to empathize with Trump voters, who were likely good and decent folks.

The refrain of how Trump voters were “nice” and “decent” bothered (infuriated) me. What was happening in this moment? What were people really saying about how they voted and what were news outlets trying to say? What were we supposed to overlook? Why did the calls to unity make me even more committed to not even attempting to unite?

Yesterday, I realized what bothered me (and tweeted about it). The emphasis on “nice, decent folks” regularly appears in the scholarship on the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist movements.

When I first decided to research the Klan for my dissertation, I pulled all of the books on the Klan that I could find. I was in a PhD program for American religious history, so I read  many histories of the Klan that covered specific states or regions. But, I also decided to read ethnographies about white supremacists to get a feel for white supremacist organizations were different or similiar to the 1920s Klan that I studied. (And I already knew that I wanted my supposedly traditional archival dissertation to incorporate ethnographic methods, so I reached for ethnographies too.)
The histories were predictably straight-forward: the Klan in this location accomplished these things in a certain time period. The histories revolved around the minutes of Klan meetings, the documents that archivists managed to preserve, and sometimes interviews with aged Klan members (the books usually published before 2000). There was always some reference to why the 1920s Klan was so popular: anger, economic disenfranchisement, gender politics, similarity to other fraternal orders, etc. I dutifully read the histories to figure out what the Klan managed to accomplish in a variety of states and the larger nation and to see how the order changed in its various incarnations.

But, the ethnographies on white supremacist organizations entranced me. Ethnographers (mostly sociologists and anthropologists) had to figure out how to interview and maintain relationships with their informants: living, breathing Klansmen, Klanswomen, white supremacist pagans, and Neo-Nazis. Historians, at least, were able to write about those long dead Klan members. Ehtnographers didn’t have the luxury of historical distance, so they had to figure out how to think, analyze, and write about Klan members’ racism while also continuing to interact with them.

What I quickly realized is that ethnographers had to decide how to present the racism of their informants. Some ethnographers were unrelenting; they dismissed Klan members as bigots early on in their books and wrote starkly about the dangerous consequences of white supremacy. They were unflinching, and Klan members became villains lurking in their stories. White supremacists were white supremacists, white supremacy was evil, and the analysis didn’t push much further.

What I found more intriguing were the ethnographers, who were baffled by the living, breathing Klan members. These ethnographers found that Klansmen and Klanswomen seemed like “good” or “decent”  folks. Even as Klan members defended racism, they seemed “nice,” polite even. In these earlier studies of white supremacists, a lingering question was: How could Klan members seem to be nice, decent folks while also being white supremacists?

The first time I noticed an ethnographer’s shock and confusion over nice white supremacists, I thought it was a fluke. But after I read the performed shock and confusion again and again, I began to wonder what the hell was going on. The juxtaposition between decency and white supremacy was frankly bizarre. It was almost as if these ethnographers imagined that white supremacists would be just like their pop culture counterparts: ignorant, aggressive, mean, and oh-so-easily-identifiable with swastika tattoos and Klan robes peaking out of their closets. Pop culture obscures the heartbreaking ordinariness of member of white supremacist organizations. They look like other white people. They speak like other white people. They act like other white people.

But more than that, I wondered if these ethnographers had never encountered “nice racism” of the rural South where I was raised. In my north Florida hometown, white people (no matter their class orientation) perfected nice racism. Now, there were some white folks, who were belligerent and unapologetic racists. But most white folks hid their racism behind civility until provoked. (They also didn’t acknowledge that white supremacy was a structure that organized our lives, but rather imagined that racism just appeared in particular racist words and actions.) These white people seemed very nice and decent until they felt they had to respond to (or were provoked) by the existence of people of color. Racism existing under smiles and small talk.

So, I kept reading these ethnographies, usually written by liberal white people, who imagined racists would talk, act, and look like storybook villains. These were the ethnographers most shocked by the nice. At this point, I always knew how the story of the ethnography would continue and end. Liberal white people decided to study avowed white supremacists. White supremacists include liberal white people in discussions and maybe even bring them a sweet tea. Liberal white people begin to get along with white racists, who seem so nice and decent. And then, out of the blue, the white supremacist does or says something that signals LOUD AND CLEAR that they are racist. Liberal white people are surprised, shocked, and hurt to find out that white supremacists they study are still racist. I resisted the urge to bang my head on the desk repeatedly.

It almost became a cynical game for me while reading these ethnographies of white supremacists: When will the researchers become shocked that these nice Klan members are still racist? Is it now? No, not yet. Now? Not quite. Now? Yes, it is now the big reveal of racism (for the ethnographer) near the end of the book. I often wondered how it wasn’t on the first page.

What I struggled with book after book was the apparent shock that racists could appear nice and decent. Why did these ethnographers not realize that niceness doesn’t equate with anti-racist? Someone can appear nice and still be a bigot. Someone can claim that they are decent and good and still be racist. Nice and decent don’t preclude bigotry. Smiles and small talk are very good at hiding (masking?) it.

More distressingly, I couldn’t understand how these scholars didn’t realize that Klan members were nice and decent to them because they were also white. Shared whiteness allowed for a certain kind of interpersonal treatment that wasn’t necessarily extended to people who weren’t white. I couldn’t get over how flabbergasted these scholars were by the disconnect between outward action and hateful ideologies. I couldn’t get over how white liberal scholars (yet again) managed deftly to avoid their own white supremacy.

All of this came back to me yesterday. For eight days, I’ve tried to figure out what to say about this presidential election. To say something. To write something. To react to all of the rhetoric that’s being thrown around (and thrown at me).

What I realized was how tired I am of hearing how “nice” and “decent” the people are who voted for Trump. I’m so damn tired of this particular excuse because so-called nice and decent white voters put bigotry in office. “Nice” and “decent” don’t necessarily negate racism. Klan members can seem nice and still be racist. And “nice” and “decent” is often only extended by white people to other white people. This is pretty much only a shock to white people.

This repeated emphasis on how “nice” and “decent” Trump voters are doesn’t counteract racism (or sexism or anti-immigrant sentiments or other forms of bigotry). It’s about complicity. It’s about encouraging white people to give other white people a chance after this particularly hard election cycle. It’s about the unity of whiteness and forsaking everybody else. I’ll say it again, it’s about forsaking everybody else to preserve white supremacy, which is not nice, decent, good, moral, or humane. Don’t let anybody else tell you otherwise.

Scroll to Top