The “Innocent Mistake” Defense for Racism

Slavery was repugnant to many Americans long before America was a country — the Germantown Quakers denounced it in 1688. It was outlawed in the British Empire in 1833. We fought a Civil War over it from 1861-65. Still, injustice and violence against black people continued, and that has been an issue every minimally educated person has known about ever since, through Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the rise of the KKK, the 1909 founding of the NAACP, “Strange Fruit” (1939), the civil rights movement, landmark legislation, assassinations, the Southern Strategy, birtherism, voter suppression, and Charlottesville.

When the movie “Birth of a Nation” was released, it sparked widespread protests over its celebration of the KKK and demeaning depictions of black people. That was in 1915. More than a hundred years ago.

Harry Truman was born in 1884 and raised as a racist in a pro-Confederate family in rural Missouri. But he, like many white Americans of his time, was able to learn, to feel compassion, and to change. In 1947 he said, “If this freedom is to be more than a dream, each man must be guaranteed equality of opportunity. The only limit to an American’s achievement should be his ability, his industry and his character.” And the next year he desegregated the military.

That was more than 70 years ago — and even then, it was a common belief that what progress had been made had taken far too long.

Also in 1947, Frank Sinatra, who had been raised in a working class family and never finished high school, said this: “We’ve got a hell of a way to go in this racial situation. As long as most white men think of a Negro as a Negro first and a man second, we’re in trouble. I don’t know why we can’t grow up.”

Every American alive today has the benefit of centuries of thinking on civil rights, and centuries of examples of people who managed to choose respect and kindness over bigotry and cruelty. All the information about this that anyone could ever need has long been available easily and for free.

So maybe, by 2019, the “innocent mistake” defense is done?

Beyond a certain point, ignorance becomes a choice, and “innocence” is just a cloak.

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