what it means among white people to be considered a racist. I don't mean under the sanction of black people. I mean in places where there are no black people. It almost feels like, among whites, to be accused of being a racist is a class slur. Like racist is short for "inbred uncultured hick."
It's an interesting analogy, but I'm not sure it gets quite at what's going on. My views have evolved since I wrote this post, but it captures a very real dynamic. There's indignation about the possibility of being labeled a racist, but there is also terror. The proportions may vary, but both feelings are definitely there. Racism is America's original sin, and the term "racist" has become emblematic of a supreme evil. To be considered "racist" is to be a Nazi, a slave-owner, or a Klansman. It is to be a person who must be shunned in public society.
All of this is amplified by the fact that there is no generally accepted definition of racist in the public discourse. The sanctions of being successfully labeled "racist" are high, but there really is no way to determine in advance who will be burned by it. Michael Richards' career is ruined, but Ann Coulter survives more or less unscathed. There is a wanton and freakish quality about the whole discourse, and I do think most White people view the accusation of racism as akin to a bolt of lightening: powerful, random, unpredictable, and deadly. They do not know what causes the blow to rain down (except that saying anything -- and I do mean anything -- related to race makes it more likely), so they intone their "I am not a racist" incantation to the heavens in panicked hope that it will serve as a ward. It's main quality is totemic.
And being subjected to such uncertainty, in turn, breeds resentment. It's simultaneously self-sustaining and self-serving. Self-sustaining because the resentment renders true dialogue about what "racist" means impossible, maintaining its mystical quality and preventing any sort of enlightenment. Self-serving, because the entire cycle serves as a warrant for the hostile sentiment in the first place. The anger and rage that those people seem to hold power over me -- that they can end my career, sever my friendships, and expel me from the community with but a "casual" word -- burns with a righteous fury. At that point, railing against the entire idea of racism becomes effectively a subspecies of populist anti-authoritarianism.