The New York Times has an astounding, depressing op-ed by a black woman, a “journalist and an author” named Erin Audrey Kaplan in which she announces unequivocally racist, bigoted, anti-white sentiments without a hint of self-awareness. It would be nice to think the Times printed her hateful essay as a “Don’t be like this bigot!” cautionary tale. Knowing the Times as I do, I doubt it.
Kaplan writes that she lives in “a mostly Black and Latino city in southwestern Los Angeles County.” She decided to build a Little Free Library (one of my neighbors in Alexandria has one) in her front yard. The birdhouse-like object (see it in the photo above?) invited pedestrians walking by to borrow (and later return) a book. Kaplan says she erected hers “to signal to my longtime neighbors that we had our own ideas about [community] improvement, and could carry them out in our own way…I envisioned it as a place for my neighbors to stay connected during the pandemic.”
She relates that she took pleasure in observing various neighbors stopping at the tiny library and accepting its friendly invitation, until…
..a young white couple happened by. She writes,
I had set out this library for all who lived here, and even for those who didn’t, in theory. I would not want to restrict anyone from looking at it or taking books, based on race or anything else. But while I had seen white newcomers to the neighborhood here and there, the truth was, I hadn’t set it out to appeal to white residents.
Now that they were in front of my house, curious about this new neighborhood attraction, I didn’t know how to feel. By bringing this modern cultural artifact here from white neighborhoods, had I set myself up, set up the neighborhood? Was I contributing to gentrification and sending the wrong message about how I wanted the neighborhood to be?
What I resented was not this specific couple. It was their whiteness, and my feelings of helplessness at not knowing how to maintain the integrity of a Black space that I had created. I was seeing up close how fragile that space can be, how its meaning can be changed in my mind, even by people who have no conscious intention to change it. That library was on my lawn, but for that moment it became theirs. I built it and drove it into the ground because I love books and always have. But I suddenly felt that I could not own even this, something that was clearly and intimately mine.
As the couple wandered on, no books in hand, I thought about how fragile my feeling of being settled is. It didn’t matter that I own my house, as many of my neighbors do. Generations of racism, Jim Crow, disinvestment and redlining have meant that we don’t really control our own spaces. In that moment, I had been overwhelmed by a kind of fear, one that’s connected to the historical reality of Black people being run off the land they lived on, expelled by force, high prices or some whim of white people.
We get it, Erin. You’re a racist, and worse, you think you are justified in being a racist. You resented a young couple you know nothing about, because of their skin color. Based only on that, you assumed, or maybe just suspected, that they would do you and the neighborhood harm by their existence. You can rationalize (and indeed you try) how your reaction is somehow different from homeowners in white neighborhoods who resented black families moving next door because they feared that it would depress the racist market for their home if they decided to sell, but it’s not. Those whites were and are racists who undermine and soil the brilliant idea of America, and they need to be shunned, and reprimanded, and shamed. So should you.
Kaplan then writes (reactions I cannot suppress are in italics)
Ultimately, the moment with the couple I saw through my window raised for me a serious moral question about how I should act. [Really? How hard is “traet them like anyone else, and as you would want to be treated”?] Screaming at them to get off my lawn would be adopting the values of the oppressor, as my racial-justice activist father used to say. [Ya think?] Yet my resentment was not analogous to the white resentment of generations past (and of now, I’d argue). [ That’s the essence pf hypocrisy and double standards. Racism is different when it’s your racism, and those white folks deserve to it.] White resentment has always been legitimized, and reinforced, by legal and cultural dominance, a dynamic evident in everything from the rise of Trumpism to the current battle against the political boogeyman of critical race theory. [You knew she’d find a way to blame this on Trump!]
Despite being one of those White Devils myself, I will now generously and benignly supply the author with my expert opinion as a professional ethicist regarding “how she should act,” gratis. She should recognize that her reaction to the innocent white couple, who deserve the benefit of any doubt and the same presumption of good will that Erin would want herself to be accorded, marks her as bigot and an anti-white racist, so poisoned with hate and prejudice that she can’t grasp the universal ethical values of respect, fairness, reciprocity and forgiveness. Bias has not only made her stupid—for it is thobbingly stupid to write an essay like this and not understand that it reveals exactly the kind of ugliness and tit-for-tat racial payback that the “political boogeyman’ embodies—it has made her a destructive force in the community she claims to want to enrich.
How does she “need to act”? She needs to look in the metaphorical mirror, see the racist staring back at her, and get to work. She must recognize her bias, and act aggressively to reject it, overcome it, purge it, or at least adjust her ethics alarms to start ringing loudly every time she feels it seeping into her thinking and distorting her judgment.
Work on that first, Erin.
The little library can wait.