I have a memory from childhood. I don’t know if it’s real. I remember a fire, briefly glimpsed from a car window, while driving home through the steep and winding landscape of West Virginia. We’re talking about a one, two-second glimpse, at most, of a fire far away, seen through trees. I was an anxious child, prone to attention-getting exaggeration, and deeply obsessed with evil: as a Jewish child growing up deep in Appalachia, I was sure that Nazis were everywhere around us, laying dormant like locusts underground, waiting for their hibernation to end so they could re-emerge and lay waste to my family, to me. I was equally afraid of the Klan, and convinced of their ubiquity; and for all these reasons it’s impossible to say whether I saw a burning cross that night, or a lightning-struck tree, or just a tall bonfire that I eagerly interpreted as evidence that real live racists were all around me, just like in my nightmares.
I have another memory, too. This one is real. I remember belonging to a local 4-H chapter when I was about eleven or twelve. I didn’t do much; sewed a felt flag and entered a photography project that was more my dad’s work than my own into a fair, but didn’t go on any camping trips or raise any livestock. In fact, of all the 4-H meetings I attended, only one sticks out in my mind. It was the first one of the year, where the officials of the chapter were elected. That meeting was also the first time I ever met a black child, a girl my own age. I regret that I do not remember her name, nor anything about her other than her blackness. I regret much more what I did next. We were each volunteering for the various roles we wanted to play. (4-H meetings run on a sort of parliamentary procedure, with a secretary to keep minutes and a president, vice president, etc.) And when it came my turn to volunteer the role I wanted to play, I looked right at her and said that I wanted to be treasurer, so I could make sure that nobody was stealing anything.
Of the many sickening aspects of this memory, one especially galls me: I enacted this jaw-dropping racism without ever questioning why I was doing it. With my motive practically hanging above my head in glowing neon, I was filled only with the smug zeal of the teacher’s pet—certain I was enforcing a common good.
It took me a very long time to write out this memory. Over two decades later, it still fills me with intense and lasting shame—as it should. But, over two decades later, I am much less worried by that foggy memory of a burning cross, and much more worried by that memory of myself. I am convinced that the unexamined racism of ordinary white girls and boys, lying dormant like locusts in our brains, is what’s been laying waste to this country. For every cross-burning Klansman, there are one thousand Permit Patties who, certain they are enforcing a common good, will call the police because a black person was “out of place”. Racism has gone through several successful mutations in the past century, but perhaps its most cunning strategy is convincing white people that being A Racist is a full-time job requiring a membership card and uniform, not a temp gig that we all do on the side. If A Racist is something you have to burn a cross to be, then you are forever exempted from the charge. The mere suggestion is cause for offense. (Go ahead, ask a white person if they’ve ever been racist and watch them explode in self-righteous, defensive indignation.) That’s why the KKK make such popular villains in TV and movies—they serve not as warnings, but as reassurances to white Americans. You’re not a real racist. You’ve never used that word. You’ve never burned a cross. You’re one of the good guys. Your own motives remain above reproach or question, even by yourself.
Which meant that I sat in the theater to see “BlacKkKlansman”, Spike Lee’s newest movie, in a fairly complicated headspace. As I absorbed the mindbending predicament of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the black detective who, in the late 1970s, successfully infiltrated a Colorado Springs-area chapter of the KKK, I noticed the mainly-white audience around me giggling as a Klansman (Paul Walter Hauser) scratches his head with the barrel of a handgun, then subsiding into shocked silence as Harry Belafonte (playing a witness) describes the 1916 lynching of Jesse Washington. All the beats land in the right places in this movie: dark humor buckles like rotten wood under your feet, plunging you into horror, before a sly and ticklish joke hauls you right back out again and resets the rollercoaster. That’s fitting for Stallworth’s experience, in which the actual inner workings of the Klan were weirdly mundane—replete with paperwork and snack breaks at meetings—right up until the moment they weren’t. (In one of the movie’s most haunting moments, Washington wanders through an abandoned shooting range used by the Klan, letting his fingers drift over punctured targets as the camera shows only his face. After he departs, the camera turns to let us see the targets: black minstrel figures, which director Spike Lee purchased directly from the Internet, bypassing the props room entirely. Washington was informed of this fact the moment before the cameras began rolling.)
The movie’s most successful moments are all ones of quiet contemplation, as characters stop to consider their place in the world. In one such scene, Adam Driver, playing the white police officer who pretended to be Stallworth at meetings, sits inspecting Stallworth’s new Klan membership card. Reflecting on his non-observant Jewish identity, he wonders out loud if he has been “passing”; wisely, the movie lets the question stand. Similarly, the movie lets Stallworth stand as an uneasy example of “double consciousness”, the schizophrenic view of self that results from living as a black man in a society which hates blank men.
Less successful is the movie’s attempt to put a bow on Stallworth’s own undercover experience by having him bag a racist cop: the incident didn’t happen, but most white audience members, eager to accept the idea of a self-cleaning police department, will miss the hints that the movie has entered the realm of purest fantasy. Ditto the scenes with earnest undergraduate activist Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), whose efforts at consciousness-raising all sound as if they were written by a focus group whose only access to black culture is a single mis-remembered episode of “Shaft”. At one point, Dumas must call Stallworth a “jive turkey”; Harrier pronounces the phrase as though she holds it, pinched between two fingers, at arm’s length. Who is that moment for? Thankfully, more jabs land than don’t, including the moment when a detective explains that David Duke genuinely thinks he will pave the way for an eventual white supremacist president, and all the cops guffaw in incredulous, disbelieving laughter. The theater groaned in unison here, and a number of people in my row made sad, wry eye contact with each other. And in the final moments, Lee floors the gas, taking us up to the present day in a sickening lurch to real footage of the racist marchers in Charlottesville, overlaid by our current president’s assertion that he saw “very fine people” among their numbers. The movie, for me, perfectly captured the horror-movie disorientation of 2016, as my darkest childhood suspicions about the Nazis hiding behind every rock and tree were vindicated. But that sense of vindication is hollow. “BlacKkKlansman” lays the blame for our country’s ugly predicament squarely in a spot which I suspect many of my fellow white Americans will be all too happy to lay it: at the feet of other, more obviously racist white people, people equipped with torches and uniforms, marching in the South. But 58% of us, 58% of white Americans, voted for Donald Trump in 2016. It’s always been us. The calls have always been coming from inside the house.