Denying the Racist

How do humans react to evil that we see or hear? Usually our reactions fall under two categories that aren’t mutually exclusive: attempts to repair the damage and efforts to distance ourselves from the perpetrators. The closer one is to the source of evil, the more likely that one will focus on the latter course. It’s understandable — most people don’t want to be viewed as violent, hateful, or discriminatory, and will work to differentiate themselves from those responsible.

For a recent case, let’s look at the Boston Bruins’ response to racist abuse (largely on Twitter) directed at Montreal Canadiens defenseman P. K. Subban. Bruins’ President Cam Neeley said in a statement: “The racist, classless views expressed by an ignorant group of individuals following Thursday’s game via digital media are in no way a reflection of anyone associated with the Bruins organization.” People who made these comments were called “sub-human” and more by other fans (the irony of which is notable).

Is it true? Most people would hope so. But it can’t be: we know that Bruins fans (a small minority, to be sure) tweeted this abuse. While only the fans responsible for the abuse should be censured for it, the team and other fans have a shared responsibility for their conduct, in both a moral and public relations sense. Put another way, the actions of any member of a group do have an impact on the image of every member, and the group as a whole has a responsibility to create an environment that discourages and punishes unacceptable conduct.

What does it mean to apply this in practice? It means calling friends out on their racism and pushing for institutional responses to those who engage in racist abuse. In doing so, organizations and people can take steps to prevent evil, hate, and injustice in their name. Instead, most people and groups push the problem away and attempt to describe it as someone else’s concern. It “isn’t us,” “doesn’t represent what we believe” and so on. This is standard PR practice, but it doesn’t solve the problem.

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