You Can’t Judge A Book By Its Cover: Not Over Overt Racism

The story about the sudden “retirement” of a school superintendent and “resignation” of a school athletic director in Pennsylvania over racist and sexist text messages reminds us that, in spite of popular reports to the contrary, we’re not nearly over overt racism in this country.

The text messages can be read here. I’ll spare you the details and leave you with the option of following the link or just taking my word that the texts express a kind of sexism and racism that is beyond offensive. It made my skin crawl to think of these men providing care and guidance to children, especially girls of color.

I frankly was a little shocked. And that after I spent most of the late 1980s and early to mid-1990s tracking down and exposing vigilante racist and anti-Semitic groups. I’ve witnessed overt bigotry expressed with the force of a brand of hatred that too often ends in violence. That experience stunned me into a state of virtual stoicism in the face of ordinary, everyday bigotry.

But now I’m surprised? With some embarrassment, I admit that my surprise was partly the result of my first having looked at this picture:

In his resignation letter, CASD Superintendent Richard Como said it was time to leave.

That’s Richard Como, a 42 year veteran in the education field, now resigned from his position as the Coatesville, Pennsylvania School District Superintendent because of those texts. I’m guessing it wasn’t just the use of particular words but the force with which he used them that got him into so much trouble.

Does it surprise you even a little? I shouldn’t, but it caught me asleep at the wheel, if even just for a minute.

Even after years of confronting racism in just about every imaginable flavor, from sugar-coated to bitter to down right poisonous, I still carry around a picture in my mind of overt racists and woman-hating sexists as Jethro Bodine stereotypes. For you less than middle-aged readers, here’s Jethro:

And then there’s the updated version, Dog the Bounty Hunter –

That so many of us carry around these images as prototypes of bigotry is unfair and does us no good. Racism is a deeply rooted American value. Sure, it contradicts other American values like democracy, freedom, and equal opportunity, but we’ve lived with that contradiction for centuries. And we’ve piled centuries of racist ideas on top of one another in order to rationalize living with that contradiction – so much so that those rationalizations are as indigenous to American culture as basketball, baseball, and football, all sports whose spread around the world speaks to how U.S. culture infects affects the world.

Making racism the exclusive purview of only certain types of people while letting mainstream racism off the hook is also all-American. It’s a distancing tactic that perpetuates the most effective and difficult to dislodge forms of racism that are all too mainstream, like Stand Your Ground laws and our existing and currently proposed immigration policies.
This tactic was widely popularized in the 1960s. Back then, horrific images of white on black violence in response to civil rights protests caused a shame reaction in Northern whites who quickly distanced themselves from their Southern brethren by popularizing the stereotype of the racist as working-class, small town, Southern, and uneducated.

Distancing of this sort is a trap that leads nowhere. And in case that didn’t cure ya, keep scrolling down –


That’s Jan Brewer, the Arizona Governor who signed Senate Bill 1070 into law in her state, taking racist anti-immigrant politicking to a new low by promoting racial profiling in immigration enforcement.


And here’s Pat Buchanan, graduate of Columbia University and the original host of CNN’s Crossfire. He’s a former advisor to presidents Nixon, Ford, and Reagan who has suggested that the decline of American culture is the fault of immigration and the civil rights lobby, claimed that people can live on public subsidies “from cradle to grave…” and seems to think we’re in a race war.


And then there’s Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute, the racist academic who wrote The Bell Curve. He has suggested a relationship between intelligence and race, and while he also says that environment is also a factor (in terms that suggest that certain American subcultures that seem awfully tan to me are failing), he has further posited that there may be a genetic basis for intelligence. He’s a Harvard man, by the way.

And finally, there’s this guy, Newt Gingrich. Newt may not be a racist in his heart of hearts, but he’s happy to play one for votes by suggesting that poor black people are lazy freeloaders who’ve become overly dependent on welfare and food stamps, proving that when it comes to racism, it’s not just what you truly believe but what you actually do with those beliefs that matters.


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By Scot Nakagawa

Scot Nakagawa is a political strategist and writer who has spent more than four decades exploring questions of structural racism, white supremacy, and social justice. Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against authoritarianism, white nationalism, and Christian nationalism. Currently, Scot is co-lead of the 22nd Century Initiative, a project to build the field of resistance to authoritarianism in the U.S.

Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow, an Open Society Foundations Fellow, and a recipient of the Association of Asian American Studies Community Leader Award. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition,  and Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.

Scot's political essays, briefings, and other educational media can be found at his newsletter, We Fight the Right at He is a sought after public speaker and educator who provides consultation on campaign and communications strategy, and fundraising.

7 replies on “You Can’t Judge A Book By Its Cover: Not Over Overt Racism”

Malcolm X famously said that the “South” was anything south of the Canadian border. Juxtaposing poor, uneducated racists makes racist and classist policies seem less so.

I have lived in the US for 25 years and lived in Canada for 4. During those 4 years, I heard more ethnic slurs on the street than I heard my entire time in the US. I’m not saying that the US isn’t racist. I’m just saying it’s time to stop letting Canada off the hook.

Thanks for including the link Scot.

I hadn’t seen the texts before and I was reading your post I was imagining what they were like. My imagination didn’t come anywhere close, which made your point about how the “distancing tactic” of associating certain types of racism with certain types of white people perpetuates the most effective and difficult to dislodge forms of mainstream racism even more potent for me.

We all do it to some extent, don’t we? I think, in part, it marks the degree to which we’ve internalized norms that ought not be in order to negotiate living in a society that doesn’t match our values.

Thanks, Bob! I appreciate you reading the blog, not to mention your great leadership and service to Nevada.

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