Nearly 30 years ago, comedian Jeff Foxworthy released his hit comedy album, “You Might Be a Redneck If…” It was a massive success, certified triple platinum. It spawned books, a calendar, a board game and all kinds of merchandise that made Foxworthy a millionaire many times over.
Its success was its simplicity — a playful ribbing of the rural South that pointed out the obvious. You might be a redneck if you use a fishing license as a form of ID; your screen door has no screen; you’ve been on TV more than once describing what the tornado sounded like.
That was then, this is now.
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As we argue, both in bad faith and good, over definitions of anti-racism, critical race theory and systemic racism, the answers are not obvious to all. They are complicated and controversial. But sometimes, it’s not complicated.
So the new version of “you might be” isn’t a comedy bit. It isn’t funny at all. But it does point out the obvious.
You might be a racist if... you harass your Black neighbors for months, repeatedly call them “monkeys” and the N-word, chest-bump and try to lick or spit at them to escalate the situation in front of police. There was nothing ambiguous about Edward Cagney Mathews’ motivations this weekend when the Southern New Jersey man was arrested for harassing his Black neighbors, at one point trying to break into one of their homes, threatening them to “come see me,” and calling them racial slurs.
Nor was it ambiguous the other times police were called about Mathews, according to reports, one time for an altercation with four Black neighbors on a corner near his home where Mathews asked bystanders, “Did you know monkeys live here?”
Police say it wasn’t until this latest incident was finally caught on camera that they had probable cause to do something about the angry racist who’d been terrorizing the community with no consequences.
Mathews allegedly boasted often about the police being on his side, insisting they wouldn’t do anything to stop him. It’s a relief that this situation didn’t escalate to senseless violence.
But as clear-cut as incidents like these seem, the culprits almost always insist racism had nothing to do with it.
Mathews has apologized, several times, but blames myriad other things for his months of race-based harassment. In an interview with The Inquirer, he cites a long-running housing dispute with the homeowners’ association. “Let me be clear: That is no excuse for what I said, but I lost my temper.”
Speaking to WPVI on Monday, he said, “I was drunk. I was out of line. I let my anger get the best of me.” And then this: “Whatever I need to do to make it up to the community and the world at this point seeing how big it is, understand that I made a mistake. Allow me the ability to move forward just like we all deserve.”
But, move forward from what? Without making the obvious admission — that he was motivated by his own racism — what exactly has he learned from this incident, other than the fact that he wasn’t actually untouchable by the police?
Episodes of obvious racism deserve admissions of obvious racism.
Amy Cooper, the white dog-walker who threatened to call the police on a Christian Cooper, a Black bird-watcher in Central Park, later claimed, “I’m not a racist. I did not mean to harm that man in any way.” But weaponizing her whiteness against Christian, who graciously refused to press charges, was, nevertheless according to him, “without question, [a] racist response.”
Last year, CrossFit founder and former CEO Greg Glassman belittled the death of George Floyd in a Zoom call with gym owners, and then joked that if racism was a “public health issue,” as the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation suggested, it was “Floyd-19.”
He likewise insisted, “It was a mistake, not racist, but a mistake.”
What was the mistake — accidentally being racist in public?
In 2018, comedian Roseanne Barr tweeted of former Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett, a Black woman, “muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby = vj.”
Her defense? She’d taken Ambien, had been drinking, and was taking antidepressant medication. But also: “I am not a racist, and the people who voted for Trump are not racist either, and Trump is not a racist.”
“You might be a racist if you say and do racist things” isn’t a punchline or a joke, but an obvious truism.
Sometimes racism in America lives in plain sight, and sometimes it hides behind a creed or a badge or a political party.
And some episodes of racism are so blatantly obvious there are no other words for it. And yet, the one word that means the most is the one that is rarely said.
S.E. Cupp is the host of “S.E. Cupp Unfiltered” on CNN.
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