Moviegoers today enjoy the Walt Kowalski character in "Gran Torino," who spits epithets — and spits — at his Hmong neighbors and at some young black men. Why is this amusing us? I remember when the same questions were asked about the Archie Bunker character on the 1970s TV sitcom, "All in the Family." Back then, some people said it's terrible to make a racist lovable. It was bad to show this hateful man in a family of good people. Decent people should shun someone like that. One answer was that the storyline was always to prove Archie wrong. The black people next door were better than him: George Jefferson was an industrious entrepreneur and his son was a diligent student. The family that surrounded Archie continually modeled better values, and prodded the stubborn man along the path to a colorblind society of shared values.
Walt Kowalski, by contrast, has been shunned by his family. They minimalize their contact with him and don't have any enlightened values to push on him anyway. He lives alone in his old neighborhood, where he is the only white person left. And it's not as if everything would work out fine if he'd just wake up and quit being a racist. The nonwhite residents have actually ruined his neighborhood. There are no responsible adult males, just violent gangs. His is the only neat green lawn, and his is the only house that isn't dilapidated. His son and daughter think he should give up and move out. So his racism is of a piece with his stubborn refusal to move out, and when he takes action it is to bring his values of hard work and respect for property to the nonwhite residents.
Archie Bunker's racism was delusional, and his problems could be solved by changing his thinking. Walt Kowalski's racism is partly reality-based, and the part that is not reality-based, but Archie Bunker-like, has kept him in the place where he is able to do something about the problems that the other white people have fled.
ADDED: Please note that when I say "Walt Kowalski's racism is partly reality-based," I am referring to the reality depicted in the movie. By the same token, "Archie Bunker's racism was delusional" in the reality of the sit-com, where George Jefferson was an industrious entrepreneur and so forth. We're comparing 2 characters in 2 contexts — and all of it is fictional and the degree of distortion of reality is a separate question.