Jesse is a white deputy sheriff in a small Southern town. As the story opens, he is lying in bed with his wife, Grace. The two attempt to have sex but Jesse is unable to achieve an erection. Frustrated, Jesse imagines the dirtier things that he could force a black woman to do. The plot then proceeds in a series of flashbacks.
Jesse first remembers a scene from earlier that day. He and a character named Big Jim C. had arrested a young black Civil Rights leader in town. "They had this line you know, to register, and they wouldn't stay where Big Jim C. wanted them", Jesse recounts to a half-sleeping Grace. Jesse visits the young man in his jail cell. He beats him, shocks him with a cattle prod, and declares, "you are going to stop coming down to the court house and disrupting traffic and molesting the people and keeping us from our duties and keeping doctors from getting to sick white women and getting all them Northerners in this town to give our town a bad name—!"
As Jesse is about to leave the cell, the Civil Rights leader, now barely conscious, says to him, "You remember Old Julia?" Old Julia had been one of Jesse's mail-order recipients in a previous job (a job in which he had deliberately exploited black customers). Jesse suddenly realizes that he'd met the young man years before: he's Old Julia's grandson. Even as a child, Jesse had perceived him to be insolent and disrespectful. Enraged, Jesse beats him again and exclaims, "You lucky we pump some white blood into you every once in a while—your women!" Jesse then grabs his crotch, and feels his penis "violently stiffen".
Still in bed with Grace, Jesse then thinks more generally about how the cultural climate in the South has changed. White supremacy had once been the status quo, but now white folks seem less certain of their inherent superiority. Local black folks have become agitated, and Northerners have taken an active role in Southern politics. Jesse laments these changes. He tells himself that he's doing God's work, "[p]rotecting white people from the niggers and the niggers from themselves", but admits that he "misse[s] the ease of former years" when white folks could be more open about their racism.
Then, "out of nowhere", Jesse recalls the lyrics to an old slave song, "Wade in the Water". This initiates one final flashback to when Jesse was eight years old, riding in a car with his mother and father. The family had heard the song as they passed by a black neighborhood. "I guess they singing for him", Jesse's father says. To whom "him" refers is vague. As a child, Jesse had had a black friend named Otis. He realizes that he has not seen Otis—nor any other black people—for several days, but he does not understand why. "I reckon Otis's folks was afraid to let him show himself", his father says.
The next morning, the white folks in town all gather to witness the brutal lynching of a black man. Jesse sits on his father's shoulders and watches as the man is castrated and burned alive. Whatever offense the man may have committed is never revealed. The scene is gruesome and violent yet treated as a good-natured spectacle for the whites, who leave the charred and mutilated body to rot while they settle down for a picnic.
As he remembers this scene, Jesse looks at Grace with renewed vigor. "Come on sugar", he says, "I'm going to do you like a nigger, just like a nigger, come on, sugar, and love me just like you'd love a nigger". The story ends as Jesse has sex with Grace "harder than he ever had before".