Good solid two feet of snow last week in Brooklyn, Dear Reader, and it’s gotten me thinking about whiteness.
I mean, I’ve been thinking about whiteness for some time, but it’s a very quiet early morning at the Man About Town Brooklyn redoubt, with only the whistling of the radiators and the desultory, distant scraping of cars being dug out to break the silence. It’s a good time for a blog post.
And I’m white. This will not come as a surprise to any of you who’ve met me, and probably to most of you who haven’t. I’m white, and I try very hard to think about the impacts of race and racism on my life, on the lives of my friends and colleagues, on the lives of the people I work to support through my job, and on the society as a whole. At the risk of wearing my political correctness like a suicide vest, I feel very compelled to talk a little bit about the popular demagoguery of The Donald.
Now, I don’t know the Donald personally. I do have a friend in banking who was tasked with putting his firm on a financial leash at least one of the times they declared bankruptcy. My friend found him to be everything you’d expect in their short interactions: brusque, arrogant, dismissive. For my part, I can safely say that I’ve always thought The Donald was a jerk. A wealthy jerk. A wealthy, white jerk.
But my goodness his political star is in the ascendancy. It’s been absolutely fascinating to watch – a real slow motion train wreck for establishment Republicans and your garden variety conservative. To follow their collective #squirmishes has been one of my greatest pleasures in the depths of this long, cold, white political season.
And I don’t think The Donald’s ascendancy would be possible without the Obama Presidency. It’s symbiotic. It is the complement to the reality of our country’s first black President. The Donald’s supporters (older, male, white, less educated) intersect with those of the Tea Party (older, male, white, more educated), which came to life immediately after President Obama’s inauguration in 2009. The Tea Party was birthed not through a true grass roots rebellion against The Establishment, but through the combined efforts of Fox News, the Koch Brothers and commentators like Rush Limbaugh. Folks with deeply ideological agendas, powerful self-interests, and now a black man in charge to blame things on.
The fomenting has all along been opposed to health care reform (“socialism”), immigration reform (“political correctness”), gun control (“government domination”), gay rights and abortion rights (“moral laxity”), and global warming (“government deception”). It’s been a carefully crafted campaign of anti-establishmentarianism, anti-government intervention with President Obama as bogeyman-in-chief. And through it all racism is the hate that dares not speak its name.
For Tea Party (and Donal Trump) supporters, they’ve been told their world is coming to an end. And here’s where I think the fomenters of dissent have a point: they may be right.
We are increasingly a multi-cultural, urban-centric, non-industrial country. These changes are fast moving and clearly observable within the span of our lifetimes. Mostly older, mostly white, mostly rural and mostly male Americans are struggling in the wake of longer term economic trends that have reduced paychecks and job prospects, made far worse by the economic collapse of 2008. They are dying at alarming rates from drinking, drug abuse and suicide (guns, BTW, are the favored method). This is a real public health crisis in this country. The problem is that instead of talking about the complex, global challenges that are driving these trends, The Donald (and Fox News and the Koch Brothers and commentators like Rush Limbaugh) are serving their very own particular interests by blaming mostly non-white, mostly urban, mostly poor, mostly less educated folks who are also struggling with pretty much the same issues.
And I think it’s easier for struggling white folks to blame struggling non-white folks because we have a black President.
Asked if too much has been made of the problems facing African-Americans, 52 percent [of self-identified Tea Party members] said yes. That compares to 28 percent of Americans overall who say too much has been made of the problems facing blacks, and 23 percent of non-Tea Party whites who say as much. – NY Times / CBS News poll
The leading two issues that The Donald’s supporters rally to are: (1) immigrants are arriving in the US ready to kill us, and (2) Political Correctness is allowing it to happen. To this second point we can add the belief that President Obama and Political Correctness have actually divided America more deeply along racial lines.
And The Donald (representing the demagogic wing of the Republican party, but certainly not acting alone), is riding this tide of fear and resentment by stoking it with lies about thousands of Muslims in Jersey City cheering the destruction of the World Trade Centers, or Mexico sending drug dealers and rapists over the border to the US, or how folks can’t talk about these “truths” because then they are called racist xenophobes.
This crap, shockingly, appear plausible to struggling white folks. And I kind of understand why: many of their communities are in decline, friends are drinking / drugging themselves to death, and they are looking for someone to blame that’s not themselves. Because it isn’t themselves, really. The problem is, it’s not immigrants and black people, either.
This is where we get to white privilege. The six, white Desert Vista High School high school girls who turned their school’s message of encouragement into a racial slur thought it was funny. They probably thought it was funny because it was transgressive. They probably had some awareness that they were breaking one of the cardinal rules of white privilege: you don’t make your racism overt. They probably weren’t thinking that the slur is our most powerful reminder of 250 years of US slavery, and the brutal terrorism of lynchings that occurred after Reconstruction and into the Jim Crow era, and of Jim Crow itself which used state-sanctioned police violence to suppress civil rights, and of the New Jim Crow which has converted the criminal justice system into a mechanism for disenfranchising vast numbers of people of color – especially black and Latino men.
That’s white privilege. We white folks can easily forget that racism is still very much alive and well. That it’s a crushing, killing force in an unequal society. And that it’s still the most powerful tool for making struggling white folks think that their problems are the result of empowered people of color. The problems of struggling white folks are vastly, overwhelmingly caused by other white folks. Other white folks with money, and lots of it. Other white folks whose interests are served by having struggling white folks focus their anger and resentment not against them, but against struggling people of color.
In short, The Donald’s popularity is based in large part on coded message of racist fear-mongering. And this message sounds plausible to the struggling white folks who make up his primary base of support because they really are struggling. They are getting fed thinly veiled racist pabulum by their their white, wealthy leaders because their white, wealthy leaders have a lot to gain by having them believe it. And the upcoming electoral season is shaping up to catalyze a debate within the Republican party (and our country in general) about whether we as a country are going to act as if such screed could be true.
Look, you know I’m a Liberal. Capital L. I’m certainly preaching to the choir, because it’s very unlikely that The Donald’s supporters are reading my damn blog. But while it’s white out there folks, it’s not going to stay that way. We’re melting! If you ask me, that’s a wonderful thing, but then again I’m not an unemployed former industrial worker in Oklahoma. In fact, if anything, I’m a member of the white, Liberal elite: having a college education and a well-paid job and loving life in Brooklyn.
And I LOVE the President. I think he rocks. And I think his presidency has been under attack from the very beginning by a not-so-subtle racism that’s inflamed the very fire in the belly of America, which is our particular history as a deeply racist, slave-owning country.
I think this upcoming election is a turning point in our understanding of our country’s history of institutionalized racism. I think the Obama Presidency has been its catalyst. And, believe it or not, I’m actually hopeful that we’re finally talking about it in ways we never have before. Good ways. Ways that are making a difference. It’s not that we’re more Politically Correct – or maybe it is. All I know is that it feels to me like we’re actually being more open and honest about racism.
This is happening in large part because we have a black President and many other incredible emerging black leaders (and Hispanic leaders, and women leaders, and immigrant leaders…) who actually talk about it. It’s not happening fast enough, and too many people are still dying or living crippled lives because of bad policies based on institutionalized racist principles. But I’m looking forward to watching the conversation unfold with great eagerness. Despite the polarized nature of the national conversation, I think the revolution is headed in the right direction.
Until next time, stay strong, stay dapper.