Recycling posts written on and immediately after election night 2012 lends a critical framework in which to discuss the 2016 election and the challenges we face today. This post is the third in a series of posts that were written during the 2012 election season. We do so to recall the reality on the ground at the moment when President Obama was elected, and how that experience informs our theological reflections this election season.
Election night was a flurry of N-words. Disbelief, denial, despair—and then rage. White people can’t handle it. Whatever world they held dear was turned upside down.
Are they just racists?
Well…no—if you give them their own definition of racism. So…if I am white, to be a racist, I must personally, and individually, deny the basic rights of humanity to every individual Black, colored person, Negro, African-American, what have you. I must directly and personally engage in direct actions (whatever, from lynching, to moving out of the neighborhood) that attack and do harm to a specific individual of the aforementioned designation, and do it consciously, precisely for that purpose without provocation or reason. (Of course, racists always have a reason and the existence of African-Americans can be provocation enough.)
So, whites have the proverbial solitary Black “friend.” Just one—anyone–somebody they run into, somebody they see at the grocery store, somebody they see at work–just give a white person anyone that they define as Black that they have any type of contact with that they define as “friend” and then they are not racists. So, whites cannot be racist. That’s why every group of racists has a Black friend.
In Harpers Ferry, where John Brown conducted his famous raid on the armory to arm enslaved people to start a rebellion, there is a marker to an African-American who was killed trying to stop the Brown raid. The Daughters of the Confederacy placed it. Everybody has a Black friend.
The Black friend makes everything…I don’t know what… OK…at any rate it means in the white mind “white people are not racists.”
Are they just stupid?
Every white progressive just wants to define other white people as stupid. The other whites vote against their “economic interests” in favor of “social issues.”
(Let’s be honest. Every “social issue” is a race issue. Scratch the surface of an issue and you soon find a race dimension.)
At the core of that stupidity is racism. If white and black would unite…so it goes. So whites are stupid, tricked, fooled into voting for whatever.
To say white people are stupid is to miss what “whiteness” means in the United States. The United States did not simply have slavery. It had a system of racial slavery. No white could be a slave. No Black person could be free. (Yes, there were “free” Blacks, but any Black could be brought back to slave status because the presumption is that being Black equates to slave.)
To be a slave was not just a matter of unpaid labor. To be a slave was to be reduced to property. To be bought and sold. To have your children and spouse bought and sold. You could be beaten, abused, or killed. You have no standing to express any human right—because as human property you were not fully human.
No white person can imagine it. Because white people have never experienced it. For white people, “whiteness” is their most cherished position. Whiteness established their humanity, their rights, their being. To have your whiteness challenged means you could be reduced to being Black—to potential slave status—to not be fully human.
For a wide swath of white people, whiteness had to be fought for, to be struggled for, and to be achieved.
These “not-quite-whites” have to distinguish themselves from Blacks. Immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, poor whites, and the Irish all went through the white washing process. And it was a struggle, and the conclusion was not certain—but, by the 1950s all these not-quite-whites came out of the white wash process bright and shiny, newly minted whites. World War II, for practical reasons, had to scrub ethnic differences as a war measure. In the post-war era, federal programs forged the new whiteness, from the GI Bill to federal mortgage assistance. New suburbs blurred all ethnic distinctions, we were all white—except of course Blacks.
To white people, the Civil Rights Movement was not an effort to bring human rights to Blacks. To white people, it challenged their whiteness. Their most prized accomplishment.
And achieving whiteness has real payoffs. Today, most understand that being white means you have less of a chance being shot by police, you are more likely to get a low-interest loan, you are more likely to get most of the better things—from produce at your grocery store to housing. But in the context of the broader post-war U.S., whiteness meant if you were a low skill, lazy, incompetent white man, you got a higher paid job than a higher skill, hard-working, competent Black man.
An understanding of the basic history of whiteness has been lost. But the reality of the whiteness premium remains and white people, whether they are conscious of it or not, fight and vote to preserve it. They are not stupid. They want to protect their most prized possession. And so-called white populism really is just a sense that white people at the top—however one defines the top—are not sufficiently protecting whiteness.