The roots of white privilege

The Thinker by Rodin

The hatred of poor and minorities across red states has reached unprecedented levels in modern times. Republicans controlling deeply gerrymandered states are doing everything possible to make life as miserable as possible for the poor and minorities. It’s really quite sickening and dispiriting to observe.

The recent acquittal of George Zimmerman who literally got away with murder in Sanford, Florida (while a black woman in Florida got twenty years in prison for firing a gun into a ceiling to frighten away her abusive ex-husband) is really just the tip of the iceberg. It’s Texas that is really turning the screws. They have been helped by a recent, narrowly decided Supreme Court decision, invalidating part of the 1964 Voting Rights act that required preclearance of electoral maps in many states in the Deep South due to their history of voter discrimination. The ink on that decision was hardly dry before red states right and left began passing laws, you guessed it, to further disenfranchise already disenfranchised minorities and poor people. This typically involved more onerous and burdensome rules to be eligible to vote. But of course there will be more of the dirty electoral tricks of the past, but this time with impunity, as minority voters are forced to wait in long lines to vote while wealthy white voters walk into nearly empty precincts and cast their ballots in minutes. Also fair game again are requirements making it harder to vote via absentee ballot and when it is available allowing it for shorter periods of time. Burdensome voter ID laws are also popular.

It’s a full court press being played by these states, including, sadly, here in Virginia. The ferocity, unashamedness and tenacity from those involved in passing these laws though reflect a real fear that the days of white privilege are rapidly coming to an end. This is largely unacknowledged but very, very scary to these whites in power. In some way these laws can be seen as a primal scream of angst and pain coming directly out of their collective ids. It is probably a lot like how white South African Afrikaners felt as apartheid came to an end.

What they have been doing is using all of their oversized power while they can. They also do everything possible to garner more share of the wealth for themselves while they can. Hence, the passage of laws that are needlessly cruel. These laws make the possibility of any minority rising into power and affluence even less likely. They include rejecting Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act (also made possible by a split Supreme Court decision), refusing to set up health exchanges to support the law, increasing sales taxes instead of income taxes which disproportionately hit the poor (here in Virginia we just raised the sales tax to six percent), cutting allocations for Medicaid, cutting school lunch programs, cutting food stamps (aided and abetted by Congress), and requiring women to travel hundreds of miles to get an abortion. It’s all this plus passing punitive laws for those you particularly despise, like poor pregnant women. Force them to get an intrusive trans-vaginal ultrasound prior to having an abortion, and force clinics to close by requiring hospital-wide corridors in their clinics. Also, require physicians to be affiliated with a regional hospital.

Curiously the result of all this will produce a whole lot more poor and minorities, who are likely to suffer a diminished quality of life, and who will be at real risk of hunger if not outright starvation as assistance for the poor is continually cut back. Which means that when the demographics actually flip (and it won’t be long in places like Texas) and minorities figure out a way to actually leverage their political power, retribution is likely to be swift and severe.

The larger question is: why do so many whites revile minorities so much? Why the hatred? Why is it so naked? Why are we openly or covertly racist? How do we lose empathy for people not like us, if we ever had it in the first place? Where does the notion of white privilege come from anyhow? How does it get planted into our brains? What explains the severe overreaction by Texas legislators, particularly in recent months? How do these people get up in the morning, look themselves in the mirror, and avoid feeling horribly ashamed?

These are good questions, ones that are rarely asked but ones I am beginning to understand thanks to a book I am reading. It makes for uncomfortable reading, at least if you are white. It’s a challenging but an honest book. Its author is Thandeka (she has no first name that I can discern), who can speak with some authority because she is not white, has studied the problem extensively and spends most of her time ministering to white people (Euro-Americans is how she calls us). If you feel up to the challenge, read her book Learning to be White: Money, Race and God in America. I heard her speak recently and her talk was both deeply moving and deeply disturbing. If you think you are not racist, she has a simple exercise you can try. Simply spend a week and every time you talk about someone in the third-person, indicate their race. Talk about your white girlfriend, your white mother, your white cousin, instead of leaving race out of it. She calls it the Race Game.

Stating that someone is white explicitly it turns out is something that few whites can do for very long. It’s part of an unspoken code and you will almost certainly find the white person you are talking to will distance themselves from you if not estrange themselves from you permanently. Why is this? Thandeka says it is because we once were truly colorblind. We had to learn to be white, and when we did it caused us to feel shame, shame that we quickly learned to ruthlessly suppress. Almost all of us whites have carefully hidden this part of ourselves, which is picked up in childhood and hidden it under layers of self-protection. We feel ashamed to acknowledge this is a value that we had to pick up in order to belong, because social ostracism was simply not an option to growing up. We learned for our own survival that we must shield ourselves from thinking about it. So we put up all sorts of defense mechanisms, never think about them and of course feel exquisitely uncomfortable when we are forced to think about them, particularly aloud.

It’s what’s playing out now in Texas and across the south. It’s virtually unheard of for any white person in the United States not to carry some feelings of racism, and even harder to get rid of them. This doesn’t mean that we think of ourselves as racist, just that we carry these values that we cannot truly shake off. Shame is one of the hardest psychological conditions to cure because it means we must acknowledge deficiencies in ourselves publicly that will cause us to be ostracized. Most of us carry shame around with us, even if we are not aware of it. Shame about how we feel about the poor is another of them. It is easier to assert privileges we do not deserve and project our inadequacies and fears onto others than it is to confront the awful tragedy that this behavior wreaks not just on us, but on those we project it on: Ronald Reagan’s food stamp mother buying steaks and driving Cadillacs and African Americans who simply lack the will to better themselves. It’s amazing we can see the systematic discrimination exercised against blacks and minorities every single day by police officers and shrug it off.

Sadly, these mental conditions whites carry are resulting in actions principally across the South right now, but certainly not exclusively. We all play our race cards, overtly or implicitly. There is a reason I live in a relatively prosperous and mostly non-black community. I feel more comfortable in such a community. We pick communities where we feel comfortable, and it will tend to model the faces, lifestyles and values that we had growing up.

These are all values we pick up and we unknowingly anchor our lives around them. They might as well be part of the air that we breathe; they color our prejudices and our lives. Like it or not in the decades ahead as demographics inexorably change the color of our country, we will be taking many of the same steps to a post-racial America that occurred in South Africa a couple of decades ago. It’s probably not going to go very well, and cause a lot of tension and violence.  Some of this you can already see leaching out from our Supreme Court and places like the Texas legislature and courtrooms in Sanford, Florida.

Let’s hope we emerge from it with our blinders off and able to see everyone as brothers and equals. When that day comes, should I still be alive (and I probably won’t), white guys like me will also echo the words of Martin Luther King along with our minority friends: “Free at last, free at least, thank God almighty I am free at last.”

The shadows of racism

The Thinker by Rodin

If you had to pick one word almost guaranteed to raise people’s dander here in the United States, I would pick “reparations”. Almost everyone acknowledges that bad and misguided policies in our past caused the oppression, enslavement, relocation if not deaths of millions of Native and African Americans. However, almost every white person today feels that while these things happened long ago, they didn’t cause them so they should be held harmless. In addition, since discrimination by race is now illegal, the problem of racism is solved! Discussion over!

Arizona is attempting to deal with illegal immigration through essentially legislating ethnic profiling, which of course is just legislated racism. Just imagine the ruckus if roles were reversed and whites were judged likely of not being a citizen because they were white. That this is happening in Arizona of all places is more than a little ironic. Whites settled states like Arizona largely by pushing Native Americans and Hispanics off the land where they were the natives. Moreover, the vast majority of Hispanics living in Arizona are legal residents, and native born. But since Hispanics coming from Mexico illegally are considered a pervasive problem, sure, just write a law saying it’s okay to ethnically profile all Hispanics in Arizona!

They say the victors write the history books, and this is true particularly here in the United States. Here our history books give short shrift to issues like the forced relocation of Native Americans but plenty of puffing up how special and blessed our republic is. While Americans certainly enjoy an extraordinary amount of freedom compared with most countries, our history books and our history teachers have omitted a whole lot of pertinent facts that would present a more balanced picture of our history. While I was aware of the general problem, I did not understand the full extent of the problem until I started reading Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen, a historian, sociologist, professor and scholar.

Loewen’s in depth research is both fascinating and depressing. Most students studying history have little idea of our real history because, like in the old Soviet Union, so much of it has been airbrushed away. For example, few know that Christopher Columbus and the policies of the colonial Spanish government exterminated the natives of Haiti. Most of us have no idea that more than ninety five percent of the Native Americans living in what is now the United States died from diseases we brought over from Europe.

It’s all there and more, and it’s a sad, sorry but interesting story. For the most part, we know that Patrick Henry would accept only liberty or death, but don’t know that Patrick Henry was also a slaveholder and believed that negroes were intellectually inferior, a common view among whites at the time. We may have heard that Thomas Jefferson was a slaveholder as well. Yet, the handfuls of slaves that he freed upon death were related to him by blood. He actually increased the number of slaves in his household as he aged. His father owned slaves too, which accounted for his relative wealth, but Jefferson’s wealth, his fabulous Monticello estate (which I visited recently), not to mention his huge collection of books, most of which went to the University of Virginia that he founded came from wealth generated by human beings that he enslaved.

Nor are we aware that the first settled colony in what is now the United States was not Jamestown, but one populated by rebellious slaves in what is now South Carolina, slaves who were aided and assisted by inclusive Native Americans. I had no idea that many whites that came to this country joined Native American tribes, finding with them a much freer and inclusive life than was available in their colonies, where they were often oppressed or indentured. I had no idea that in 1864 at Democratic Party rallies people gleefully sang (to the tune of “Yankee Doodle Dandy”) the “Nigger Doodle Dandy” with lyrics like:

Yankee Doodle is no more,
Sunk his name and station;
Nigger Doodle takes his place,
And favors amalgamation.

The sad truth is that we were a largely segregated society because the whites would have it no other way. For much of our history, the United States emulated South Africa under Apartheid. The Civil War solved the issue of slavery, but it did not change that many hearts. Hearts change slowly, over many generations, and racism never seems to die out completely.

In my last post, I mentioned my recent trip to Richmond, Virginia and the proud, almost obnoxious way it clings to its Confederate past. Our governor Bob McDonnell made the national news recently by proclaiming Confederate History Month in Virginia. In his proclamation he left out any reference to the evils of slavery, an omission, he says that was entirely accidental. Umm, right. If it weren’t for the discord between North and South on slavery, there would have been no Civil War. Curiously, only recent Republican governors bother to proclaim Confederate History Month. Democratic governors seem to realize that the Confederacy was a terrible mistake and slavery, the animus that started the Civil War, was a great wrong.

The truth is that even in the 21st century we are still at best only beginning to emerge into a post racial society. Professor Loewen though does an exquisitely professional job of documenting just how pervasive the racism was, why and how it still exists today. It exists due in part to the victors writing the history books. Moreover, selective rewriting our textbooks to fit our current political state of mind is still going on. Perhaps you read about misguided efforts by the Texas Education Board to rewrite history by discounting the role of Thomas Jefferson in the founding of our Republic. Perhaps Texas could start by telling the truth about its own history. White ranchers who craved the land held for generations by Hispanics who inconveniently lived there already formed the short lived Republic of Texas. Not surprisingly, they also considered the Hispanics to be intellectually inferior. The Battle of the Alamo in what is now San Antonio (and which I expect to visit in a few weeks) was a pivotal event in this lost cause. It was one of the reasons Texas decided to join the United States. There was strength in numbers and the United States was acknowledged as a white people’s country.

Much of the animus behind The Tea Party comes from largely unacknowledged racism. The party is overwhelmingly white, Republican and a majority believes crazy things like President Obama was born in Kenya.

What would real reparations look like? It is hard for me to really envision, but it would be justice if all profits earned at the Monticello estates went to scholarships for African Americans. That might make some small amends for Jefferson’s racism and enslavement of over two hundred human beings. It would be a start. In truth, we’ve got a long road ahead of us if we want to be post racial in fact, as well as in law.