White Shame

Torch-bearing "Unite the Right" bigots showing their true colors.

"How does legitimate white pride look?"

Tony Peterson, one of the people I most respect, posted this question on Facebook twelve hours ago. It's generated a great deal of conversation in that forum, to which I contributed one short response:
 "White pride" is for those who don't know or, worse, ignore history. White shame is where pale-skinned Americans like me need to start.
I posted an essay yesterday about how integral racism has been to the history of the Americas, with a line traceable to the first European explorers and colonists to set foot in the New World. Today's essay draws on much more recent history: specifically, the direct line of racist policies that runs from Richard Nixon to Donald Trump.

Modern racism begins in the 1960s with the passage of civil rights legislation during the Johnson Administration. That's when, for the first time since Reconstruction, the federal government put the full weight of its authority behind correcting the evil that had been allowed free rein in Southern states for almost a century. It took all of President Johnson's considerable skills as a legislator--next to which Mitch McConnell's supposed brilliance is but a dim refrigerator bulb--to push the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts through Congress, but he pulled it off. As he did, he announced to an aide that the Democratic party had just lost the South. It took another thirty years for that prediction to be fully realized, but today it's a hard reality: the South is solidly Republican.

For that to happen, though, it wasn't enough that it took Democratic votes to pass the new laws. It also took Republicans abandoning their century-old association with the abolition of slavery and the promotion, however short it lasted, of the political careers of ex-slaves in the post-bellum South. The betrayal began with Richard Nixon's Southern strategy in 1968. Using language that spoke to angry Southern whites, Nixon ran on a platform of "law and order"--code for cracking down on persons of color and Vietnam War protesters. Once in the White House, Nixon continued to pander to his white racist base, prosecuting a war on drugs that disproportionately focused on these same groups.

Ronald Reagan revisited this racist agenda with his new focus on "welfare queens," a fictional class of poor persons of color viewed as living off the governmental teat rather than finding jobs. The imagery and the language proved hard to eradicate, and culminated in welfare "reform" legislation that victimized poor persons of color. Reagan and both Bushes also continued to push the War on Drugs, as well as backing new criminal codes aimed, again, primarily at persons of color. Black cocaine users received much harsher sentences than white users.

Democratic administrations have struggled to reverse these trends. The welfare reform was actually signed into law by Bill Clinton, who'd been backed into a corner by its popularity among voters of both parties. Under President Obama, the Justice Department relaxed many of its War on Drugs tactics, but Jeff Sessions has sought to shift the department's focus back to prosecuting petty drug possession charges.

So there's a direct line running from Nixon to Reagan through both Bushes and finally to Trump. None of his predecessors came close to the blatant racist-pandering Trump has engaged in, but make no mistake: each of those administrations laid the groundwork for what he's been up to, including the voter suppression policies that seek to reverse the Voting Rights Act, and disenfranchise minority voters throughout the South.

I will admit that in the last few days, I've been heartened by the sheer number of conservative commentators and Republican politicians who've finally begun rebuking Trump for his cozy relationship with white supremacists. It's too little, too late--where were these independent GOP voices during the campaign?--but at least I don't have to go any further down the rabbit hole of wondering what it will take to wake the right up from its fever dream of total domination. It's tempting to focus on indicting conservatives as racists, and imagine Democrats and other progressives to be pure in our rejection of the white right.

Unfortunately, as I've stated before, the history of racism in America runs deep and wide, and no one is completely innocent.

Let's start with the Democratic party. Remember, please, that the Southern politicians who voted to secede from the Union were, to the extent they claimed any party affiliation, almost all Democrats. It was not until the twentieth century that the Democratic party began to shift its focus to representing labor, rather than landowners. In the 1960s, southern Democrats were the most vocal opponents of civil rights legislation. Many of those Democrats ultimately switched parties, especially as Nixon's Southern Strategy came to fruition. In any case, we can't pretend that Democratic hands are clean when it comes to racism: most slave holders were yellow-dog Democrats who'd rather elect a mongrel than a Republican.

Then there are the Republicans: the roots of the party are in the abolition movement. It's tragic that the party has strayed so far from its origins, but as we saw with the Democrats, that's what parties do. In any case, before casting too many aspersions on the Republicans, it's important to remember that, of all political entities in the United States, they had the most laudable principles at their founding.

Fast forward back to the present, and this sad reality: every white person in the United States enjoys privileges unknown to persons of color. I'll take myself as an example: I've been pulled over many times in my life, usually for little things that catch a traffic cop's eye: not coming to a full stop at an intersection, going a few miles over the speed limit, having a brake light out. In almost all those stops, the officers have been cordial, and only once wrote me a ticket.

Contrast that with my Black and Hispanic friends, all of whom have stories of being treated with suspicion and rudeness by the police.

This is simply the easiest example of white privilege I can invoke. I know there are plenty of others I take for granted, or of which I'm completely unaware. But set all that aside, and consider the single privilege that dwarfs all the rest, a privilege enjoyed by persons of all colors and creeds who have the good fortune to live in this time, in this country:

This nation was built by slaves.

There's no getting around it: the economy that drove early American prosperity, the infrastructure that knitted the young nation together, the houses and schools and churches and government buildings in which Americans lived, worshipped, ate, slept, learned, and legislated, all these structures were the products of slave labor. Without slavery, there is no America.

There's no us.

We owe an awesome debt to the slaves and their descendants, these people who were brought here in chains, treated worse than cattle, bred like draft horses, sold away from their spouses and children and parents, for generation upon generation, and whose humanity was challenged even after their owners lost a war that was intended to keep them in captivity. This nation grew out of that abomination, so it can be honestly said that all Americans living today owe a debt of gratitude to our enslaved progenitors.

More than that, those of us who are white owe them are shame. It takes an incredible act of ignorant denial to suggest that anything like "white pride" can exist. If White Americans feel anything about the color of our skin, it should be shame. Across the history of this nation, we have systematically persecuted, exploited, imprisoned, tortured, raped, and murdered persons of color, and not just those of African descent. It was Mexican workers who turned California into an agricultural powerhouse for sub-minimum wages, laboring long hours in dangerous conditions. It was Chinese workers who built the intercontinental railroad that turned the manifest destiny dream into a reality; and that coast-to-coast reality came at the expense of countless indigenous lives.

To know that this is our history and to, nevertheless, feel pride at being a member of this oppressive race is to be the worst kind of human being. I am ashamed to share physical characteristics with David Duke, Richard Spencer, and the white supremacist marchers of Charlottesville. I am ashamed of what my race has done to persons of every other skin tone, to those who had even a drop of non-white blood in their genetic makeup.

So to answer Tony's question: there is no legitimate white pride. Only white shame.

And that's just a beginning. It's not enough to grovel at the feet of those our race has persecuted. It's on us to dedicate ourselves to making amends for the misdeeds of our ancestors, to pay reparations to the descendants of their victims, to work toward a nation in which there really is no distinction between black and brown and white, and all enjoy every privilege of citizenship, regardless of race, ethnicity, or creed.

So put out your stupid torches, you whiny racist bastards. And yes, I'm talking to you, too, Mr. President.

You all ought to be ashamed.


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