Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Rotten Heart of White Conservatism or Are White Americans Oppressed?

"A working class white guy, a working class black guy, and a rich white CEO are sitting at a table with a plate of a dozen cookies. The CEO reaches across the table, takes 11 cookies, and then turns to the poor white guy and says, "Look out for that darky, he wants a piece of your cookie."

Premise: White people in America are oppressed. Problem: If white folks are losing, I can't even begin to imagine who is winning.

Over the weekend CNN featured an article which examined the question of how and if white Americans are oppressed in the Age of Obama. As of today, that story has almost 8,000 comments and has been shared on Facebook by 46,000 people. Voices as varied as Tocqueville, Myrdal, Hacker, Dubois, and others have long observed that race is America's national obsession. It predated the country's founding; was a crucial problem at the heart of America's "democratic" origins as a slaveocracy; and even after the Civil Rights Movement, the slaying of de facto state sponsored racism in the form of Jim Crow, and the election of the first non-white President, the bugaboo of America's racial project remains well and alive in to the 21st century.

However, because some folks may feel a thing to be true--here being a sense that Whiteness is under siege, especially as perceived by racially resentful and some grossly entitled white Americans--does not make it so. Just as the left and progressives proceed from the big lie that is the myth of "the liberal media" when they rebut Fox News on those terms, a conversation about White oppression necessarily begins from an inversion of history. As the bastard child of opinion journalism where standards of fact and credulity have been thrown by the wayside in the interest of higher ratings, the narrative of white oppression is one where the emperor truly has no clothes. In short, the meme of an America where whites are oppressed is utter balderdash because the argument itself is based on a lazy, tired, and easily exposed fiction.

Consider the following inconvenient facts.

1. CNN's article suggests that White America has not and does not think of its interests in racial terms. Thus, the White Conservative, New Right backlash in the Age of Obama is somehow novel. It is a new phenomenon in this country's history. While an uncomfortable fact for many to acknowledge, America is a country founded as a formal white supremacist republic from the bone of its traditions down through to the sinew and muscle of its laws and creed. Moreover, the struggle for a multiracial democracy is in many ways contrary to the American political tradition.

2. White America has long cried that it is being oppressed and is under siege. First, white people were oppressed by slaves who had the unmitigated gall to want their freedom (and those horrible abolitionists and others who aided them). Then, White America was oppressed by those pesky Civil Rights types that wanted to bring down Jim Crow and shatter the tradition of States' Rights. White America had to suffer another insult and oppression when various people's movements have sought to expand the republic's exclusive democracy beyond those nominally male, straight, and middle class.

3. A violent, white ethnic backlash greeted the gains of the Civil Rights Movement when Dr. King and others turned their sights northward. By extension, the narrative of white folks as victims has long circulated in this country because it pays political dividends to those who deploy it. The psychic and material wages of whiteness are profoundly insecure in the minds of those who possess those out-sized, unfair, and unearned life chances by virtue of the chance of birth. When those undue privileges are imagined as being under threat, that realization can easily spawn Right-wing reactionary movements such as anti-government militias, the Tea Parties, the John Birch Society, Councils of Conservative Citizens, and the Ku Klux Klan.

4. Perhaps most importantly, the narrative of White oppression in the Age of Obama overlooks a basic historical trend in the United States: Whiteness keeps on winning. It is dynamic, multifaceted, adaptive, and all encompassing. In the same way that the Irish, Italians, Eastern Europeans, and Jews were assimilated into Whiteness in the 20th century, there are racial groups who are not considered White today that will be embraced with open arms by Whiteness in the America of tomorrow.

In total, the election of Barack Obama and the decade(s) long decline of American empire have brought to the forefront a reality that radical scholars and thinkers have long suspected of being true, but is now impossible to deny: the White Soul is in crisis.

Whites as a group have controlled in an anti-democratic fashion (and continue to this day) every major social, political, and economic institution in the United States. Yet, if one listens to Beck, Limbaugh, and the New Right Tea Party's "real American" brigades, one would think that white folks (who on average have at least ten times the wealth of blacks and Latinos) are being asked to sit on the back of the bus under the heavy thumb of Jane and Jim Crow. To be so withdrawn from reality, Whiteness and the White (Conservative) Soul must draw on pathological levels of narcissistic entitlement, privilege, and historical myopia that collectively merit an entry in the DSM-IV.

By metaphor, the politics of White oppression and white racial resentment are the embodiment of the spoiled brat at the birthday party. The kid has everything and does not even realize it. But, when asked to share (or if another child gets a gift or some small amount of attention) a temper tantrum inevitably ensues.

This is the new face of White supremacy in the 21st century. It does not wear a hood or formally deny one the opportunity to rent an apartment or get promoted at one's job. And as a wink to its sophistication, the new racism against whites framing works through its lie by borrowing the language, icons, and symbols of the Civil Rights, women's, and multicultural movements of the 1960s. In these language wars, aided and abetted by the Right-wing echo chamber of Fox News and the Right-wing blogosphere, liberals become fascists and racists, while Conservatives and Republicans hold the flame of anti-racism and social justice. Sadly, few if any reasonable folks raise voices of protest for fear of offending "the silent majority" and consequently suffering the slings and arrows of conservative demagogues.

Practically, the new/old racism of the New Right Tea Party GOP proceeds from an unstated assumption that to be in power is to be White. To be qualified for any job, anywhere, is the norm (thus the ugly language of "qualified" minorities, women and why the pundit classes and the White public never asks if a white man is "qualified" for his job). Glaringly, the new racism of White oppression works from a foundation that to be white is consequently to be in a natural position of authority and responsibility. And most pointedly, to be a "real" American is to be White. Thus, the Right's obsession with Barack Obama and his Kenyan father, and the belief held by a majority of Republicans that the President is not born in this country naturally follows from said toxic premise.

History is not without a sense of humor. The White Soul is both easily distracted, as well as misdirected, in its energies and anxieties. In addition, the White Soul is not very sophisticated politically. Consequently, the question of White oppression is designed by the Right to veer onto the third rail (borrowing from the subway analogy) in American politics instead of asking hard questions about class inequality in the 21st century and how the top 20 percent of Americans now possess 90 percent of the wealth. As White elites have been doing for centuries (since at least Bacon's Rebellion in the 17th century), they are expertly practiced in how to best manipulate the White Soul.

Rather than ask if everyday white people are being "oppressed," not by their black and brown brothers and sisters or immigrants, but instead by the rich, the forces of globalization, and the financiers, the mass media leads white conservatives (and many white folk in mass) by the nose onto well-trodden, familiar territory where the ice is thinnest. As the Great Recession has proven, this move makes full and feeds the belly of Whiteness temporarily, but this feasting on the scraps of racial resentment leaves the White Soul empty in the long term. To our collective detriment as Americans, neither impulse serves the common good or brings us to a great, undiscovered country.


Shady_Grady said...

Very well written and argued.

Constructive Feedback said...

What Of "White Progressivism"?


Unknown said...

I'm white and I grew up in the South, so all my life I've heard claptrap about how, post-Affirmative Action, caucasians are the new, or "real", oppressed minority. I've heard it from unabashed white supremacists and from supposed liberals, but I never expected the idea to get a platform on CNN. It's nothing but a sneaky way for whites to have our identity politics and eat them, too - to decry attempts to redress historical imbalances as "racist", while simultaneously maintaining privileges obtained through those imbalances. Pretty clever of us, no?

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

You've done a fine job of summarizing the insanity of these claims of oppression. I don't even think those who are crying "oppression" really believe what they are saying, they're fighting tooth and nail to retain their privilege.

In the midst of an economic crisis brought on by cowboy capitalism, it is teachers, union workers, NPR, and racial minorities who are getting blamed for it.

Big Man said...

Don't you find it interesting that white folks on the right and left seem to come together pretty well when it involves sanitizing American History of all the nasty parts. There only differences seem to be the differences of degrees.

Plane Ideas said...

Superb analysis including the courage and integrity of naming becoming groups becoming white and enjoying the privledges of being white...

I see the value of writing under an alias I have often written about the the other white meat and about the domestic holocuasts here on American soil only to be attacked as being a 'swartza'..

Great talking points I will leverage going forward..

ish said...

I heard that joke at the top of this column also (and put it on my own blog), but it didn't have any races specified. I'm fascinated by whether your source added that part or mine deleted it.

chaunceydevega said...

@Shady. Thanks as always.

@Joshua. You know that racism is the greatest invention of all time?

@Werner. How dare you support those socialist union types who demand fair wages!

@Big Man. Don't get me started on liberal racism. There are two sides to this rotten story.

@Thrasher. Thanks. Talking points are good. We need to fight back and not lose for a lack of shooting back.

@Ish. I got that from one of the comments on the CNN site. Seemed perfect.

fred c said...

There are still too many of the "not my sister; not my neighborhood" Liberals around. False friends, for true.

Honest history and facing facts would be a good place to start fixing the mess, but getting it out will be a tough row to hoe right there.

Ordo Abchao said...

If we're talking about economics, really, then everyone's oppressed. This is how the game is rigged: it's not white, black, racism, or non-racism-- those are all systems created to further the real divide between people, which is purely class based. In other words, rich versus poor. This is the real battle, not this stupid, white people have it bad, black people have it bad s**t-- though those realities exist and quite poignantly. EVERYONE, skin tones aside, are being separated into have and have nots-- this is why white people are mad, because they are beginning to realize that they aren't any different from the people they've been quietly told to feel better than. They, the underprivileged (and I use that term extremely loosely) white population, are finding it more and more difficult to separate themselves from the have nots, and this angers them because historically, they have been told and treated as if they are different from the common working man (whom is overwhelming a person of colour).

BUt you (whites) are not different, really. Everyone is a pawn to be moved at the whim of wealth. That's way it's always been and will continue to be. This is what Malcolm towards the end of his life, and MLK tried to teach muthaf**kas-- poor people together must fight to overcome the self-perpetuating cycle of rich versus poor, among other things. This is also why they were assassinated. The minute you try to unite poor people, it's a wrap for you a political leader... Why do you think that is?

Statistically, there are more white people in america who are poor, but only because they make up 50- 55% of the population. People of colour are less of the population but maintain a higher percentage of poverty in their communities... There is only one real oppression, and that's the oppression of class-- rich versus poor-- everything's an offshoot of that central paradigm. The real question is: will poor whites ever realize who they are really being oppressed by? Because if they do, in this country, maybe things will change..


3ChicsPolitico said...

Good Post!

Plane Ideas said...


Good analysis but short on the reality of the currency of culture..WHites of whatever class have always had a belief in thier racial genetic superority an analysis based on class is a pass for this racial/cultural reality..

MLK, Malcolm both great men but they did not have a script for this universal law even Mandela talked about how even progressive whites in South Africa were infected with privledge and cultural arrogance..

Nevertheless the struggle can still be a win-win and the outcome a wonderful result

zimzimma said...

Great piece! I especially liked/felt "Rather than ask if everyday white people are being "oppressed," not by their black and brown brothers and sisters or immigrants, but instead by the rich, ...the mass media leads white conservatives... by the nose onto well-trodden, familiar territory where the ice is thinnest."

It's frustrating to see so much anger misdirected towards the wrong group when all oppressed ppl actually have the same common enemy...and they're making a killing without receiving any blame or negative attention. I guess it's hard to convince a slave that he's actually a slave.

chaunceydevega said...

@Fred C. You know how I feel about liberal racists...

@Ordo. Be careful of overlooking nuance and flattening the story. Whiteness is about property--metaphorical, literal, and symbolic. White folks who are honest are smart to be invested in whiteness because it has paid off handsomely in the form of material and financial opportunities that they have accrued directly, indirectly, and inter-generationally. The balloon is bursting, so now we see the crisis of the White soul. This is nothing new, the Tea baggers were here centuries ago. They will be here in decades to come.

@3Chics. Thanks.

@Thrasher. Funny how many folks forget that Brother King was in favor of economic justice and that is how he met his destiny.

@Zimzimma. Or alternatively as the old saying goes, "I am white, 21 and an American!" What else do I need.

fred c said...

I guess we need to remember that there's more than one "enemy," and that one oppressed group can be the enemy of another oppressed group, especially in very competitive situations. Nice of you to wait for one of us to point this out, Professor. You're a good teacher.

Anonymous said...

food for thought.

i certainly agree white are not oppressed.
i believe this issue has been mislabeled/misidentified.

i believe what people mean to be pointing out is that white black Mexican or anything else, nobody even of the same race is treated the same by our system.
which is the real problem, which causes the tension.
if we reduced the special interest actions and got down to simply treating all Americans the same, as opposed to making a point to identify differences and tilting the field to make it level.

All americans went through trials to get here and have their families be part of this society and yes black had it real bad, a lot to go through.
but to correctly think of the situation NOW not fret over the past
Its that we have screwed up the playing field soo much trying to get things right we aren't letting the wounds heal properly.

We need educated folks like yourself then to be bigger and try to see the situation for what it is.

not oppression, just a playing field with too many land mines in it for anyone to have an idea of what fair play is.

PS we are a republic not a democracy

Plantsmantx said...

We need educated folks like yourself then to be bigger and try to see the situation for what it is.

What? This post is about him seeing the situation for what it is. You need to give that advice to the whites who think they're oppressed.

Leslie M-B said...

Another excellent post. I have to admit that growing up in Los Angeles County and living near the Bay Area for much of my adult life, I didn't hear too much of this kind of rhetoric. (Head to the wealthier burbs of Orange County and it's a different story, of course!) But it's all over the media, and I hear bits of it--but maybe not as much as I expected--in my new home state of Idaho.

I will say that the late-Gen Xers of my family (born in the mid- to late 1970s) have definitely been aware of our whiteness. We've applauded whenever someone brings home someone who looks different from us because, as one cousin put it, it might move us out of the "no diving end of the gene pool." (Note: I'm not saying all whites occupy the shallow end--just that our particular family might benefit from some diversity. Plus "gene pool" here is metaphorical as well as literal.) And I remember being in 6th grade at a church function one winter, and my sister--then in 3rd grade--looked out over the all-white crowd and said, "Looks like it's going to be a very white Christmas." So this kind of thinking set in early. Being raised in Long Beach helped, though we were in a mostly-white neighborhood. It wasn't all racial kumbayah, but there was definitely an awareness of our whiteness.

I know many of my white peers who grew up around LA feel most white not when we're the only white people in a large crowd, but rather when we're surrounded by white people. I'm deeply uncomfortable in such a context--not just intellectually, but on a queasy gut level.

I guess my question is: what cultural phenomena coalesced to make us not only aware of our whiteness but also uneasy in its overwhelming presence and the way it asserts its privileges? Your thoughts?

chaunceydevega said...

@Anon. Thanks for chiming in. Question, and I am working on this for next week, why do reasonable, centrists, leftists, progressives, or others have to cater to the b.s. of the histrionic mouth breathing right wing. This is why the former are losing. I will not be held responsible and have the expectation of not speaking truth to power because the opposition is not ready for the real world. That is why the forces of progress and justice are losing in this country.

@Plants. Love the tag team hot tag. I will be Sean, you can be HHH.

@Leslie. Good questions. I will bump that one up this weekend or Monday. Nice to hear your new voice in the cipher. Much appreciated as we are a band with much funk always trying to find new sounds.

ish said...

Chauncey, along the line of rightwingers whinging about what victims they are, I've mentioned this blogpost in my own latest post about the distopian scifi videogame "Homefront" in which little blonde American children are oppressed by an occupying horde of North Koreans.


Nortaneous said...

CNN missed the point on this one. Nobody is seriously claiming that *every* white is oppressed. To claim that the argument goes that even whites who "have everything" are oppressed is as disingenuous as it would be to claim that the civil rights movement was unnecessary because all blacks were in a comparable situation to C. J. Walker.

What is actually being claimed is that whites who are already in bad situations are worse off than minorities in otherwise comparable situations, because they are white, and that whites in bad situations are commonly ignored (including in your post!) because they do not fit the narrative of whites as the racial elite. This narrative may hold true on average, but there are enough edge cases that are completely ignored that it is of no practical use. Or do you really mean to say that the son of a white coal miner in rural West Virginia, who attends an underfunded public school in a very poor area, has only dial-up internet (if that!), and has effectively no access to resources is somehow better off than the son of a black government employee in Prince George's County?

I'd say CNN should've gone to Jim Goad (http://www.amazon.com/Redneck-Manifesto-Hillbillies-Americas-Scapegoats/dp/0684838648) instead of trotting out a series of uninformed academics. (As a relatively disadvantaged Southern white who ended up attending an elite college in the Northeast, I have to question the ability and readiness of academia to understand what's going on here. I told some of my professors what I've lived through and they thought I was making it all up. As if it's really that unimaginable that the multicultural club in my high school refused to let in anyone who wasn't black, or that black supremacist sentiments were widespread and occasionally led to racially motivated violence, or that a black teacher with suspected ties to black supremacist organizations would initiate expulsion procedures against four of the five white students in one of her classes on blatantly falsified charges...)

Anonymous said...

Although the idea of "white people" being oppressed in the United States is down right laughable. The author of this article is a disgusting racist! It's truly amazing that all the people gripping about "racism" here are all so racist! Are you all insane morons???

P.S. the nameless author, has no clue when it comes to American history. Ever hear of Bleeding Kansas? Or Charles Sumner??? Get educated you racist, whining losers.