Despite myself, I am a product of white privilege. Let’s just put that out there.
As such, I know that even in this remarkable age of our celebrated Obama presidency that if I can put on a clean shirt, show up and smile, nine times out of ten my voiceless skin is working in my favor. Being “white” has the added advantage of a long history of institutionalized racism.
This is not to say that my parents didn’t work hard to get where they are. I’m not disparaging my parent’s parents — the wage earners of which included a school district superintendent on one side and an Air Force officer on the other — in admitting this. And it is surely no jab at the farmers, preachers, jockeys, and gamblers before them, or those who escaped constricting hells in their mother countries to get to the United States in the first place.
I got to thinking about this anew after participating in this year’s 100,000-strong MLK Day March and Commemoration.
David J. Garrow’s supremely researched Bearing the Cross was my first deep introduction to Martin Luther King, though I’d certainly been exposed in a variety of other ways during my public school years in Alexandria, Virginia. Had I taken to heart King’s early life story in my studies, I would have powered on in school and been a much more consistent student than I was.
It’s impossible not to recognize this man’s perhaps unequaled contribution to African-Americans in this country, but I’ve always viewed King as a model for everyone, regardless of color, language, or culture. From the sincerity of his speech, to the power of his principle, to his expression of selflessness is his struggle for justice, I’ve often called on him from my private — and sometimes not so pleasant — heartspace.
As any family histories go, mine has displays of heroism and cowardice and many points in between.
However, I recognize, as not many of my shade of skin are interested in doing these days, that I benefit over my darker-tinged brothers and sisters by multiple generations of doing business in this country, from the institutionalized prejudices that only began to be finally dismantled a decade or so before my birth.
While the remaining native peoples of this land were delimited to soul-crushing reservations, stolen peoples and the children of stolen peoples were navigating Jim Crow realities, and Mexican lands and landowners were losing rights and privileges in the new expanded United States territories, my family was able to work steadily forward and progress with a relative freedom.
I made repeated early attempts on to address the inequity in my flesh (amazing what damage two-tone hair and safety-pinned ears could do to a person’s social and employment possibilities during the Reagan years, for instance), but later experienced the liberating notion that I didn’t have to destroy myself to protest a nation built on racism — I could work to destroy the system instead. That late-blooming realization was a factor behind my decision to go back to school and, later, to become a writer.
I know that’s a long wind blowing to whistle through your cracked window. Thanks for bearing with me. The set-up is important, though, to make the following two distinct observations.
First, there has been increasing discussion in past months about the shifting demographics in this country. You should know I am not weeping over the “End of White America,” trumpeted with a considerate question mark on the current Atlantic cover. I celebrate the coming shift.
If you hadn’t heard of the “beiging” underway in these 50 states, consider a brief clip from Hua Hsu’s feature story:
Whether you describe it as the dawning of a post-racial age or just the end of white America, we’re approaching a profound demographic tipping point. According to an August 2008 report by the U.S. Census Bureau, those groups currently categorized as racial minorities—blacks and Hispanics, East Asians and South Asians—will account for a majority of the U.S. population by the year 2042. Among Americans under the age of 18, this shift is projected to take place in 2023, which means that every child born in the United States from here on out will belong to the first post-white generation.
So what? Haven’t Americans adopted politically corrected color-blindness for many years now? A terrific and well-meaning myth. Were it true, the Bush Administration would have likely made less of an effort to illegally recreate the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice as another planet hospitable only to neoconservative lifeforms.
How deep, how wide, and how entrenched racism is today is beyond the scope of this column. Each of us has likely already drawn our own conclusions and experience shows such beliefs shifts only grudgingly.
The so-called “demise” of whiteness leads to my second point, that being the simple historic observation that, as a rule, privilege and power do not slip away quietly when challenged. I expect that along with the titular shift so celebrated across the nation this week, another equally profound and more dangerous reaction is in the works. We have not heard the last of the spurned dominance formerly known as White Supremacy.
Now I know it was not the intention of Columbia Journalism Review’s contributing editor Michael Massing to pen a piece on racism, yet it is hard to read around it when considering his article “Un-American: Have you listened to the right-wing media lately?” (I’d post a link for you here, but regrettably CJR.org is still playing limited access games online with their superb print offerings. Let me just encourage you to subscribe, if you are able.)
After chronicling the full spectrum of talk-radio and Fox TV Obama smears this gratefully past election season — collectively of a level and degree unseen in this country’s rich and muddy history — Massing looks a short distance ahead, suggesting this mob, still completely unapologetic in its ocean of factual errors, is not done yet.
After weeks of watching Fox, of listening to Limbaugh, and of surfing the Internet; after hours of hearing repeated references to terrorists and thugs, radicals and revolutionaries, Muslims and madrasahs, I came away feeling that these outlets were helping to foment such hatred and fear of Obama that some members of their audience might feel justified in resorting to violence to stop him.
The climate seemed no less toxic than the one that arose in Israel in the moths leading up to the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.
That climate still exists. The election of Obama has done nothing to diminish the frequency or zeal of the attacks against him. As I wrote in late November, you can turn on Sean Hannity and see him still raging about Obama’s ties to Ayers; you can tune in to Rush Limbaugh and still hear him decrying the radical socialist regime Obama is seeking to impose. These outlets have stoked the politics of personal destruction in America, promoting a midset in which opponents are seen not merely as fellow citizens to be debated and persuaded but as members of a subhuman species who must be isolated and stamped out.
These commentators will vehemently deny that race plays any part in what they do. But you can bet, just like their predominantly white-male demographic, it lurks at the core of that boiling-hot misdirected rage they repeatedly stoke in their millions of listeners, all these Sean Hannitys, once known as radio “hosts.”
I have done more than my fair share in radio-poor pockets of the country where only right-wing talk radio exists. I just don’t make any stops there if my dial has options — that includes salvationist organ music from lands urban humanism long since lost sight of.
I don’t direct your attention to the above articles and writers because I fear for Obama’s safety. That is far beyond my control. Ultimately, I fear far less for him than I do for what will become of us as a nation should times become truly desperate should the market continue to afford a platform for Limbaugh, Hannity, et al.
As we enter this historic presidency in a time of rapidly deteriorating economic news, it is easy to see what Massing did. Simple solutions and ancient animosities have two built-in audiences: the ignorant and the desperate. With an added measure of economic quaking, the coming change of the “color guard” could over time become an event more severe than anyone has yet projected.
Your responsibility in all this?
Same as always. Speak out. Confront racism whenever you meet it. Expose the manufacture of untruth as often as you find yourself tuned in, willingly or otherwise.
(First published on Queblog for the San Antonio Current.)