Richard Cohen, Thomas Jefferson, and the Legacy of White Privilege in America

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen. Even his beard is white.

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen. Even his beard is white.

Richard Cohen, columnist for the Washington Post, understands something. He understands that white people have it rough. Or, at least they think that they have it rough. Some white people think that they’re losing their traditional privileges as the default ruling demographic in America. Their ensuing anger has, of late, once again lit the age-old fuse of white grievance in the United States, and numerous media outlets have spilled plenty of real and electronic ink trying to access the implications of this anger on American culture.

Richard Cohen is, like me, a white person, and he wants to understand a particular brand of grievance that motivates other white people and manifests most potently in the form of that drooling, reactionary blob of grammatically challenged rage, the Tea Party. In a recent column, Cohen pissed off a large chunk of humanity by attributing Tea Party rage not to racism, but to fear of change. Despite devoting portions of his column to mocking Tea Party rodeo clowns like Sarah Palin, many readers saw a particular paragraph in Cohen’s column as evidence of the author’s apparent sympathy for conservative white cultural dominance.

 

The offending paragraph claimed that:

Today’s GOP is not racist, as Harry Belafonte alleged about the tea party, but it is deeply troubled — about the expansion of government, about immigration, about secularism, about the mainstreaming of what used to be the avant-garde. People with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York — a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children. (Should I mention that Bill de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, used to be a lesbian?) This family represents the cultural changes that have enveloped parts — but not all — of America. To cultural conservatives, this doesn’t look like their country at all.

Now, Cohen has had some nasty bouts of foot-in-mouth disease in the (recent) past. This is the same guy who, earlier this month, claimed to have just learned that American slavery “was not a benign institution in which mostly benevolent whites owned innocent and grateful blacks,” but was, in fact, “a lifetime’s condemnation to an often violent hell in which people were deprived of life, liberty and, too often, their own children.” That’s right, Cohen just figured this out in 2013, and only after watching Steve McQueen’s film “12 Years a Slave,” because book-larnin’ is hard work.

But seriously, Cohen’s column stirred up a whole mess of anger because it appeared to reveal a stunning obtuseness on his part about the changing demographic face of America. Its been over sixty years since the end of legal segregation, yet Cohen admits that some Americans still have a “gag-reflex” when confronted with an interracial couple. Moreover, Cohen described the Tea Party as a group with “conventional” views, which, by default, seemed to suggest that non-Tea Partiers hold “unconventional” views. Cohen himself may or may not hold these views, though his history of writing oversimplified, bone-headed columns on the subject of race suggest that the former is possible. Plenty of people, for example, have labeled Cohen an “unreconstructed bigot” and a “racist.” But whatever Cohen’s own views, his column was, poor choice of words notwithstanding, an accurate description of Tea Party rage and the extremely potent source that fuels that rage: white privilege.

Simply dismissing Cohen as a good ole’ fashioned racist is not a particularly helpful way of discussing the kind of “indirect racism” (yeah, I just made up that term right now) that fuels modern white privilege. Liberals who call conservatives outright racists tend to get massive amounts of pushback from people aghast at being lumped together with the most theatrical and well-known symbols of American bigotry, such as the Old Confederacy, the Ku Klux Klan, and the southern lynch mob. Thus, the cycle merely repeats: liberals accuse conservatives of being racists, conservatives accuse liberals of playing the “race card;” rinse, wash, repeat.

The kind of indirect racism that animates the Tea Party, however, is less about outright hatred based on mere skin color (though it is a legacy of that idea) and more about how the truly domineering racism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries bequeathed the legacy of white privilege to modern-day Americans. For American whites, cultural, political, and economic dominance became common to the point of it being second-nature.

Let’s unpack that idea a bit further, shall we? There’s mounds of literature on the concept of white privilege, but let’s go with a straightforward definition: white privilege means that society affords you preferential treatment because you are white. Historian Linda Faye Williams helpfully expands on this idea in her book The Constraint of Race: Legacies of White Skin Privilege in America. Faye Williams writes that white privilege constitutes situations in which “whites display a sense of entitlement and make claims to social status and economic advantages, actively struggling to maintain both these privileges and their sense of themselves as superior.”*

In addition, white privilege tends to blind its benefactors to the very existence of their privilege. As Faye Williams notes, for many whites, “‘racism’ is a problem belonging to people of color, not to whites.”* Those who perceive their whiteness as the default, “normal” setting, and, by extension, equate whiteness with normality, often get defensive when others point out how such a stance could lead to the normalization of white racial dominance.

But, of course, such a normalization of white racial dominance is exactly what happened for much of U.S. history. Because the America was a nation paradoxically founded on the principles of equality and racial slavery, every one of its major historical events — from constitutional debates over taxation, to geographical expansion, to the Civil War and Reconstruction, to the Civil Rights Movement, to welfare reform — have, in some way, involved debates over the how the constructs of race afforded benefits to whites at the expense of non-whites.

Thomas Jefferson. Wearing a coat like that was totally a sign of privilege.

Thomas Jefferson. Wearing a coat like that was totally a sign of privilege.

Perhaps no single figure better encapsulates the reckoning with the consequences of white privilege than the undisputed Grand Poobah of American Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson. So hallowed a figure is Jefferson in American culture that even his biographers — who should know better — are nonetheless loathe to criticize the man for fear that recognition of Jefferson’s basic human faults would somehow negate his inherent genius and monumental accomplishments. The debate over Jefferson’s faults is at its most contentious when it comes to his views on slavery and race. Jefferson was, after all, an immensely wealthy slaveholding planter, but he also wrote about the detrimental aspects of slavery as an institution, most famously in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1788). Such writings have led many historians to claim that Jefferson was, in one form or another, anti-slavery.

However, as legal historian Paul Finkelman notes in his article “Thomas Jefferson and Antislavery: The Myth Goes On,” Jefferson’s reservations about slavery hinged less on concerns for the enslaved, and more on concerns about how slavery as an institution affected his status as a privileged white slaveholder. As evidence for this interpretation, Finkelman cites Jefferson’s famous statement about slavery: “[W]e have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.”* Historians have traditionally interpreted this statement as a fear of slave revolts, but Finkelman observes that the “self-preservation” to which Jefferson alluded could also refer to his personal fortune. The labor of his slaves afforded Jefferson the good life, making the thought of losing that labor downright unpalatable.

Finkleman describes Jefferson as “compulsively acquisitive.” Indeed, on one trip to France, Jefferson  bought over 60 oil paintings, over 40 luxury chairs, 7 busts by French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon, multiple full-length, gilt-framed mirrors, 4 marble-topped tables, and a vast assortment of ‘items of personal luxury.’* For Jefferson, Finkelman writes, “the wolf may also have been the wolf of gluttony and greed.” Indeed, slavery gave Jefferson his lavish lifestyle, and though he may not have liked being dependent on slaves, “he did not dislike it enough to anything about it.”* Jefferson could own slaves because he was a white man and his slaves were black, and the wealth generated by his slaves allowed Jefferson to live an aristocratic life.

No wonder he couldn’t let the wolf go: slavery was predicated on the concept of white privilege — that whites were superior and blacks inferior. Jefferson was a great man, but a man nonetheless, and those men (or women) placed into positions of power by the normalization of dominance over others are seldom in a rush to give up such a privileged status.

Got white privilege, America? You bectha' we do.

Got white privilege, America? You bectha’ we do.

Jefferson’s struggles with the moral implications of white privilege echo in the contemporary musings of people like Richard Cohen, who run into trouble when they casually brush off the type of indirect racism created by centuries of American white privilege. To be sure, the Tea Party types about whom Cohen writes are not racist in the same vein as the cross-burning Klansmen or the angry lynch mobs of decades past. Rather, like Jefferson and millions of whites before them, segments of the Tea Party have been simmering in the soup of white privilege for so long that they don’t even recognize that an earlier form of racial dominance helped make the base of that soup. Thus, you don’t need to be a flaming racist to defend cultural norms that were forged in a far more racist past.

American conservatives genuinely fear the consequences of losing their white privilege. Slavery is obviously no longer the issue, but slavery’s legacy has, as Linda Faye Williams writes, long resulted in the “unequal allocation of educational resources, substantial insider networks that funnel good jobs largely to whites, and social policies that deliver more generous benefits to whites.”* These are the modern fruits of white privilege.

It’s no coincidence that, according to a recent Democracy Corps study, the Republican Party’s Tea Party base “are very conscious of being white in a country with growing minorities. Their party is losing to a Democratic Party of big government whose goal is to expand programs that mainly benefit minorities.” Just as Jefferson feared losing the white privilege that created the luxurious life of an eighteenth-century planter, the modern Tea Party fears losing the white privilege that has long directed the benefits of social programs and political power disproportionately into the hands of American whites at the expense of non-white minorities. Richard Cohen, I think, understands this fear, but he also, on some level, identifies with it, which helps explain the befuddlement that he and others express when charged with racism. To paraphrase a particularly plain-spoken white guy, “It’s the whiteness, stupid.”

* See Linda Faye Williams, The Constraint of Race: Legacies of White Skin Privilege in America (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003), 10-11.

* See Paul Finkelman, “Jefferson and Antislavery: The Myth Goes On,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 102 (April, 1994): 205.

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