The Triumph and Tragedy of American Whiteness

Angry white people protest school integration in Little |rock, Arkansas, 1959. That guy in the middle of the photo gets the award for angriest white dude EVER.

Some pissed-off white people protest school integration in Little Rock, Arkansas, 1959. That guy in the middle of the photo gets the award for angriest white dude EVER.

Let’s all shed a tear for the untimely and tragic demise of American whiteness. No, I’m serious. At no time in history have those-of-the-pasty-complexion had it so bad. It’s almost as if they’re on the brink of losing their sacred, inalienable rights to reap the best social, economic, and cultural goodies just because they’re melanin-challenged. To quote one of the most famous of all white philosophers, “this aggression will not stand, man!”

I mean, just look around you! White peoples’ percentage of the electorate is shrinking fast; their standard-bearer lost the presidency to a communist-socialist-Kenyan-Muslim-Buddhist-Podiatrist-usurper in the 2012 election, and perhaps worst of all: white people can’t even hold their annual “White History Month” parade in the proud American small town of Hope Mills, North Carolina without fear of being criticized by dusky people who just don’t know their place, dammit.

But thankfully, some heroic white people are standing up, walking tall, and vowing not to relinquish their white privilege without a (white) fight. One of these alabaster Argonauts is even a member of Congress. That’s right, Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Obviousville Alabama) recently went on Laura Ingraham’s radio show to respond to an accusation by political-pundit/stable boy, Ron Fournier, who claimed that the Republican Party “cannot be the party of the future beyond November” because they’re “seen as the party of white people.” Well just you wait and see what that proud Republican congressman stated in return! “This is a part of the war on whites that’s being launched by the Democratic Party. And the way in which they’re launching this war is by claiming that whites hate everybody else,” the noble congresscritter told Ingraham. Brooks then went on to cite a bunch of issues, especially illegal (read: brown person) immigration, that he claims Democrats use as a cudgel to attack patriotic white folks everywhere.

Brooks’ comments, while amusing, are nothing new. The phenomenon of right-wingers (who are usually members of society’s most privileged social class) adopting the mantel of victimhood is one of the major pillars of conservatism. In his fantastic book The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, political scientist Corey Robin notes that victimhood has long been one of the Right’s core talking-points. “The conservative, to be sure, speaks for a special type of victim,” he writes, “one who has lost something of value, as opposed to the wretched of the earth, whose chief complaint is that they never had anything to lose.”* And the sense of conservative victimhood runs deep in today’s Republican Party: a sociopolitical faction so lily-white that it has to slather itself in SPF 300 sunscreen just to pass anti-Obamacare resolutions.

Mo Brooks’ “war-on-whites” remarks may have been off-color, but he spoke to a very real feeling shared by many conservative white Americans: a feeling that their identity as the natural, default color of American-ness is evaporating before their eyes. Consider, for example, the dire warnings of former presidential candidate, and lovable Übermensch, Pat Buchanan. “The Census Bureau has now fixed at 2041 the year when whites become a minority in a country where the Founding Fathers had restricted citizenship to ‘free white persons’ of ‘good moral character,'” Buchanan moaned in 2011. Uncle Pat then concluded that Western civilization can’t possibly survive with a slightly diminished level of white privilege. Bummer.

Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Al). Damn, he's very white.

Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Al). Damn, he’s very white.

But however hyperbolic their rantings are, conservative whites’ fears of their diminishing cultural status in America exist because, for the majority of U.S. history, “whiteness,” — especially white maleness — has been synonymous with privilege in the domestic, political, racial, economic, and cultural spheres of American life. Indeed, up until very recently, to be an American WAS to be exclusively white. Of course, whiteness is also inextricably connected to the cultural, religious, imperial, and racial subjugation of non-white peoples — a subjugation that fostered white privilege for centuries. This has been true throughout the whole of the modern era — the time from Columbus’ fourteenth-century arrival on New World shores to the present day.  

Now, of course, the white people who founded America gave the world some great things, such as (modern) republicanism, capitalism (to an extent, anyway), and a religious pluralism, among other boons. But the problem is that, historically, whites haven’t been too keen on sharing their privileges with non-whites. In the U.S., the most explicit white/non-white divide has been between whites and blacks. There was that whole slavery thing. That whole Reconstruction thing. That whole Jim Crow thing. That whole Civil Rights thing. That whole “Silent Majority” thing. Throw the brown Messicans’ into the mix, stir vigorously, add a dash of equal rights, and you’ve got a recipe for some serious reactionary white porridge! As Robin writes, “because his losses are recent…the conservative can credibly claim…that his goals are practical and achievable. He merely seeks to regain what is his, and the fact that he once had it — indeed, probably had it for some time — suggest that he is capable of possessing it again.”*

It’s this spirit, the promise that white privilege can be possessed once again by those who took it for granted for so long, that animates conservative white reactionaries like Alabama representative Mo Brooks. Heck, it’s no coincidence that a pasty, conservative politician from the Deep South is worried about a non-existent “war on white people.” Back in 1928, the historian Ulrich B. Phillips observed that race was “The Central Theme of Southern History,” and a major component of that theme was (and is) the fear of losing the benefits of being white. The very “essence” of southern identity, Phillips wrote, was the commitment to keeping the South “a white man’s country.” The fear of losing southern white privilege arose “as soon as the negroes became numerous enough to create a problem of race control in the interest of orderly government  and the maintenance of Caucasian civilization.”*

Thus, the locus of southern exceptionalism can be found in its historical commitment to white supremacy even when other issues splintered the region into multiple factions. Historian Ira Katznelson reiterates this point in his brilliant study, Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time. While he notes that white supremacy has always been national in scope, Katznelson makes clear that, “the tension that marked the relationship between racial inequality and the country’s rights-based political system based on free citizenship — an association that had vexed the American republic from its first days — was more insistent and most acute” in the South.*

The American South, where white privilege has always been a big deal.

The American South, where white privilege has always been a big deal.

Politicians like Brooks, and the people who’re swayed by his rhetoric, are following in a grand conservative tradition in which fear is cultivated to prevent the loss of long-enjoyed white privilege. Although the fires of southern race-baiting have dimmed significantly over time, their embers still create heat in the form of reactionary stances against the loss of an American identity that is white-by-default. While most persistent in the South, this fear expanded across the nation as conservatism grew in popularity over the last few decades of the twentieth century. And make no mistake: fear and whiteness are close bedfellows.

A few years back, Scientific American reported that, “conservatives are fundamentally more anxious than liberals, which may be why they typically desire stability, structure and clear answers even to complicated questions.” American conservatives are mostly white, a majority of them are in the South, and fear helps them address their anxieties by motivating them to continually impose their moral order over those who they believe threaten the “natural” stability of things. And in modern America, those who threaten this “stability” are the growing non-white populations. For the right-wing, the “war on white people” is very real, and the history of white privilege guarantees that this “war” will wage on for many more years — or at least as long as Pat Buchanan can type.

* See Corey Robin, The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 58-9.

* See Ulrich B. Phillips, “The Central Theme of Southern History,” The American Historical Review 34 (Oct., 1928): 31.

* See Ira Katznelson, Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time (New York: W.W. Norton, 2013), 134.

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11 Comments

  1. As Gordon Wood noted in a review of Danielle Allen’s “Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality,” there are two concepts or forces that were unleashed in the American Revolution. One is liberty and the other is equality. These are extremely potent forces and they have been actively at work in America’s history since the 1760s. Not only here, but those forces have expanded their reach across the globe.

    Mo Brooks fears equality because equality is the loss of power over people. He and his ilk have played the Us vs. Them card in their favor for a very long time and now the tables are about to turn on them. They don’t like what they see. Brooks and his fellow racists are about to find out how it feels when they are the minority. At that point Brooks and his type will no longer have power unless they create a new majority with, God forbid! blacks and Hispanics. The old dwindles away and the new assumes its mantle.

    They should start taking notes from South Africa. A peaceful transition of power in that state did not result in a bloodbath. A slight economic downturn resulted, but that was natural since at least two generations of people had to gain education and experience in governing a country. Now that they have the economy has picked back up. The economic downturn may not have been half as bad if so many wealthier whites had not left the country. Had those people studied their history they would have seen a transfer of power does not have to come from the point of a gun. Look at how the US made it happen.

    While the issue of race is something Brooks and company fear, they shouldn’t. There is not going to be a dominant racial majority for a long time and even then will it even be one race? It is far more likely never to happen. If anything, racism might very well die out if people like Brooks would let it happen, but they can’t because that is one of the key foundations to the founding of the Southern colonies and later states. Edmund Morgan pointed this out so brilliantly in his masterpiece, “American Slavery, American Freedom.” The power in the South was deliberately constructed out of race.

    The power in the South continued to be built on that theme even as the northern states rejected it. Now two generations have passed since the Civil Rights era of the 50s and 60s and we are finally seeing some of those dreams of Dr. King’s come true. Race isn’t the boogeyman the white leaders have always claimed it to be. It is a man-made fiction. It is what people use to gain power. Remove race and they have to find new ways to secure power.

    That day is fast approaching. The liberals have embraced this new arrangement. The conservatives will not until it is gone for good. Only then will the diehards finally be out of power.

    • Especially the “equality” part. Conservatives can’t stand the notion of equality, to whatever degree, because to even suggest equality means, to them, the end of hierarchies — where they always stand on top.

  2. Part of the thing about equality that freaks them out is that the promise of equality is open-ended. “If we allow equality to this group, where will it end? Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria!” So we get this:

    All white men of property are created equal. [FAIL–try again.]
    All white men are created equal. [FAIL–try again.]
    All men are created equal. [FAIL–try again.]
    All men and women who are straight are created equal. [FAIL–try again.]
    All men and women are created equal. [FAIL–try again.]
    All PEOPLE, regardless of gender, ethnicity, color, creed, etc. are created equal. There, are you happy? [Yes. For now.]

    • Precisely, and that doesn’t even get in to the issue of economic equality. It’s no coincidence that conservatives now, and in the past, have been drawn to absolutes in terms of the market’s authority and in terms of religious authority. Hierarchies have to be maintained somehow.

  3. Funny stuff, watching three white guys telling each other how much they hate white guys. Well sign me up too! With my last name, I am a natural fit!

  4. I wouldn’t be counting chickens right away, fellas. Take a look at Ferguson, Missouri. Two thirds of the population, they say, is black. It seems to me that if a relative handful of whites control certain aspects of the community, they can control quite a large population of colored folks. As told on TV, there are three blacks on the police force of over sixty; six percent of the town council is black; there are no blacks on the school board; the city prosecutor is white. My point is that if a group controls key parts of the community, then they can expect to stay in power for quite a long time. Nationally, you see militarization of police; diligent “traffic” stops; lop-sided arrests and imprisonments; cancellation of self-worth in the school systems; and other social tinkering. High-jacking the immigration system is on the drawing board, with the goal of wholesale deportation. Conservative whites are well on their way in their plan to control this country, even if they become a minority. Who knows what other surprises they have up their sleeve? Imagine the most evil, inhumane crap you can pull on another human being, and it’s already in their playbook. The power positions you see occupied on the local and state level, are currently being purchased on the national level by rich white guys. If the going gets tough, then they will pull out the biggest card of all – the religion card. People of color will be humbled and ashamed when they are firmly but lovingly instructed that Jesus is white, and therefore God is white, and I know that because…well, just look at this picture in my Bible – but if you mind us, maybe we’ll let you into heaven. I predict that whites will hold power in this country for a long time, even as a minority.

    • Those are all very valid points, Michael. In fact, you’re hitting at what I tried to highlight as the essence of modern conservatism: a fear of losing unearned privilege. The white guys who control things have an irrational fear of losing control precisely because once you’ve held power via unearned privilege, there’s nothing worse than the possibility of giving up that power. In America, power and whiteness go hand-in-hand, hence the absurdity of the “War on Whites” claim.

  5. I believe we are seeing the “Triumph and Tragedy” of the white man being played out today. As U.S. conservatives direct their racial hatred against President Obama, the country as a whole is suffering one crippling blow after another. For these white conservatives to triumph, is to bring tragedy to the country itself. The ideals upon which this country was founded, are all out the window. What is commonly perceived as the land of Liberty, Equality, Freedom, and opportunity, is being viewed in a whole different light. Hypocrisy. The rest of the world must be watching on in horror, as this mighty Democracy falls under the blows of racism and greed. The Republican U.S. Congress is willing to sacrifice this country, in order to bring down a black President, thinking that they can heroically save the day later, when their day comes. While our government wallows in self-inflicted dysfunction, its citizens suffer as if in a third-world country; major problems go untreated; and the voices of the people are ignored. A mighty country is brought to its knees, not because of a black President, but because a few white people, in positions of power, would not tolerate a black President, at any price. Next, we speculate about the white man’s fate globally. The Russian white man, absent the nuisance of black people, lives stupidly under a government that restricts freedom and liberty, and he tries to impose his will on other white men. Is this a full and satisfying life?

    • “For these white conservatives to triumph, is to bring tragedy to the country itself.” That about sums it up nicely, Michael. and it speaks to the inherent radical nature of conservatism. It’s an ideology that will burn down the house in an effort to save the house’s occupants from a broken window.

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