The root of the White man’s hatred is terror, a bottomless and nameless terror, which focuses on this dread figure, an entity which lives only in his mind. – James Baldwin
As I considered the dark anniversary that is approaching, after all the writing I’ve done about race in America, it came to me as a shock of insight. It was so obvious, yet I hadn’t noticed it before. I was talking with a friend about white privilege, when he interrupted me and asked, “You’re not going to bring up the race card, are you?”
Suddenly, it was clear. My friend was, of course, making fun of the media pundits and conservative politicians who utilize that phrase to shut down any serious discussion about the one issue that underlies all others in America. By controlling public conversation, these gatekeepers establish the boundaries of acceptable discourse. Their primary function – and that of all corporate media – is to distract us from identifying the true sources of our distress.
The race card. Imagine a group of men playing poker. The game has rules, and everyone agrees on what they are. As long as everyone abides by them, the winner will be he who best combines skill and luck. The winner is an American archetype, the hero, in mythological terms. By definition, he deserves to win. But then, just before the final accounting, one of the players pulls a trump card out of some secret pocket. The villain wins, but only by cheating, by breaking the holy rules of the game, the shared assumption of fairness. He expresses another American archetype that I have written about, the Con Man.
In America, for 400 years, the rules have been clear. Everything in America – economics, religion, education, foreign policy, entertainment, social cohesion, social class and personal identity – is based on race, and the agreement by social, media, financial and political elites to ignore both its cruel reality as well as its benefits.
Conservatives (that is, reactionaries) use the race card all the time, and have throughout American history. These days, so as to not appear blatantly racist, they use commonly understood code words (“law and order,” “states’ rights,” “inner city,” “super-predators,” “gangs,” “thugs,” “rapists,” “drug dealers,” etc.) to manipulate the fears of their political base. The newest phrase is “invasion.”
American innocence is built upon fear of the “Other” – Indians, Mexicans, Asians, Communists and terrorists, but always and primarily, African-Americans. The fact that conservatives – and too often, liberals – regularly admonish progressives for speaking about race (from actually saying the word “race”) indicates the terrifying truth that the subject is taboo.
Anthropology teaches us that what is taboo is sacred. Like the Hebrew god Yahweh, this secret is too holy to be named.
I contend that race (as white privilege, as the prison-industrial complex, as the underpinning of our entire economy and all of our politics, and as the quite justified fear of retribution) is the great unspoken – and therefore sacred – basis of our very identity as white Americans.
White people know who they are because they are not the Other. In a culture built upon repression of the instincts, delayed gratification, institutional violence and a severe mind/body split, we have, for four centuries, defined the Other as those who cannot or will not restrain their impulses. We continue to project those qualities upon Black people and to a lesser extent all people of color.
In this American context, the legitimate issue of government intrusion upon the individual has consistently served as a euphemism for the threat that one’s personally hard-earned assets (despite the legacy of white privilege and discrimination) might be taken away and given to people who are too lazy to work for themselves, people who, we have been told, do not deserve help. How absurd is this standpoint? Consider that this society has condemned one of every four of its children to poverty and ill health because their parents can’t find suitable work.
…this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it…but it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime. – James Baldwin
These attitudes are essentially religious, even if we now articulate them in secular terms. We no longer speak of original sin – not because we have matured as a culture, but because we don’t have to any more. This brutal and childish theology is lodged in our bones. Underneath the clichés lies our Puritan contempt for the poor, still as severe as it was in the 17th century. Indeed, surveys still show that Americans of all social classes believe that losers are utterly corrupt, that their condition is their own fault. To fail economically (regardless of the causes) is not simple failure but – in America – moral failure. We still refuse to acknowledge the elephant in the living room: systemic destruction of human values under capitalism.
As George Lakoff has pointed out, most elected Democrats are law school graduates, whereas most Republicans emerge out of business school, where they study marketing, motivation – and brain science. These people know that narratives, not logic, move people, that effective politics in this demythologized age is aimed at the gut, not the head.
These themes have been played out with devastating effect since the end of the 1960s, when conservatives, far more mythologically literate than liberals, began to masquerade as “rebels” against the establishment. Their narratives took full advantage of the fact that American myth offers only one alternative to the hero – the victim. And the man who can no longer be a hero will search for villains or scapegoats so as to avoid the ultimate label of loser. For three generations these narratives have emphasized “values” over “interests,” redefining class war, once again, in racial, sexual and cultural rather than economic terms.
The continuing backlash against the perceived excesses of the 1960s still promises to absolve whites of responsibility and renew their sense of innocence. The theme of this revolution is a return to small town values. But its subtext is a complex mixture of fear, greed, misogyny, racism, violence, hatred of the poor and hatred of the body.
White males, oblivious to their privilege, now identify as victims – not of the rich, but of the minorities who compete with them, the women claiming equality with them, the gays who publicly question the value of their masculinity and the intellectuals who appear to be telling them how to live.
This is one way to understand right-wing activism: deeply committed, emotionally intense, sustained effort under the identification as victim, with their targets being precisely those categories (race, ethnicity and gender) whom they have been educated to perceive as questioning or contesting that privilege.
Hence, we have, and certainly not for the first time in our history, groups of relatively affluent people (most Tea Partiers are not working class) who actually believe that they have been persecuted by people who have far less money and far less influence than they do. And not just the well off. For example, I used to know a 50-year-old man who did odd jobs for me. He had bad teeth, lived with his mother and was usually broke. Once, he declared that things were going badly for middle-class people like him and me. Middle-class? He was a good man, likeable, not entirely ignorant of politics, but the only way he could identify as middle-class was to ignore his own white privilege.
In the grand card game of American denial, there are severe penalties for not playing by the rules. And there are other secret cards, including the global warming card and, especially, the Palestine card. Witness the trashing that Ilhan Omar received recently (February 2019) from the leaders of the Democratic Party for quite accurately pointing out how AIPAC manipulates them.
Race – hatred of African Americans – remains the highest-ranking Trump card. Few will admit to that kind of extreme language. But it should be clear to any “woke” person that prejudice and ignorance set the stage decades ago for the massive voter suppression (in at least twenty states), gerrymandering and computer fraud that dwarfed any alleged Russian involvement in the 2016 election. Indeed, Omar was breaking another rule by pointing out that Israeli influence was far greater than Russian.
…one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain. – James Baldwin
Liberals who still hold to the Russiagate arguments are, in my opinion, simply enacting their own version of the myth of American Innocence. A four-century legacy of scapegoating has prepared us well for yet another narrative that allows us to displace our anxieties – and our complicities – onto a safely distant or “deserving” object.
With most white, older Americans perfectly content to have their cake (government services) without having to pay for it (taxes going toward lazy “welfare cheats”), too many of us are still willing to collude with the great secret.
“Original sin” is religious terminology, and so is “secret.” African slavery existed in Virginia before the Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts. This fact has been referred to as America’s original sin. Ever since, every single white person who has ever set foot on this continent has benefitted from this secret.
It is a holy secret, because, four hundred years (from August 1619, to be exact) after the first African slaves were brought to Jamestown, we still will not name it.
If Americans were not so terrified of their private selves, they never would have become so dependent on what they call ‘the Negro problem’. This problem, which they invented in order to safeguard their purity, has made of them criminals and monsters, and it is destroying them; and this not from anything blacks may or may not be doing but because of the role a guilty and constricted white imagination has assigned to the blacks. – James Baldwin
For more of my writings on race in America see: