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…
He was, of course, making fun of media pundits, 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.
Conservatives (that is,reactionaries), however, 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,” “drug dealers,” etc.) to manipulate the fears of their political base.
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 regularly admonish progressives for speaking about race (from actually saying the word “race”) indicates the terrifying truth that the subject is taboo. And anthropology teaches us that what is taboo is sacred. Like the Hebrew god Yahweh, it 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 as the quite justified fear of retribution) is the great unspoken – and therefore sacred – basis of our very identity as Americans.
White Americans 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 over three centuries, defined the Other as those who cannot or will not restrain their impulses. And we continue to project those qualities upon Black people.
In this American context, the question of government intrusion upon the individual too often serves as a euphemism for the fear that one’s personally hard-earned assets (despite a legacy of white privilege) might be taken away and given to people who are too lazy to work for themselves. When conservatives make the absurd accusation that Barak Obama is a “socialist,” they are using the newest code word for the race card, and their base is perfectly aware of this.
These attitudes are essentially religious, even if articulated in secular terms. Underneath the clichés lies our still-powerful Puritan contempt for the poor. Indeed, surveys still show that Americans of all social classes believe that losers are bad and morally corrupt. To fail economically (regardless of institutional racism) is not simple failure but – in America –moral failure.
These themes have been played out with devastating effect since the end of the 1960s, when conservatives, far more literate in American myth than liberals, began to masquerade as rebels against the establishment. Their narrative took full advantage of the fact that American myth offers only one alternative to the hero – the victim.And the victim who cannot be a hero will search for villains or scapegoats. This narrative emphasizes “values” over “interests,” redefining class war, once again, in racial and cultural rather than economic terms.
The continuing backlash against the perceived excesses of the 1960s has resolved whites of responsibility and renewed their sense of innocence and privilege. The theme of this revolution is a return to small town values. But its subtext is greed, racism and hatred of the poor.
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, their targets being precisely those categories (race 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 who actually perceive themselves to be the victims of people who have far less 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 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, but the only way he could identify as middle-class was to ignore his own white privilege.
With most white, older Americans wanting to have their cake (government services) without having to pay for it (taxes going toward lazy black and brown “welfare cheats”), too many of us are willing to collude with a great secret. It is a holy secret, because we will not name it.