Fifty Years Later
Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in April of 1968 marked the end of the Civil Rights movement. What has changed since then? Few would deny that significant, fundamental transformation has occurred in American race relations over these decades, especially since 1960. Discrimination is illegal and blacks can theoretically vote everywhere. A black middle class has developed, and a few have become truly rich. Hundreds of blacks and other minorities have attained elective office and some have achieved real influence in the centers of power. And of course Barack Obama was President.
According to this narrative, the agonizingly long process of welcoming the Other into the polis has concluded. And if the American story is about anything, it is about progress. The Civil Rights movement succeeded! Obama was proof that we had completed the transition to a “post-racial” society. Republicans (who had viciously resisted the movement at every single step while it was happening) now adore this narrative, because it allows them to justify slashing funds for welfare. Democrats love it, because it allows them to ignore or co-opt the minorities who make up their actual base. Part of this narrative is valorizing Martin Luther King Jr. and covering up the history of the true radical and outspoken anti-war activist who would have been nauseated by Obama’s subservience to the empire.
But we can only ask African Americans these questions. Whites have proven over and over that their perceptions about race are hopelessly out of line, both with those of blacks as well as with the statistics.
Many African Americans will remind us that the war on drugs killed and imprisoned tens of thousands of black people; that hundreds of thousands are in prison; that literally millions of them have lost the right to vote; that school segregation is worse than it was twenty tears ago; that the financial crisis of 2008 impacted blacks disproportionately, and that the banks had deliberately targeted them; that black mothers in New York City are twelve times as likely to die in childbirth as white mothers; that the “Black Lives Matter” movement arose, but police continue to murder large numbers of unarmed black people; that the idea of white privilege finally entered the lexicon, but with little effect; that 87% of blacks believed that Trayvon Martin’s murder was unjustified, while only 33% of whites did; that 11% of Americans (30% of those over 65) still disapprove of black-white marriage; that blacks and whites are still worlds apart when polled on how well things are going; that arsonists torched some fifty black churches between 1990 and 2017; that the media still portray blacks negatively; and that race (as voter suppression, gerrymandering, computer fraud, voter I.D. laws, new forms of the poll tax and massive, fundamentalist backlash) turned what everyone expected to be a Democratic landslide in 2016 into a social, financial and environmental disaster. At this moment an unashamed, flagrant racist is President. So much for progress.
I’ve written many essays on race in America and on Obama in particular (these are noted at the end), so I’m trying not to repeat myself here. To conclude this one, I want to add an observation that is consistent with my argument in Part Three that in the 1960s Southern whites could not bear the tension of observing an “Other” with whom (in terms of behavior) they might well be identical.
Obama experienced a unique dilemma beginning well before his election. From the right, there was plenty of the predictable racist nonsense. Some critics on the left, however, complained that in attempting to appeal to the middle he simply wasn’t acting “black” enough. Then there were the really loony allegations: he was not an American citizen, he was a secret Muslim, he was a socialist. He wasn’t white enough. It was a branding problem that his handlers struggled with throughout his eight years in office. At the time, I wrote that he had been carefully vetted by the Deep State and tasked with the work of shoring up the glaring tears in the fabric of American exceptionalism. Eight years later, I think I was right. But it was complicated…
In regard to that brand, Obama, despite his modest family roots, was clearly a well-mannered, rational, dispassionate, Ivy-League educated, cultured, articulate, even brilliant card-carrying member of the upper middle class, and so was his wife. Their children were talented and beautiful. It was the most photogenic family in the White House since the Kennedy Camelot of the early 1960s. They had no scandals, sexual or otherwise. The “darker brother,” in Langston Hughes’ words, had finally arrived “at the table” and “They’ll see how beautiful I am – And be ashamed.”
This created a profound dilemma for countless working-class whites; the old poem was too accurate in its prediction. Throughout their adult lives, they had been subjected to a daily, unending barrage of hysterical fear-mongering about the racialized Other that was far more intense than anything their parents had seen in the fifties and sixties. And they experienced eight years of war, job loss caused by affirmative action (an absolute lie of course, but much easier to digest than the fact that the politicians they’d elected were screwing them) and countless examples in the media of assaults on their sense of white masculine potential; all of which led to an opiate epidemic that by 2016 would kill 50,000 of them per year. Is it any surprise that it was white males who perpetrated almost all of the 336 mass murders in 2017? That’s right: almost one per day.
Ironically, the fact that Obama was continuing the domestic, financial and military policies of his Republican predecessor seems to have mattered little to the Tea Partiers, Alt-Rightists and Christian extremists who would eventually become Trump’s foot soldiers. What mattered to them was branding, symbol, imagery and race.
To many, perhaps millions of them, the constant sight of this, yes, privileged family in the seat of power was a daily reminder of how low they had sunk, and that (quite inaccurately, of course) three hundred years of injustice was being rectified: the Other was at the table – their table – and the shock-jocks were right. Polls indicated that white people now actually perceived themselves as more discriminated against than blacks.
There has been plenty of analysis by liberal writers on this subject. But I insist on the psychological and mythological approaches, because in these terms, little has changed since 1960:
The whites, “crackers” or middle-class, are facing a profound dilemma. They can’t project self-contempt for their sexuality, their bodily connection to the old pagan gods, to Dionysus, onto the blacks. Forced to contemplate people just as self-controlled as themselves, and quite often more so, they face an Other with whom they are identical.
Their perception of Obama – and of the possibility of true racial healing – seems to have been determined on three levels. On one level, the constant media barrage (with massive funding from the Koch brothers and friends) was successful, as racial animosity and hatred of immigrants grew everywhere.
But on another level, their spokesmen were, in a sense, unsuccessful. None of the venomous and very thinly-veiled racism of Fox News or Republican politicians could incite Obama into retaliating in anger, to re-inhabit that psychic space of the Other, to act like a dangerous, angry black man. By contrast, what they got was a leader who seemed comfortable weeping at the thought of dead (American) children.
…so that they, the whites, could be free of the oppressive weight of awareness…If the Other was everything that the citizen of the polis was not, and the Other was self-controlled – or beautiful – what did that make the citizen?
So hate grew on a third level, out of frustration and denial. I think the dynamic was and is the same as in 1960: we hate them because they’re lazy and dangerous. And we hate them more when they prove that they aren’t.
Trump didn’t create any of this. As an old TV con-man and Reality star, he was simply smart enough to perceive it and run with it – directly, proudly, arrogantly, with no shame and using only the thinnest of euphemisms – in a way that even the Republican establishment had not dared to. Joshua Zeitz writes:
…Trump has also, arguably more than any other candidate for president in the past hundred years (excepting third-party outliers like Strom Thurmond and George Wallace), played to the purely psychological benefits of being white. From his racially laden exhortations about black crime in Chicago and Latino gangs seemingly everywhere, to his attacks on an American-born federal judge of Mexican parentage and on Muslim gold star parents, he has paid the white majority with redemption…Trump might be increasing economic inequality, but at least the working-class whites feel like they belong in Trump’s America. He urged them to privilege race over class when they entered their polling stations.
The other Republican candidates attacked him in the primaries not because he was a racist thug and a bully – they had been doing precisely the same ever since the days of Nixon, with more restrained hints and innuendo (“urban”, “gang violence”, “welfare queens”, etc) – but more for his style. By comparison, their brands were higher-class.
But of course they quickly rallied around him when he won, because they sensed the possibility of achieving the reactionary legislation that their corporate sponsors had always demanded. Once in office, he quickly became, as Charles Derber writes, a “fig leaf for the GOP’s Horrific Policies.” And within six months, his public support dwindled down to that base of angry and fundamentalist whites. Why? Because they were the only crowd to value race hatred over their own economic self-interest.
Many analysts predict that these people will eventually figure out exactly how and where Trump and the Republicans have been sticking it to them and move back to the center or even the left. May it be so. But a blogger who calls himself “Forsetti” and grew up among fundamentalists, explains why they won’t, in a brilliant article that I recommend you read fully:
When you have a belief system that is built on fundamentalism, it isn’t open to outside criticism…Christian, white Americans…are racists…people who deep down in their heart of hearts truly believe they are superior because they are white. Their white God made them in his image and everyone else is a less-than-perfect version, flawed and cursed.
The religion in which I was raised taught this. Even though they’ve backtracked on some of their more racist declarations, many still believe the original claims. Non-whites are the color they are because of their sins, or at least the sins of their ancestors. Blacks don’t have dark skin because of where they lived and evolution; they have dark skin because they are cursed. God cursed them for a reason. If God cursed them, treating them as equals would be going against God’s will.
Since facts and reality don’t matter, nothing you say to them will alter their beliefs. “President Obama was born in Kenya, is a secret member of the Muslim Brotherhood who hates white Americans and is going to take away their guns.” I feel ridiculous even writing this, it is so absurd, but it is gospel across large swaths of rural America.
A significant number of rural Americans believe President Obama was in charge when the financial crisis started. An even higher number believe the mortgage crisis was the result of the government forcing banks to give loans to unqualified minorities. It doesn’t matter how untrue both of these are, they are gospel in rural America. Why reevaluate your beliefs and voting patterns when scapegoats are available?
A popular narrative claims that millions of evangelicals first entered the political world after the nation made abortion legal. Randall Balmer, however, makes it quite clear that the issue that actually aroused them was the same one that had motivated their southern ancestors to sacrifice themselves by the hundreds in the Civil War: race. Then, and for a hundred years, the issue was “race mixing.” For the next fifty years it would be the issue of desegregation.
If it isn’t perfectly obvious to you that religion is a mere fig leaf concealing their racism (and the fear that lies below it), simply recall that black evangelicals have never shared their opinions or voted with them.
This is what a demythologized world looks like. Our politics and our religion are so utterly corrupted that millions of under-educated people are supporting billionaire con-men because they offer a refuge in othering; and millions of other, well-educated liberals are taking refuge in another narrative that offers a different kind of refuge: denial.
Denial of this: Ever since Jimmy Carter, the Democratic leadership has abandoned their traditional working-class base, moving further and further to the “center” in a frequently unsuccessful attempt to curry favor among suburban moderates and corporate donations. If any of these people are serious about social change, they must understand two facts:
1 – From the point of view of the 100 million Americans who do not vote at all – who have never voted – there is simply no difference between the Democrats and the Republicans. This is not a “radical” idea. It’s a practical one.
2 – The Democrats will never inspire the white, rural vote. And they should stop trying.
Granted, in the recent Alabama election, Doug Jones beat Roy Moore (who, despite his slimy reputation received 80% of the white, evangelical vote). Jones is no radical, but he won not by, or at least not entirely by pandering to the middle, but by inspiring the left – black women in particular. If the DNC has a shred of uncorrupted essence left in 2018, it will follow this example. Don’t hold your breath.
My articles on Race in General:
— The Mythic Sources of White Rage: https://madnessatthegates.wordpress.com/2013/01/11/barrys-blog-27-the-mythic-sources-of-white-rage/
— Privilege: https://www.academia.edu/34697917/Privilege
— Affirmative Action for Whites: https://www.academia.edu/29600219/Affirmative_Action_for_Whites
— The Real Affirmative Action: https://madnessatthegates.wordpress.com/2013/01/06/the-real-affirmative-action/
— The Sandy Hook Murders, Innocence and Race in America: https://madnessatthegates.wordpress.com/2013/01/11/barrys-blog-45-the-sandy-hook-murders-innocence-and-race-in-america/
— Hands up, Don’t shoot – The Sacriﬁce of American Dionysus: https://www.academia.edu/32490712/Hands_up_Dont_shoot_The_Sacrifice_of_American_Dionysus
— Do Black Lives Really Matter? https://www.academia.edu/32367925/Do_Black_Lives_Really_Matter
— Did the South Win the Civil War? https://www.academia.edu/32175726/Did_the_South_Win_the_Civil_War
— The Election of 2016: https://www.academia.edu/30818962/The_Election_of_2016
— The Dionysian Moment – Trump Lets the Dogs Out: https://www.academia.edu/34082310/The_Dionysian_Moment_Trump_Lets_the_Dogs_Out
My articles on Obama:
— The Presidential Dilemma: https://madnessatthegates.wordpress.com/2013/01/08/barrys-blog-the-presidential-dilemma/
— Obama and the Myth of Innocence: https://madnessatthegates.wordpress.com/2013/01/11/barrys-blog-38-obama-and-the-myth-of-innocence/
— The Con Man: An American Archetype: https://www.academia.edu/34876011/The_Con_Man-_An_American_Archetype
— Obama’s Tears: https://www.academia.edu/34464186/Obamas_Tears
— Grading the President: https://madnessatthegates.wordpress.com/2016/03/01/barrys-blog-157-grading-the-president-part-one-2/
— Stories We Tell Each Other About Barack Obama: https://www.academia.edu/32033264/Stories_We_Tell_Each_Other_About_Barack_Obama