Fifty Years Later
Martin Luther King’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. Discrimination is illegal everywhere and blacks can theoretically vote if they want to. 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 acknowledging the Other as part of 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 and other aspects of the New Deal. Democrats love it because it allows them to ignore or co-opt the minorities who make up their actual base.
Part of this narrative involves creating a new variant on the myth of perpetual American progress that moves in a straight line from exclusion of the Other to inclusion. It involves valorizing Dr. King while covering up the history of the true radical and outspoken anti-war activist who would have been bitterly disappointed by Obama’s subservience to the American empire. It involves denying how the liberal establishment hated him in his last year.
And it means that reactionaries (it’s no longer accurate or appropriate to use the word “conservative”) in government and media have been able to justify all manner of cruel legislation and new forms of voter suppression with the absurd notion that since discrimination is now illegal, special voter protections are only longer needed. Do I exaggerate? In 2013 the Supreme Court struck down the central features of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 using exactly this language, and the decision quickly resulted in Trumpus’ election.
These things are obvious to African Americans. White Americans, however, 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.
African Americans know that much of their economic and social progress has stalled or even reversed; that the war on drugs killed tens of thousands of their 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 2020 replicated those conditions; that black mothers in New York City are twelve times as likely to die in childbirth as white mothers; that despite the Black Lives Matter movement, police continue to murder large numbers of unarmed black people without fear of reprisal; 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 30% of whites over 65 still disapprove of interracial 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 regularly portray blacks negatively; that mortgage lenders still discriminate against them; 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; and that tens of millions of whites now openly, unashamedly, support blatantly racist politicians.
2016 was what I called a “Dionysian Moment” in which the old Puritan values of self-restraint and the polite hypocrisies of coded rhetoric were finally ejected for someone who “says just what he means,” a man who, from the center of the culture, encouraged every vile hate to come out from the shadows, to be pardoned in advance.
Despite the evidence of progress, one major cultural difference between the America of 1955 and our current condition is this. Then it was possible to shame whites (or enough of them) into behaving themselves; that is, to at least consider acting as if their uniquely professed values of freedom and equality for all were real. Then only a few people felt comfortable enough to voice their bigotry. Now, after several decades of TV saturation, normalization of cruelty, dumbing down of education – and now social media algorithms designed to confirm social biases – it seems to me that the most accurate pejorative we can use to describe Trumpus and his believers is “shameless.”
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 (and some not so 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, etc. He wasn’t white enough. It was a branding problem that his handlers struggled with throughout his eight years in office. But at the time, I wrote that like any other candidate hoping to attract major funding, he had been carefully vetted by the Deep State and tasked with the work of shoring up the glaring holes in the fabric of American exceptionalism. Eight years later, I think I was right.
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; they were the most photogenic Presidential family 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 allegedly 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 every one of the 336 mass murders in 2017? That’s right: almost one per day, and almost always white males.
Ironically, the fact that Obama was continuing the 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 Trumpus’ foot soldiers. What mattered to them was branding, symbol, imagery, victimization and race.
To millions of white people, 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) 350 years of injustice were being rectified: the Other was at the table – their table. The shock-jocks seemed to be right. Blacks were replacing them at that table. Polls indicated that white people now actually perceived themselves as more discriminated against than blacks.
Plenty of political writers have analyzed this subject. But I insist on the psychological and mythological approaches, because when we look through these lenses, we can see that little has changed since 1955:
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. The shock-jocks and the televangelists repeated the old con, converting disillusionment with the system itself into racial animosity and hatred of immigrants.
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, not Muslim) 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?
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.
Trumpus didn’t create any of this. But as a long-time con man and Reality TV 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 the Republican establishment had never 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.
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, only with more restrained hints and innuendo (“urban”, “gang violence”, “welfare queens”, etc) – but more for his style. By comparison, their brands were higher-class, more restrained, in that old Puritan style.
But of course they quickly rallied around their useful idiot 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 with an imagination impoverished enough to value race hatred over their own economic self-interest.
And, in an ironic 2021 version of the “return of the repressed,” this crowd remains angry and powerful enough to intimidate most Republican politicians into defending the ex-President against impeachment.
Many analysts predicted that these people would eventually figure out exactly how and where Trumpus and the Republicans had been sticking it to them and move back to the center or even the left. But they failed, and still fail to understand how the perception of white privilege is self-interest. A blogger known as “Forsetti” who grew up among fundamentalists, explains why they won’t:
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…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?
Some have claimed that southern evangelicals first entered the political world after the nation made abortion legal. Randall Balmer, however, shows that the issue that actually aroused them was the same one that had motivated their 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 was and has continued to be the issue of desegregation allegedly mandated by liberals.
Three years before the attack on the Capitol, half of all white southerners believed that white people were under attack, while 55% of all whites believed that discrimination exists against them. These figures are not mere statistics; they are indications of how deeply ingrained in the American psyche is the idea of victimization. They indicate the enduring strength of American myth.
By the way, 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 continue to support billionaire con-men who are fleecing them blind but offering a refuge in othering, while millions of other, well-educated people take refuge in another narrative, “Russiagate”, that offers a different kind of refuge: denial.
My articles on Race in General:
My articles on Obama: