Tag Archives: nostalgia

Whitewashing History at the Democratic National Convention

18 Sep

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines the word whitewash as,

to gloss over or cover up (as vices or crimes), or

to exonerate by means of a perfunctory investigation or through biased presentation of data.  

I got to thinking about whitewash, and whitewashing history in particular, during the Democratic National Convention. At the convention, a whole lot of whitewash was slopped around.
But what got me writing was the recent news of a bump in the polls for U.S. Senate candidate, Elizabeth Warren. That bump is being attributed to her speech at that convention, and I remembered that speech as very good example of how politicians whitewash history in order to win political points with white voters.
Now, I’m not trying to pick a fight with Elizabeth Warren. She’s no worse, and probably a lot better, than most politicians of both major parties. But consider what she said –
I’m here tonight to talk about hard-working people: people who get up early, stay up late, cook dinner and help out with homework; people who can be counted on to help their kids, their parents, their neighbors, and the lady down the street whose car broke down; people who work their hearts out but are up against a hard truth—the game is rigged against them. It wasn’t always this way….

…I grew up in an America that invested in its kids and built a strong middle class; that allowed millions of children to rise from poverty and establish secure lives. An America that created Social Security and Medicare so that seniors could live with dignity; an America in which each generation built something solid so that the next generation could build something better..

You and I both know that not everyone was able to participate equally in those programs and opportunities. But to hear Warren and other leaders of both parties talk about this rose colored past, approximately the period from 1934 to the mid 1960s, you’d think fairness was the cardinal American value of the time.

But of course they do know better. Elizabeth Warren was born in 1949. That means she was about 16 years old when Jim Crow laws were finally defeated.

Jim Crow laws, for those unfamiliar, started being established just 11 years after the end of the Civil War. They were created for the purpose of upholding white supremacy and, following the logic of slavery, ensuring a ready pool of Black workers who were cheap to hire because they were denied access to government assistance and unprotected by the law.

Elizabeth Warren was also born in Oklahoma, a state that kept its public schools segregated until 1955, when Warren would have been about 6.

Oklahoma was also the final destination for Native Americans subject to forced relocation as a result of the Indian Removal Act of 1830. The path by which Native Americans were forced to relocate is known as the Trail of Tears, in part because so many died along the way, including 4,000 members of the Cherokee Nation, a group I assume Warren knows something about.

The game, as Warren refers to it, was always rigged, and to the advantage of white people, especially white men. The great middle class she speaks of is largely a white phenomena, created in part via benefits of the GI Bill, a program that helped provide educations and home ownership opportunities to veterans, but that discriminated against some veterans by race.

Home ownership was a great boon to the white middle class, but even those GIs of color who were able to get mortgage assistance through the Bill faced red lining and restrictive covenants that limited opportunities to buy homes to the poorest neighborhoods. Education is a key to social mobility, but educational opportunity was denied to many vets of color, in spite of their service, and those that did go to school were often forced into separate and unequal institutions.

Social programs like Mothers’ Aid, established in the 1930s (and that eventually evolved into welfare as we now know it) helped many poor women and children rise out of poverty. But many women of color, especially in the South, were denied benefits under this program and its later iterations because they were considered valuable only as workers, not as mothers.

And these are just a few examples. The legacy of racial exclusion from these opportunities continues to this day. It’s time for those of us left out of this grand history of America to speak up. If we don’t, we may in fact return to that whitewashed past.

Harkening Back to a Whiter Time

5 Sep

On MSNBC’s Up this weekend, host Chris Hayes went after the Republican strategy of using nostalgia to rev up their base. He claimed that a reason conservatives long for the past is that, back then, (white) social mobility, the basis of the American dream, was more possible. He went on to feature a robust discussion of the role of race in this messaging strategy, but all tempered by the sense of some panelists that one ought not go too far in crying racism.

I could not disagree with that sentiment more. Republicans are, in fact, manipulating racism, and when leaders use calls to racism for political gain, history tells us, very bad things follow. White racism is just too much a staple of American culture to ignore that possibility.

I know that kind of talk makes white folks, especially liberal white folks, uncomfortable, but it is the centrality of racism to white identity in America that is the basis of the success of the Republican strategy. So I’m calling it out. White identity in America is rooted in racism. Republicans know it and are manipulating it, while Dems and liberals are saying only as much about it as is politically correct in an election year.

Some History

Since the days of slavery,  privileges have been attached to whiteness at every level of society as an insurance policy on the wealth and power of everyone from Plantation oligarchs to Henry Ford. By extending those privileges to all whites, including access to Indian land, they gave whiteness a pecuniary (according to Webster, consisting of or measured in money) value, even for the least privileged whites.

Because of the pecuniary value of whiteness, before the fall of Jim Crow, you couldn’t sue someone for claiming you were White. But you sure could sue if someone claimed you were Black. Being found out as Black could cost you money, not to mention privileges beyond price like your life, as evidenced by the number of Blacks who were lynched for trying to pass.

Slavery may not have made the vast majority of whites rich, but neither did they suffer the exploitation of field workers (nor of the industrial workers who would eventually take their place as the dominant sector of the workforce after abolition). Over time, entitlement to white privilege became a staple of white identity. Makes sense since white identity was invented as a justification for racism.

Why It Matters Now

Since then, the pecuniary value of whiteness has eroded, or at least changed. For instance, whiteness now is more about what you don’t have to suffer than it is about what you will materially receive to the exclusion of others. So, whiteness in the war on drugs functions like a get-out-of-jail-free card. That’s worth money, but it’s not land in Indian territory. This change makes the value of whiteness less tangible and therefore even less apparent to those who have it. For this reason, sensitivity to and resentment over the perceived erosion in the value of white skin is also a staple of white identity.

The biggest drop in value since the abolition of slavery occurred as a result of the Civil Rights Movement. Though the movement didn’t win equality, it definitely put a ding in the value of whiteness.

The resentment of whites over that sudden loss of status and value is the basis of the Republican’s Southern Strategy. By equating the rise of African Americans and other people of color with a loss of white status, privilege, and control, and then associating that, in turn, with the erosion, especially since the ’70s, of the white middle class, they’ve managed to pull off something like a miracle. They’ve made a political party that for most of the 20th century was branded the party of rich, callous snobs, into the party of the ordinary white man (and woman).

That change, along with the fact that the vast majority of the real political and economic rewards of white supremacy continues to accrue to those on top, have white folks in revolt. Entitlement to white privilege is still a foundation of white identity, and the fact that white privilege isn’t producing for them in the way it used to, and at at time when wealth is piling up as never before, is the reason they’re so pissed off at people of color, especially Black people, and more so by the day.

And that anger, a byproduct of white supremacy, is a basis of the rise of Republicans. And because the GOP is the lever by which rich people are changing the economic rules to make themselves richer than ever, racism still pays off, and big. Never since the antebellum South have we seen anything resembling the global disparities in wealth we see today.

And they’re not done yet. If they’re successful, our own economy may end up looking quite a bit like the plantations of the old South, with rich incompetents at the top (a point made very well in Chris Hayes’ book, Twilight of the Elites, and under-development and poverty all around.

We need to expose white people to their own truth to stop that from happening. Down-playing racism is not going to get that done for us.

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