Tag Archives: Up with Chris Hayes

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.

Whitening the Media

20 Jun

Chris Hayes Speaks

I like MSNBC’s Up with Chris Hayes. It’s TV for thinkers, at least most of the time. But this past weekend, in a discussion about the collapse of truth in media, Hayes said something that almost had me throwing my coffee at the T.V.

His comment was a response to a plea from good ol’ Amy Goodman of Democracy Now for poor people, especially poor people of color, being able to speak for themselves in media. She said truth in media is “larger than a truth that is yes or no…” speaking to the fact that, even in the midst of an economic crisis that is having a disproportionate and devastating impact on Blacks and Latinos, almost no poor Black or Latino people are able to speak about the economy in the media.

Goodman’s point was well taken. There are many societal “truths” constructed by the media, not least of which is that only educated experts are qualified to speak to issues. Mainstream media, even much of the left media, rarely allows poor people to speak for themselves, neither about the realities with which they live, nor about the solutions they would propose to problems that most directly affect them.

Excluding those most impacted by issues of economic inequality from the discussion among public intellectuals in the media comes at a real cost. When we support a dialogue about the economy absent the perspectives of those who have lost the most, and have the most to gain through deep and lasting change, we reduce real problems facing real people into nothing more than issues to attract the votes of middle-class people.

Hayes responded by saying

“…but here’s the problem with that. Even if you show those folks…a certain portion of the electorate is going to say ‘I don’t trust them‘ or they will be told by the Daily Caller that this is some sort of ridi…”

That’s when I got angry. You don’t get to talk about poor people like they don’t matter.

For most of my adult life, I’ve been a community organizer. That means I’ve worked with people on the down side of unjust power relations – folks who need to exercise power in numbers because when we act as individuals we are treated like we don’t matter.

As an organizer, a big part of my job involved gathering people suffering from injustice so we could share our stories with one another. My best memories are of those moments when people listening to the stories of their peers would well up in tears of relief and recognition and say, “that’s just like me.”

Realizing that we are not alone in our troubles helps people who are rarely listened to by “experts” like Chris Hayes lift themselves out of despair. The circle of recognition grows exponentially larger when those who have been vilified as leaches and denigrated as losers are able to tell their stories through the media. Nothing else has as broad and immediate an impact. In fact, not being able to tell our stories via the mainstream media is one of the ways we are swept under the rug and kept out of power.

Believe me, as long as the only audience that counts to media makers is white and middle class, media as a means of advancing racial equity will only yield change in small and mostly superficial increments. The white middle class perceives itself as having too much to lose and not enough to gain through achieving racial justice. And that resistance is magnified by the fact that our invisibility in media means that relatively few middle class whites know our stories.

But when poor people of color are included, we not only open doors to reconciliation and change. Change is created by the simple act of including us.

So the next time Mr. Hayes finds himself bemoaning the lack of movement on issues of justice, maybe he should ask himself what role media plays in writing those most likely to be that movement out of the story.

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