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Trying to Make Sense of How We Got to this Place in Race Relations
by Bill McGaughey
For a white person, to be called a “racist” is about as bad as it gets. The only epithet to rival it in malignant potency would be “anti-Semite”. Formerly, the accusation of being a “communist” struck terror in people’s hearts; but that term has lost its impact with the end of the Cold War. Besides, we would not want needlessly to antagonize our chief creditor, the People’s Republic of China, by insulting its political religion.
What is a “racist”? At worst, it would be a white who hates black people with an uncontrolled passion - all blacks, just for being black, although there may be a particular incident or situation that gave rise to that sentiment. A white racist might also be someone who thinks that white people are generally superior to black people - they are more intelligent, more ethical, have better character traits, etc. In response, let me say that many groups of people think that they are superior to other groups. There are some blacks who think black people are superior to whites - I’ve heard it said, for instance, that white males have a tendency to molest children. Such nonsense is not the monopoly of the white race.
Going back in history - to the 1890s and early 1900s - I can see that white people would have cause to believe that they were superior to other races. The European nations did, in fact, dominate the rest of the world. India was a possession of Great Britain. China was invaded and humiliated by a group of foreign powers. Africa was colonized by Britain, France, Portugal, and other European nations. Latin America bore the scars of Spanish conquest in the 16th century. And, in the United States, black people remained an underclass which, though technically free, had not achieved economic and social equality. To think that one person - England’s Queen Victoria - ruled over a large part of the earth’s population and land mass, and was dynastically related to the powerful German and Russian empires, was quite mind-boggling.
There will always be some who crow over situations like this, speaking of the “white man’s burden” or of Anglo-Saxon racial superiority, just as there are society matrons who organize debutante parties and other high-society events for the children of prominent families. If these are archetypes of “racism”, I say: What of it? Let them have their conceits. The well-born and rich will always have a sense of superiority to other people and being entitled to their privilege. We the people should be concerned about what they do with their superior resources, not what they think.
The White Racist: Low-Down or Privileged?
The “white racist” signifies something more sinister. We’re not talking of rich people’s social fantasies but of low-born whites - “white trash”, if you will - who harbor feelings of ill will against blacks and join organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan. We have the idea that these people are violent. They also have no manners. They insult and attempt to degrade blacks in most uncouth ways. It’s people like this who, historically, have lynched hundreds, if not thousands, of black people. A white racist is a low-down, no-good, unintelligent, uneducated type of character who hates black people and is prone to violence against them. No wonder whites fear being characterized in such a way.
Your average white man might object to this characterization and say: Wait a minute, aren’t there low-born blacks who are personally uncouth and prone to violence against white people? Can’t we find examples of whites who have been physically attacked and even killed by blacks? The short answer is: Yes, but you will not find this situation being shown so often in the news media or being featured in Hollywood films. Rather selectively, it is the “white racist” rather than his black counterpart who becomes the stock villain in our media and entertainment culture. There seems to be coordination, if not a “conspiracy”, within our media organizations to associate one racial type with the heroes and another type with the villains in the stories that are disseminated in mass culture.
So this is one explanation for how we have come to this state of race relations. Good and bad behavior may be evenly distributed among the different races and groups of people, but the “reality” that is shown to the public presents only one type of situation. What we have is a racial morality play whose theme is how white people have abused blacks over the years and how blacks have legitimately and heroically responded to that abuse.
If one analyzed the thousands of commercial films and dramatic features on television and cable-television with racial themes that have been publicly shown or broadcast over the past half century or more, I’m quite sure that such a pattern would emerge. Their cumulative impact upon our public consciousness is what gives the term, “white racist”, its emotional kick. But, of course, no investigative journalist or media scholar would dare undertake a study to confirm or refute that alleged pattern.
What we can say with confidence is that “racism” in our culture is a one-sided proposition. Racial experts say that only white people can be racists. That is because they define racism as “prejudice plus privilege.” Because white people are generally more privileged than blacks - have higher incomes, more education, more social prestige, etc. - white people as a group have “privilege”. “As a group” means all white people. Therefore, even if some blacks exhibit prejudiced and hateful attitudes toward whites, they are not guilty of racism because blacks, by definition, lack privilege. Only whites are privileged, the experts say.
But, of course, this is a bogus argument because the white racist is identified precisely with the less privileged members of the white race. Southern rednecks and hillbillies, most closely associated with the “white-racist” stereotype, are not usually considered to be upper-class or rich. Conversely, because Bill Gates is white and a multibillionaire does not mean that any of his fellow whites, excepting his wife, necessarily share in this man’s pecuniary privilege any more than members of other races do. The so-called “anti-racist” argument, directed exclusively against whites, is plainly and essentially untruthful.
Let me approach the same point from another direction. Throughout my career, both in the public and private sectors, I have never worked for an employer who did not strongly support affirmative action, celebrate “Black History Month”, or otherwise oppose “racial discrimination”. Here power seems to be lining up with the “anti-racist” position even though in all cases white men headed the organizations where I worked. It can be argued that these corporate leaders were forced to renounce racial discrimination by the government. They could have been whites seething with white-racist sentiment who decided not to jeopardize their careers by picking a fight with the politicians. Alternatively, they could have been sincere believers in the anti-racist cause. Who knows? People like that keep their true thoughts close to the vest.
Racism and the Plutocracy
Let me propose a theory. The U.S. political system is essentially a plutocracy in which politicians serve moneyed interests. With that in mind, we can see how “racism” fits into the political equation. The plutocratic owners and managers of businesses fear causes that directly threaten their position. Labor unions pose such a threat financially as socialism (or communism) does politically. The idea that working people or their political “representatives” should take power away from the plutocrats is of grave concern to the types of people who run our country.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, business owners bitterly resisted the demands of organized labor. A series of bloody strikes took place. At the time of World War I, the U.S. government cracked down on union officials with socialist leanings. Eugene V. Debs, the socialist candidate for President, gained more than a million votes while in prison. The triumph of Bolshevism in Russia posed a new challenge to the plutocracy. In 1919, Woodrow Wilson’s attorney general, Alexander Mitchell Palmer, arrested more than 10,000 individuals after anarchists launched bombing attacks in eight cities. Hundreds of leftists were deported in what became known as the first “Red Scare”.
In the meanwhile, numerous blacks migrated from the south to northern cities in search of factory jobs. Employers sometimes found it useful to hire them as strike breakers during labor disputes. World War II allowed Stalin to occupy several nations in eastern Europe. Communists meanwhile seized control of governments in China, Korea, and Vietnam. A second “Red Scare”, led by Senator Joseph McCarthy, ensued. Great Britain granted independence to its colonies in India, Africa, and the Middle East. Black politicians now led several newly independent nations in Africa. The Cold War featured ideological as well as military competition between the capitalist West and the communist East. The two sides were competing for hearts and minds in the Third World.
It is in the context of Cold War competition that the black Civil Rights movement flourished. American communists had made overtures to blacks. The singer Paul Robeson and NAACP official W.E.B. Du Bois were prominent communist sympathizers in the black community. Beyond that, foreign scholars such as Sweden’s Gunnar Myrdal were criticizing the United States for its poor treatment of blacks in the South. The murder of Emmet Till caused an international uproar. Clearly the race-relations problem in the United States was working to the advantage of the communists in Cold War competition. FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover, viewed Martin Luther King as a black leader with links to known communists.
Under those circumstances, leaders of the U.S. plutocracy decided to eliminate that problem by supporting the black Civil Rights movement. The southern states were an economic and political backwater. With the Brown v. Board of Education decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, there was a legal obligation to end segregation in the schools. A key event was President Eisenhower’s decision in 1957 to send federal troops to Arkansas to enforce desegregation of the Little Rock Central High School. The President also proposed and signed Civil Rights legislation in 1967 and 1960. A sea change was underway in U.S. politics.
The most dramatic reversal came during the presidential elections of 1960 and 1964. The Democratic candidate for President, John F. Kennedy, made telephone calls to Democratic elected officials in the south to gain Martin Luther King’s release from prison. King’s father, previously a Republican, announced that Kennedy would receive a large number of black votes as a result of that action. In 1964, Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater opposed Civil Rights legislation. In the same year, South Carolina’s senator, Strom Thurmond, who had been the Dixiecrat candidate for president in 1948, left the Democratic party and became a Republican. The traditionally Democratic “Solid South” soon became a Republican stronghold.
The formative years of the new politics were the 1960s. After President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, President Lyndon B. Johnson became a strong supporter of Civil Rights legislation and appointed the first African American, Thurgood Marshall, to the U.S. Supreme court. So we had the dominant group of politicians - President Johnson won the 1964 election with 61% of the vote - joined by labor leaders such as Walter Reuther and others, prominent academics and religious leaders, cadres of journalists and entertainment producers, lawyers, and a compliant business community, all supporting the black Civil Rights movement while only leaders in the southern states opposed it. Republicans such as Richard Nixon took advantage of a white “backlash” to gain votes but did little to challenge the situation. Indeed, black politicians made some of their greatest gains in the 1980s when Ronald Reagan was President. It was he who signed the Martin Luther King holiday bill into law.
When the dust had settled, we had a politics that had shifted its focus from economics to group identity. Southern blacks had pioneered the new mode of political grievance. Soon other disadvantaged peoples joined the coalition of groups that worked through the Democratic Party to seek “equality” with the majority population: feminist women, native Americans, gays and lesbians, undocumented immigrants. The Republican Party meanwhile refrained from challenging or opposing this new politics and instead committed itself to serving the plutocracy. Its representatives talked about tax cuts for the wealthy, free trade, eliminating the capital-gains tax, privatization, and deregulating industries including financial services. Hardly a word was said about race, gender, or other socially contentious issues.
In summary, the plutocrats had beaten back the challenge of communism. Labor unions were losing members each year. Certainly, their political clout had declined. Work hours were rising. Real wages were stagnant. U. S. manufacturers were outsourcing their production to low-wage countries abroad. And the ethic of the Civil Rights movement had become so influential as to be a civic religion. Putting these facts together, it seems that the moneyed class in America had sacrificed white people as a group - allowing a racial stigma to be placed on them - in order to protect their own economic and political interest.
This is not the only time such things have happened. To thwart communist influence in central Asia, the U.S. government fomented rebellious attitudes among Muslims in the Soviet republics located in that region. We worked with Osama bin Laden to drive the Soviet forces out of Afghanistan. And so, while one “evil” receded, another (which we ourselves had created) appeared to take its place. I am reminded of a saying by Jesus: “When an unclean spirit comes out of a man it wanders over the deserts seeking a resting place, and finds none. Then it says, ‘I will go back to the home I left.’ So it returns and finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and tidy. Off it goes and collects seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they all come in and settle down; and in the end the man’s plight is worse than before. ” (Matthew 12: 43-45)
Privilege and Guilt
I am not saying that it was wrong to dismantle the segregationist system that existed in the American South between the end of Reconstruction and the 1960s. It was not wrong to grant black Americans full legal equality including more effective voting rights. The new wrong pertains to the system of Orwellian thought control (sometimes called “political correctness”) that grips our society, to the preferential treatment given blacks and other groups to redress past injustices, and to the general dishonesty that surrounds this subject. The “smart” people don’t talk about race any more. Benefiting from the present system, they want to prevent others from reopening this discussion. Group intimidation, rather than enforcement of law, is the method of control.
An early Bob Dylan song sized up the control mechanism used in the segregationist south. Self-serving community leaders were saying to poor southern whites: “You’re better off than the blacks; don’t complain.” And so if we make black people icons of suffering, it implies that white people have no right to complain. They are “privileged” persons whose grievances must, of course, be ignored.
Therefore, the great mass of intimidated whites must accept as their lot in society that their well-paying jobs are disappearing in the swelling tide of free trade. Newly weds must postpone having children to pay off student loans and assemble enough money to make a down payment on a house. They must submit to being tricked by the fine print in credit-card agreements and home-purchase contracts that allow financial institutions to charge exorbitant interest and force defaults. The “little people” who pay taxes must bail out Wall Street even as its managers take billions of dollars in bonuses and pay. America’s majority population has been politically marginalized.
This state of affairs is sometimes termed “white guilt”. Whites are supposed to feel guilty because some white people, mainly in the South, owned slaves more than one hundred and forty years ago. The fact that African people were sold into slavery by their African brethren evidently directs no guilt that way. Nor does the fact that slavery was ended through the sacrifice of mainly white soldiers fighting for the Union army confer any blessing on the white race. The high priests of race relations today proclaim a never-ending legacy of guilt which white people can never shake. Reparations, however, would be a nice way to ease the racial pain for at least a couple of years.
How were white people - America’s majority population - persuaded to accept this guilt? They were persuaded, first, by trusted religious leaders who pitched that version of morality. They were persuaded by academics who “taught” a certain version of historical events. They were persuaded by Hollywood films and by articles in newspapers or television news stories that were slanted in certain ways. Lastly, they were persuaded by their political leaders although, in this case, the multitudes of ordinary people had a chance to talk back in the election results.
The modern version of racial politics came together in the 1960s, and it was the Democrats who scored first. By holding to a certain line of argument with respect to race relations - that white racism is responsible for most of black people’s problems - the Democratic Party has been able to attract 80% to 90% of the black vote in elections. The problem for Democrats is that white voters greatly outnumber black voters, and most whites are turned off by that type of appeal. Therefore, overtly racial arguments appear less frequently in political campaigns. Barack Obama was elected President on the basis of ending racial divisions and bringing people together rather than preaching how whites have historically oppressed black Americans.
Even so, white Americans remain in fear of being called a “racist”. No politician could shame the populace to that extent. Some other explanation is required. I think it has to do with the fact that in the 1960s and 1970s a number of laws were enacted and administrative regulations were issued which prohibited racial discrimination. There were laws to prevent employers from discriminating against minorities in hiring and promotion (and making sure that a “disparate result” was not achieved). There were laws against “tolerating” employee conduct which created a hostile work environment for minorities and women. There were Fair Housing laws that outlawed racial discrimination in the sale of homes or in renting apartments. A new type of injury was created: racial discrimination. The laws and regulations were vague. Financial penalties for being found guilty were severe.
The effect of those laws was that employers and other affected parties took every precaution to avoid situations that could be interpreted as perpetrating or tolerating racial discrimination. In back of every situation stood a potential lawsuit. Spurred by anti-discrimination laws, employers became zealots in making sure that no such practices existed within their domain that could be proven in a court of law. Employers thus became instruments for suppressing free speech. No management person would dare express white-racist thoughts in public because this might be presented as evidence of guilt in racial-discrimination lawsuits.
The politicians no longer had to communicate the evils of white racism (and risk the potential wrath of white voters) because they had enlisted the business community to do this for them. People in high places everywhere knew that if the “racist” label were pinned on them, they could well lose their job. Hounded by the media, they would be thrown to the wolves. Hence, the pathetic claim of persons caught in such situations: “I am not a racist. In fact, some of my close friends are black.”
It was a brilliant outcome from the standpoint of the Democratic Party. A whole new area of lucrative litigation was opened up for one of its main constituents: trial lawyers. A pillar of Republican support, the business community, was made responsible for enforcing the racially themed laws. The public was conditioned to look for racism within the evil business community while high-minded politicians stood above the fray.
Through the fear of lawsuits, administrative fines, and other punitive measures, the politicians managed to get others to do the racial “heavy lifting” while they themselves bore no apparent responsibility for that action. It is a pattern that works on several levels of government.
As an inner-city landlord, I know how the game is played locally: Elected officials pass ordinances relating to “conduct on premises” which force property owners to police their tenants in ways which would get the city police in trouble, especially if it involved black criminals. Landlords are made responsible for results rather than obeying any particular set of laws. In this murky legal environment, politicians can pretend to be doing all they can to fight crime while at the same time remaining virtuously opposed to racial discrimination. In reality, they have shifted the burden of carrying out essential government functions to someone else.
One would think that the Republican Party would come to the rescue of its client, the business community, especially if many of its supporters are white. Barry Goldwater might once have opposed the Civil Rights agenda, but the situation is different today. Remember, the prime enemy of plutocrats is the labor movement, not the black race. In pushing for black Civil Rights, the advancement of women, and other identity-based causes, American labor unions lost both their focus and the solidarity of membership upon which the strength of such organizations largely depends. It is no coincidence that the trade-union movement has become weaker as these other concerns have come to the fore.
Apart from the fact that corporate leaders could do little to defeat anti-discrimination laws, it might actually have worked to their advantage in the new class warfare - conducted by rich people against the poor - that white people were generally stigmatized as racist. Such a demonizing label made white employees fair game for punishment. At the least, the white-racist stigma was a demoralizing self-image that sapped these employees’ ability to challenge or question the management class. From the standpoint of today’s self-serving CEO, if you can turn a majority of your workforce into docile servants and put a white face on your own personal greed, you can get away with almost anything.
Not one to shake the boat
I write these words mindful of the fact that a majority of white Americans have little desire to challenge the establishment. Political militancy is associated with minorities. Whites, in response, have developed a conservative streak that associates such militancy with whining and complaining instead of doing anything to help themselves. Whites are proud to be Americans, loyal to its institutions and leaders. They are not part of that fringe that criticizes our society. A political leader like Bush can play upon those sentiments and gain their support while, in fact, betraying their interest.
At some point, however, the white population must realize that their community has been misled. When the race fog lifts and distracting elements are removed, maybe the situation will become more clear and people of all races can demand better service from their leaders. Maybe a true democracy will come to America, replacing plutocratic control.