Welcome to The Crack-Up
What is happening in White America?
On Monday night, I sat down to write a piece about how White Americans are losing their shit.
Everywhere I looked, there were signs of white race panic.
White Student Unions are popping up around the country in response to demands that university administrations do more to fight racism on campus. The rhetoric against Syrian refugees has gotten so bad that Muslim Americans say the political climate is worse for them now than right after 9/11. The U.S. National Holocaust Museum, in response to Donald Trump’s support for a registry and special ID put out a statement for American Muslims that basically reminded the leading Republican Presidential candidate not to borrow policy proposals from the Nazis.
I originally wanted to write a piece about how White Americans are freaking out about economic inequality, the impending demise of their demographic majority and the waning of America’s dominance in the world. I wanted to talk about the need for a new idea of what it means to be American that doesn’t depend upon domination of others based on skin color (White Supremacy), or nationality (Empire).
But I couldn’t even finish the piece before I was interrupted by more news of white race panic.
I woke up yesterday to reports that five nonviolent protestors from BlackLivesMatter Minneapolis had been shot by white supremacists while participating in the #4thPrecinctShutdown. The protesters had been occupying the 4th Precinct station to protest the police killing of 24-year-old Jamar Clark earlier this month. Protesters had been warning the police that white supremacists were making very specific threats against them on 4Chan and YouTube, but their concerns went unheeded. The police took 20 minutes to respond to the shooting, even though it was around the corner from the police station, and when they finally arrived at the scene they maced protesters who were trying to film what was happening. The Minnesota NAACP has said they believe the police were “behind the shooting.”
After reading the news, I fell apart. I cried in my bed, thinking of my friend who helped organize the action and how terrifying it must be for her to live as a black person in this country. The police maced protestors after their friends had been shot by white supremicsts — at a protest against a police murder!
Then, last night, the Chicago Police released video of the murder of Laquan McDonald. For a year, the police had been claiming he was killed because he attacked them with a knife. In fact, he was simply walking in the street. The video revealed the police — and the city administration — had been lying as part of a cover-up intended to criminalize the victim and let the police and mayor off the hook. If it weren’t for the video, they would have gotten away with it. They still may. (Warning: the video is very hard to watch.)
Now, I don’t really know what to say. I am heartbroken for where this is all going. I am scared for my friends, especially those in the movement for black lives, who could be killed for standing up for their safety and freedom. I am horrified for my country that mistakes orphans and widows for terrorists, but refuses to see the terror it brings upon its own citizens. I am terrified of what this cycle of violence could mean in a country with a growing white supremacist militant movement looking to start a race war. I am confused as to why so many white people are so twisted by fear and hatred that they’d kill others who merely want to be safe and free — even when it means hurting themselves.
I want to understand why, at this particular moment, White Americans seem to be losing their fucking minds.
If we are going to dismantle white supremacy, we need to understand the roots of white male rage and the terror that ensues from it. As a white man, I want to understand what it is about whiteness, or America that’s causing white American males to be the country’s largest terror threat. Why isn’t white violence that is intended to shut down black movements considered terrorism by so many?
White male rage was a foundational keystone of this country, and has never been uprooted. At best, it gets more subtle from time to time, only to re-emerge in a particularly raw and virulent form. Now, it seems, is such a time.
The recent political history of how this rage re-emerged so voraciously is pretty clear. Since the civil rights movement, the Republican establishment — the big bankers and CEOs that actually run the party — have danced with racists in the white grassroots by conflating racism and fear of the government. Instead of providing all Americans with decent health care, education, jobs, or housing, the racist white grassroots and rich establishment agreed that everyone should be on their own — so black people don’t accidentally get anything good.
Phrases like “welfare queens” and the “food stamp president” are designed to combine racial resentment and fear of government programs. When you think of what kind of “lazy” person might “take advantage” of a government program, what type of person are you prompted to think of? The fact that those associations bear little truth in reality doesn’t matter: this connection was far from an accident — it was a plan.
“You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger” — that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.” — Lee Atwater, GOP Operative, 1981
The plan worked — especially in the south. The “Southern Strategy” turned the south from a solidly Democratic bastion into a Republican one and created the extreme gridlock and polarization that’s crippling Washington. From Goldwater to the Tea Party, the far right parlayed white people’s fear of blacks and other people of color into an anti-government backlash that gutted the middle class.
Now, all of us live with the extreme inequality created by policies sold by rich people to middle and working class white people as ways to hurt black people. Denying health-care to poor people will keep some black people from getting things, but poverty knows no color. Making college unaffordable for all but the rich will keep some black people off campuses, but it will also burden white families. Ironically, racism and white supremacy has made non-rich white people deal with some of the same issues that people of color have faced for centuries.
Now, a majority of white people don’t know if they will be able to provide themselves or their families with a decent life. They don’t believe the American Dream applies to them or think the government cares about people like them. They don’t know if future generations will be better off. And they’re not entirely wrong; in an era of stagnating wages and increasing housing, education and health care costs, most Americans’ quality of life is diminishing, even when the economy grows, because all the growth goes to the top 1%.
The growing proto-fascist, white supremacist movement in the Republican Party is preying upon non-rich white people who are literally dying of despair; turning to drugs and suicide to deal with a reality they can’t bear. Over the past 15 years, the death rate for white men has actually increased — an unprecedented rise in modern times that’s comparable to the emergence of the AIDS epidemic. White people are right that they are under attack — they’re just told the wrong culprits.
What’s new in this moment is the Republican establishment losing control of the grassroots. Instead of the corporate Republicans winning the white vote with coded racist language, the grassroots outsiders are competing with each other to be more and more openly racist. Trump and Carson are far-right populists rushing to turn non-rich white people’s fear and despair into ever greater inequality by blaming Others for their situation. The villainization of Mexicans, black people, and Muslims that’s happened over the course of this election season isn’t new, but the nakedness of the hatred is fueled by white panic about their diminishing prospects in the face of growing economic and political inequality.
White rage at economic inequality and fear of a corrupt political establishment is not the only thing driving the backlash. The movement for black lives is making every American confront how we treat black people and decide if black lives matter. Movements create change by forcing people to pick a side: opponents and supporters are both polarized, and each escalates in their tactics and commitment. In this moment of polarization, those who politically, economically or emotionally depend upon the domination of black people are forced to cling ever harder to their hatred.
The polarization that’s happening across America will be, in sum, a good thing. The mask is slipping and more people are seeing the violence inherent in maintaining white supremacy and empire. The courage and wisdom of this generation of young black leaders has already shifted the scope of what’s possible in a very short amount of time. The #4thPrecinctShutdown was able to win two of their three demands within a week; the officer who shot Laquan McDonald was already charged with murder. Protests often work and, right now, despite how bad it often feels, the movement is definitely winning.
But for every cop charged with murder for killing a black child, there is a Darren Wilson. For every city full of black leaders transforming this country for the better, there is a potential Dylann Roof. The process of ending white supremacy will make this a better country for everyone, but in the struggle it will almost certainly bring more pain to those who already suffer most.
So, what would it take for the sad, angry people clinging to their whiteness to have something else to feel good about?
How can other white people hasten the end of an America that depends on violence, exclusion and domination? I think, as Ta-Nehisi Coates says, that it will take us waking other white people up to the myth of their whiteness. It will require more of those of us that “believe ourselves to be white” to confront some tragic, simple human truths: life is short and fragile, each of us has very little control over our fates, and we all belong to the world; it does not belong to us.
The myth of White America is based on denying these basic, shared aspects of our humanity. It means denying the terror we inflict upon others to enable our domination — and seeing every act that opposes our domination as terrorism. The myth will continue until White Americans realize we are connected to the other peoples of this country and this world; that “Whiteness” is a myth invented for profit and that America is an imagined political community like any other, and is only good if we make it so.
I have come to believe the fears of white Americans are really just reflections of the things that white supremacy and empire has done to others. White America has not been terrorized by people of color; we have terrorized people of color. Black wealth is not based on stealing from white people; white wealth is based on stealing from black people. Instead of confronting the reality of our history and what our country has become for most people, too many Americans would rather kill those mourning their dead and send orphans and widows to a hellscape we created — all in order to preserve the myths of Whiteness, Masculinity, and Empire.
I have to imagine the white men, in particular, who commit these egregious acts of terror do so out of a silent, personal fear that the myths of whiteness and masculinity engender in themselves. The sad nothings that hang out on 4chan plotting the destruction of innocent others don’t believe they can be the strong, virile, White Male dominators they are prescribed to be. They must be silent in considering their fear, because to even admit they feel it would be to undo the myths of whiteness and masculinity they cling to.
The dehumanization white supremacists perpetrate on others has to be comparable to the dehumanization they feel themselves. No one who feels good about themselves talks as much as Donald Trump does about how he is a “winner” and other people are “losers.” No one who feels strong, or virile, or in control of themselves feels the need to murder others who are grieving. No one who is confident of their humanity would deny acceptance to a 5-year-old orphan refugee.
I can’t claim to have answers about how we get more white Americans to treat others as human beings. I do believe that all Americans would be better off if we moved beyond white supremacy and empire; they are myths that rob us all of our humanity, and keep us from uniting against the plutocrats that are stealing our future. I can’t pretend for a second to know how we do it. Perhaps imperfect, fumbling attempts like this to explain to each other how we feel is part of the process.
I have to believe that the next task of the movement — and not just the movement for black lives, but all of our movements — is to put forth a vision of what it means to be an American that’s based on a recognition of our shared humanity. In the 21st century, we can’t keep living on systems designed for a time before emancipation, electricity, or public education. We have to put forth a vision of what this country could look like if it actually was designed to work for all its people.