In an interview with Mark Karlin in Truth Out, Tim Wise gives us some insight into where some of the hate, fear and resentment that particular parts of white America has been vocalizing more and more in the last decades comes from. The origins of which are actually older than this country. The interview revolves around Tim’s new book, Dear White America. It begins with how this White Tribal Identity came over with the first settlers from Europe but was put to use so the elites of the time could gloss over the deep class divisions that existed and enable the subjugation of African slaves and natives.
The term white was not, in fact, used in the European context to universalize the various European ethnic and national identities: after all, those national and ethnic groups had been slaughtering each other for generations. They hardly thought of themselves as members of a single team, let alone family. So while white supremacy has its roots in the class, religious and ethno-national systems of Europe, it took America – this place where the old divisions would need to be put aside so as to subjugate indigenous persons and maintain chattel enslavement of Africans in the name of “the white race” – to really bring racism, as we know it to fruition. Whiteness was really something of a trick, developed for the purpose of uniting otherwise disparate Europeans, first, so as to make the subordination of “non-whites” easier, but also (and importantly), to paper over the otherwise deep class cleavages that had long beset those from Europe. If the elite could make the poor Europeans believe they were members of the same “white” team as the rich Europeans, then the prospects for class-based rebellion would be dampened.
He also goes on to explain how the Myth of Self-Made-Man was used to galvanize this with the poor, unlike in feudal Europe where when the poor knew they would never rise above their station.
First, because they have been subjected to intense racial propaganda for generations, which has sadly left them clinging to what DuBois called the “psychological wage of whiteness,” which means the psychological advantage of believing oneself superior to someone, anyone of color, even though you are suffering economically. Unfortunately, when your real wages and working conditions are poor, the weight of the psychological wage intensifies and can become a crutch to which one clings in moments of insecurity. Also, the U.S., more so than elsewhere, has cultivated the notion that “anyone can make it” if they try hard enough. Unlike the feudal monarchies of Europe, where the poor and working class knew full well they were never going to be on top, here, the reigning ideology – the secular gospel if you will of America – is that individual initiative trumps all. If one believes that, then it becomes less likely that one will problematize the rich, or criticize them, or seek to challenge them, because at some level, even the poorest persons hope that one day they will be one of them – or if not rich, at least comfortable. So class consciousness becomes harder in such a place, and yet, when one’s class position doesn’t rise very much from generation to generation (and for many whites it still doesn’t), they content themselves with their perceived superiority relative to persons of color, and settle for that, rather than fighting for a better deal for all workers, white and of color.
That this pseudo White Family was superior to those savages and there for entitled to the land and resources that they took. But as he demonstrates further this is now being challenged and the myth is falling apart right before their very eyes. And the election of a Black man as president – especially one with a foreign name – is symbolic of this.
It’s not that the election of Obama caused the racism of course, but it certainly gave those with deep seated racial resentments and anxieties a new opportunity to articulate those under the guise of mainstream politics. The election of a man of color challenges the fundamental notions that many whites have long had, about what a leader is supposed to look like. And since this particular president is not only a man of color, but also has a name that seems “exotic” to some, and had a father who wasn’t even African American, but rather, straight off the continent of Africa itself, the sense of otherness surrounding him is even greater. He stands as something of a symbol of the transition from the old, white narrative of America to a new, multicultural, multiracial norm – and it’s a norm for which many, many whites simply are not prepared and about which they are not pleased.
An interesting aspect of this that Tim Wise brings up is how this fixation on small vs large government came about. A observation I and others have made as well. That these self same folks were very happy with big government and it’s many benefits up and until it was to apply to non-whites as well. Mark Karlin brings up an email exchange that Tim had with a Tea Party member from his book.
You have a fascinating account of an email exchange with a Tea Party member who claims that racial resentment is not a motivating factor in the group. She asserts that lower tax issues are a major goal. But when asked about the year, by you, in which she thought taxes were at an acceptable level she mentions 1957. As you point out, “the top marginal tax rate in the United States was ninety-one percent” that year. So, what do you suspect was really going on in her head?
I suspect her nostalgia for the 1950s has very little to do with taxes or the size of government at that time, since taxes were far higher and government spending was significant and growing too (and government had always been huge for white people). My guess is that this nostalgic vision of the 50′s (or really the pre-1960s, let’s be honest) is due to the way in which the country in those days seemed to be so clearly white, protestant, straight, etc, and how the 1960s and 70s confronted the nation with its warts, with its injustices, none of which white America wanted to see. They remember those days fondly because it was before they had to share the notion of Americanness with those who were fundamentally different, racially, culturally, ethnically and so on. It was a time of “innocence” to them, even as it was a time of intense racial terror for millions. That’s why the cries of “I want my country back” are so clearly about race, at least in terms of their background noise.
That before the civil rights movement and the legislation that followed, these same people loved the government programs and spending – which they befitted from with military contracts and what not – as well as the schools and roads and transportation. I myself remember riding the public transportation up here in Cleveland and it was always packed but with only white people. Blacks were still not allowed to use it.
Big government was something that was hugely popular, even among white people, right up until the 1960s. In the 30s, whites (including Southern rural whites) loved big government. It saved them during the depression. It gave them rural electricity, jobs, retirement programs, roads, schools, FHA loans, etc. Of course, those big government programs were also mostly if not exclusively for white people: blacks, for instance were largely excluded from them. Indeed their exclusion from the programs had been a precondition for southern senators supporting the New Deal actually. But as soon as people of color gained access to the same programs that whites had always had access to, that is when we discovered our “inner libertarian,” and things like government intervention in labor markets or housing markets came to seen as bad, and destructive, and a cause of laziness, etc. It was very convenient. And as social policy and programs to help the have nots and have-lessers became more and more racialized, support for those efforts dropped. In fact, one international comparison found that the factor that most explains why the U.S. doesn’t have the kind of social safety nets so common in other western industrialized democracies, is because whites believe black people will abuse the programs if we have them here. Of course, the irony is that then the programs that millions of whites need, especially in times like this, aren’t there for them either.
But what he does not bring up is that these people who appose these programs – even the poor whites that do – simply do not care that they are hurt as well. Just so long as these minorities don’t get them. After all its “Their Money” that is paying for it, is it not. He also does not go into the resentment of no longer being able to exclude those they deem unacceptable based on race from what ever they want. It’s nice to see someone else point out that the only ideology these right wing whites really have is one of racial superiority.