THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT In AMERICAN MYTH
Part One: The Mythological and Psychological Background
Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees…
- Billy Holiday
From the perspective of those who have been forced to bear the projection of American Dionysus, the subtext of almost all of our domestic issues and most of our foreign policy is America’s original sin, its fatal flaw – race. Let me state my opinion as clearly as I can: from the perspective of the myth of American innocence, any social, economic or political commentary that does not begin by acknowledging this fact is either hopelessly ignorant or deliberately complicit with the aims of the empire.
America has had countless scapegoats, but why are we periodically compelled to lynch only one of them? After 350 years of mythic instruction, popular thinking among white people remains polarized along racial lines: civilized vs. primitive, abstinence vs. promiscuity and sobriety vs. intoxication. These pairs of opposites are all forms of a more fundamental opposition between composure and impulsivity (or mythologically, between Apollo and Dionysus).
America remains a puritan nation, and the worst of all sins to the Puritan is lack of self-control. Even though studies consistently show that similar percentages of whites and blacks engage in sex, drugs and violence, large numbers of whites still believe the old stereotypes that blacks are more susceptible to such “vices.” This allows whites, wrote Ralph Ellison, “…to be at home in the vast unknown world of America.”
Othering is not logical. As with archetypes, when one pole of a stereotype is active, so is its opposite. Even as they perceive blacks as unable to control their desires, large majorities of whites still accuse them of the Puritan’s second worst sin, laziness. Two thirds say that the problems suffered by blacks are due to their preference for welfare over work. This is an odd claim, writes Tim Wise, “…seeing as how five out of six blacks don’t receive any.”
Mythic narratives are the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. And when they collapse, they replace archetypes with stereotypes. The next step in scapegoating is manipulating the fear that those who can’t control their desires will tempt us to follow them, that we (middle-class whites) might not be able to resist temptation.
What does this fear of temptation say about white people? It implies that our carefully constructed veneers of innocence, progress, racial superiority, masculinity and self-control are eggshell-thin. At a deeper level, it implies envy of those whom the dominant culture has designated as more childlike and more in touch with the needs of their bodies.
And envy points toward something even deeper, the unconscious desire for healing. But healing, as something beyond simplistic notions of regeneration, as initiation into self-knowledge, implies the death of what no longer works. The soul desires this more than anything; and the ego fears this more than anything. As James Baldwin wrote, “Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety.” And this is precisely why, all across the world, the indigenous imagination has given us stories about figures such as Dionysus.
The black man is America’s modern Dionysus. Like the enigmatic outsider of The Bacchae, he comes from beyond the gates to liberate the women, to lead them to the mountains to dance among themselves, free of patriarchal control. Like that other outsider, the Pied Piper, he threatens to lead the children away…
Whites project the stereotyped characteristics of American Dionysus upon blacks because the heritage of Puritanism does not allow them to fully embody those characteristics themselves. But – we must say this repeatedly – just below the negative judgments and hatred lies envy of those who appear to be comfortable in their bodies and unrestrained in their desires. In a culture that elevates the dry, masculine, Apollonian virtues of spirit over the wet, feminine and Dionysian, African Americans proudly use the word soul to define their music and culture in contrast to the dominant religious and cultural values. For several generations, white youth have understood the term instinctively. And their parents have reacted accordingly, with fear and discipline.
Part Two: Red, White and Black
Genocide of the Native Americans (the outer Other) created two problems for the white imagination, and for its economy: it didn’t leave enough survivors to be identified as Other, and it didn’t leave enough laborers. Whites required someone to act both roles. So they uprooted millions of Africans to form the foundation of the Southern economy (much later, despite the anti-immigrant hostility, they also quite deliberately allowed in millions of Latinos to work the jobs that whites would not accept.)
As I have written in Chapter Eight of my book, neither “blackness” nor “whiteness” firmly established themselves in the American mind until the defeat of Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676 in Virginia, when indentured servants of both races challenged the landowners. This was a watershed moment. Historian Theodore Allen writes:
...laboring-class African-Americans and European-Americans fought side by side for the abolition of slavery...If the plan had succeeded, the history of...America might have taken a much different path.
Previously, there had been little distinction between dark- and light-skinned laborers. Afterwards, Virginia codified its bondage system. In the first example of affirmative action for whites it replaced the terms “Christian” or “free” with “white,” gave new privileges to Caucasians, removed rights from free blacks and banned interracial marriage. Other laws contributed to what Allen calls the “absolutely unique American form of male supremacism” – the right of any Euro-American to rape any African-American without fear of reprisal.
This new allegiance to whiteness eliminated most class competition and provided a sub-class of poor whites to intimidate slaves and suppress rebellion. This is how the first American police forces developed – as slave patrols. Copied everywhere, the pattern merged with the myth of racial war: America’s primary model for class distinction (and class conflict) became relations between white planters and black slaves, rather than between rich and poor.
The new system, writes Allen, insisted on “the social distinction between the poorest member of the oppressor group and any member, however propertied, of the oppressed group.” Eventually, southern class discrimination merged with northern religious stereotyping. Since poverty equaled sinfulness (to Northern Puritans) and black equaled poor (to Southern opportunists), then it became obvious that blackness equaled sin.
Regardless of their economic status, whites pledged allegiance to a state that was defined by the perpetual threat of the return of the repressed. The predatory imagination found the secret to perpetuating itself – as it would in the1870s, 1890s, 1930s, 1950s, 1980s and today – by manipulating the paranoid imagination.
Red, White and Black were born together in the American soul. Psychologically speaking, this was America’s “birth trauma” – the events that formed our essential character, our fatal flaw.
Over three centuries after Bacon’s Rebellion, scholars still wonder why a strong socialist movement never developed in America, as it did in almost every other country. Characteristically, they rarely consider the overwhelming presence of the Other: no other nation combined irresistible myths of opportunity with rigid legal systems deliberately intended to divide natural allies. Whiteness implies both purity (which demands removal of impurities) and privilege. No matter how impoverished a white, male American feels, he still hears hundreds of subtle messages every day that divide him from the impure. Without racial privilege the concept of whiteness is meaningless. Often, Americans have had nothing to call their except white privilege, yet they cling to it and support those whose coded rhetoric promises to maintain it.
The process of exclusion and subordination required a massive lie about black inferiority that has been enshrined in our national narrative. “After all,” writes Wise,
…to accept that all men and women were truly equal, while still mightily oppressing large segments of that same national population on the basis of skin color, would be to lay bare the falsity of the American creed.
Similarly, the French philosopher Montesquieu wrote, “It is impossible for us to suppose these creatures to be men, because, allowing them to be men, a suspicion would follow that we ourselves are not Christian.”
This brings up the question of religion. This is certainly no mere academic one. White evangelicals are now Donald Trump’s essential base, the only sizable group in the country who still support him. In Chapter Eight of my book I wrote:
How did Puritanism continue to grow there long after it had been greatly transformed into the capitalist impulse in the North? As free land became scarce in the east, most immigrants (including thousands of Scots-Irish Presbyterians) headed toward southern and western frontier areas. There, they fought savage wars with the Indians long after New England’s indigenous population had been decimated.
In the Deep South in particular they lived side-by-side with millions of blacks and the constant fear of both race war and sexual predation. In addition, one can imagine that they felt guilt, conscious or not, for participating directly in the systematic dehumanization of the slaves. This meant that rural Southerners, far more than Northerners, were obsessed with evil in their daily lives.
The Bible occupied a prominent place on the frontier. With few educated clergy around, people were often unaware of its symbolic context. It was venerated more than it was read, and read more than it was understood. The Bible was often the only book in the house (this situation still prevails in many American homes). The result was a dogmatism and anti-intellectual literalism that became characteristic of this part of the country.
So, while urban Northerners transmuted their self-abnegation into the sense of deferred gratification required to amass wealth, rural Southerners built up their fear of the Other to such a fever pitch that the Devil – and their own sense of sinfulness – remained as constant presences. Belief in predestination died out, but Original Sin remained. This meant fear of judgment, repressed sexuality, longing for Apocalypse and an older sense of deferred gratification, not to wealth but to the next life. Obsession with the other world meant dismissal of this one and contempt for political participation. As a result, most fundamentalists didn’t vote until the 1970s.
That situation changed only when the Republicans deliberately sought their votes with the old tactics of racial fear. And fear, we have learned yet again, trumps moral concerns. Since then, the “solid South” has simply changed its allegiance from Democrat to Republican, with enough votes to wreck or water down any progressive legislation, but now with the addition of millions of fundamentalists who had previously not voted.
Consider the intersection of myths centering on Southern plantations before the Civil War: the myth of free markets; the myth of the pastoral plantation, with everyone happily playing their role, protected by benevolent masters and Protestant ministers; the myth of pure Southern Womanhood; and the complex images of the slaves themselves. Indeed, the North long held to yet another myth, that discrimination occurred only in the South. In reality, Northern mobs attacked abolitionists on over two hundred occasions prior to the Civil War.
Joel Kovel asserts that there are two kinds of racism. One is the obvious dominative racism that developed in close contact (including the privilege of rape) between master and slave.
The second – aversive racism – arose from Puritan associations of blackness with filth. De Tocquevile noticed that prejudice “appears to be stronger in the states that have abolished slavery than in those where it still exists; and nowhere is it so intolerant as in those states where servitude has never been known.” Indeed, New England had about 13,000 slaves in 1750. In 1720, New York City’s population of seven thousand included 1,600 blacks, most of them slaves. Not until 1664 (22 years after Massachusetts) did Maryland declare that all blacks held in the colony and all those imported in the future would serve for life, as would their offspring. And the two colonies with the strongest religious foundations – Massachusetts and Pennsylvania – were the ones that first outlawed “miscegenation.”
When northern states expanded the voting franchise for whites in the 1830s, most of them explicitly abolished it for blacks. Later, several states including Indiana and Illinois literally banned all blacks from entering. Oregon (1859), however, was the only free state admitted to the Union with a racial exclusion clause in its constitution. The ban remained in place until 1927. Well into the 1950s (as any black entertainer, athlete or travelling businessman can attest), thousands of “sundown towns” in thirty states prevented blacks from residing overnight on pain of arrest or worse.
But we are focusing on the South. As whiteness took on increasing significance, so did the fear of “mongrelization.” Below the fear, however, was envy and below that was the desire to achieve real healing and authentic psychological integration. To cover up such unacceptable fantasies, whites projected their desires onto blacks. Even the great humanist (and, we have learned, willing race mongrelizer) Thomas Jefferson apparently felt that black men had a preference for white women over black women “as uniformly...as the preference of the Oran-utan for the black woman over those of his own species.”
As the Native American population (the Outer Other) east of the Appalachian Mountains shrunk into relative insignificance, African-Americans assumed the role of the Inner Other. What (in the white mind) were their characteristics? First, they were childish, lazy and unreliable – the shadow of the Protestant Ethic. It was necessary to force them to be productive. White performers began to wear blackface in the 1840s. LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) writes,
... the only consistent way of justifying what had been done to him – now that he had reached what can be called a post-bestial stage – was to demonstrate the ridiculousness of his inability to act as a “normal” human being.
Whites needed to believe that blacks were slow, dumb and happy, so blacks acted that way. Whites created fictional characters – from Jim Crow to Gone With the Wind’s Mammy: loveable and loyal, yet lacking any concern for intellect or freedom. Blackface minstrelsy was America’s primary form of entertainment throughout the nineteenth century. Forms of it (Amos ‘n Andy) survived into the 1950s, tutoring millions in racist stereotyping. But it provided something else: by vicariously impersonating blacks, whites could briefly inhabit their own bodies.
A second aspect contradicted the first, but no one cared. Othering is not logical. This Other was intensely sexual and aggressive. Like Dionysus, he might sneak in and corrupt the children. Class society assigns the mind to the masters and the body to the servants. In racially homogeneous societies, where the leaders racially resemble the followers, these images are not mutually exclusive. The poor can potentially join the elite. But in racial caste systems masters are physically different from servants, and the images are mutually exclusive. The mind/body division coincides with the racial gulf, and this distinction becomes sacred.
This division took abstraction to new levels. Whites hated the body’s needs and feared that they might be judged by how well they controlled them. Here is a clue to slavery’s appeal. This terror, writes Michael Ventura, “...was compacted into a tension that gave Western man the need to control every body he found.” In slavery, “the body could be both reviled and controlled.”
Third, it was necessary to confine this Black Other of the South, unlike the external, Red Other (now primarily west of the Mississippi River), within the gates of the innocent community. Whites could savagely defend their women from him, but they couldn’t exterminate or isolate him in concentration camps (otherwise known as reservations), because he was critical to economic prosperity. Slavery fit the model of an internal Other that had appeared earlier in the Witch craze. White Europeans had long been used to these stereotypes: for hundreds of years before the discovery of the New World, they had seen Jews as the internal Other and Muslims as the external Other.
After emancipation, racism remained the foundation of a political economy predicated upon fear, the constant threat of violence, division of the working class and further refinements of whiteness. The law long assumed that blacks were persons with any African ancestry. The “one-drop rule,” used by no other nation, made one a black person. “Octoroons,” who had seven white great-grandparents out of eight, were considered to be black.
Curiously (and ironically, in 2017 as Trump directs his vitriol at Elizabeth Warren), in the case of Native American admixture with whites, courts enforced the one-drop rule more selectively. They recognized the “Pocahontas exception” because many influential Virginia families claimed descent from Pocahontas. To avoid classifying them as non-white the Assembly declared that a person could be considered white as long as they had no more than one-sixteenth Indian blood.
For decades, despite many exceptions, one of the primary characteristics of whiteness across large swaths of the country was the simple fact of legal freedom. This changed quickly after 1865. So new laws were enacted that prevented most blacks from acquiring western land, thus keeping them as de facto slaves in the south. Homesteading became a privilege of whiteness, another example of affirmative action. In the southwest, similar systems targeted Latinos. No wonder our picture of the hardy “pioneers” who settled the west is lily-white.
When poor whites and blacks again threatened to unite, the Jim Crow system arose, held in place by the threat of terrorism. Between 1868 and 1871, the Ku Klux Klan murdered 20,000 Americans. In the 1890s, when workers and farmers organized the Populist Movement, there were 200 lynchings per year. The dream of unity collapsed (as it would again in the 1970s) under the fear and the temptation to identify as white.
This systemic violence might have provoked more outrage but for a rationale that silenced criticism. Sexuality was a means of reasserting both white control over blacks and male domination of women, even though fewer than a quarter of lynchings resulted from allegations of sexual assault. When agriculture mechanized and the South no longer required them, many blacks left, only to be confined within northern ghettoes, where many black women could find work only as prostitutes. By 1900 the mythmakers had succeeded: most whites believed that blacks hadn’t been ready for freedom because, like Dionysus, they couldn’t “sacrifice their lusts.”
Like ancient Athenians, Victorian Americans saw themselves as Apollonian, hardworking, rational and progressive. Meanwhile, they had enshrined the Other in a form the Greeks would have recognized, but burdened with Christian sinfulness. “Enshrined” seems to be the proper term here: there was (and is) simply no possibility of worshipping such a deeply corrupted version of the Christ without imagining an equally corrupt, “evil twin.” For more on this question, see Chapter Nine of my book.
There was no place for him or her within the pure American psyche, but it was still necessary to keep him close. The descendants of the slaves, in both their stereotyped, earthy physicality and the implied threat of their vengeance became America’s dark incarnation of Dionysus, our collectively repressed memory and imagination. Since whites desperately needed to project him, to see him, they created exactly those conditions – segregation and discrimination – that dehumanized him and fostered behavior that whites could demonize.
White Americans filled their imaginary underworld with monsters: the outer, Red Other and the inner, Black Other. In 1960, novelist James Baldwin concluded,
We would never, never allow Negroes to starve, to grow bitter, and to die in ghettos all over the country if we were not driven by some nameless fear that has nothing to do with Negroes...most white people imagine that (what) they can salvage from the storm of life is really, in sum, their innocence.
Part Three: Conflicting Images of the Other in the South in the 1960s
Q: What’s the difference between ignorance and apathy?
A: I don’t know and I don’t care!
The old joke comes close to explaining the stunning combination of racial animosity and innocent ignorance that white Americans accepted as reality in the early 1960s. At that time, only about 6% approved of interracial marriage, while 84% were convinced that blacks had equal educational opportunity.
Even though anti-segregation protests had been happening for years, most whites had been unaware of a national movement for racial freedom. Rather abruptly, it seemed that by sitting in at lunch counters across the South, the Other was stepping in from his and her internal exile, demanding to sit at the same the table as the master. The Civil Rights Movement insisted that neither freedom nor equality was possible without the other. They defined freedom in terms of inclusion. But for Southern whites inclusion meant something that absolutely threatened their myth of innocence: meeting the Other on equal terms.
Are you old enough to remember those “black-and-white” photos and newsreel films of the demonstrations? We notice several things. First: the dignity, religious fervor and no-nonsense, even formal attire of the African-Americans. Second: the presence of northern whites accompanying them. Then, the camera pans back, and we comprehend the broader context: hundreds – and occasionally thousands – of local whites, brought to the scene by the possibility of violence – with deep hatred and sometimes fear on their faces.
We see the burning crosses, the police dogs and the fire hoses. But we also see leather-clad toughs and housewives in high heels taunting the marchers with astonishing profanity.
What we don’t see is the 350-year legacy of fear that turned working-class whites and blacks into adversaries. We don’t see the religious conditioning that divided whites internally, against their own bodies. We don’t see the heritage of alienation that required the construction of an entire race of scapegoats so that whites could cling to their privilege and their innocence.
Still, the demonstrators are merely sitting quietly, singing or marching in silence. Why is there such rage on the white faces? Certainly, blacks are demanding equality and whites fear some economic loss if blacks were to be allowed to compete for their jobs and homes. But furious, violent, out-of-control rage?
Perhaps it is because the blacks aren’t “shuffling and jiving,” lowering their heads or stepping off the sidewalks to let them pass. Perhaps because they are no longer presenting the false persona of childish or contented servant. Perhaps it is because some of them are looking the whites directly in the eye for the first time in anyone’s memory, refusing to call them “sir.”
I would propose that then (and, sadly, now) the whites, “crackers” or middle-class, were facing a profound dilemma. They could no longer successfully project self-contempt for their sexuality, their bodily connection to the old pagan gods, to Dionysus, onto the blacks. Forced to contemplate people just as self-controlled as themselves, and quite often more so, they faced an Other who was themselves.
In another (yet distressingly similar) context, the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish wrote:
…and they searched his prison
but could only see themselves in chains.
White violence wasn’t merely intended to disrupt the marches. Here is the secret: the whites were trying to incite the blacks into retaliating in anger, to move their bodies, to dance, or at least to lower their heads. They were hoping to provoke them into re-inhabiting the psychic space of the Other, so that they, the whites, could be free of the oppressive weight of self-awareness.
Whites were desperate to remove it from their own shoulders and place it back where it belonged. But how could they do that when (a few years later) blacks were chanting, “Black is beautiful?” If the Other was everything that the citizen of the polis was not, and the Other was self-controlled – or beautiful – what did that make the citizen? And if the citizen has his persona of innocent non-Other stripped away, what then rises to the surface? How could it not be self-hatred? And, rather than facing it, Americans have long learned to channel their darkness into religion, alcohol, violence and race hatred.
The miracle of the early 1960s is not the legal freedoms and voting rights won by African-Americans, but the fact that they could hold so much hope amid such animosity without retaliating. The movement eventually failed when they could no longer restrain their own rage within the ritual container of pacifist religion and finally struck back. So much had been promised (even poor families now had TV and could see visions of the Good Life) and so little was delivered. Something else failed – Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty – because his other war against Vietnam was bankrupting the nation. Historian Milton Viorst wrote, “…rising expectations prevalent in the mid-1960’s had transformed everyday discontent into an angry rejection of the status quo.”
After the Watts riots of 1965 a phrase that perfectly articulated the return of the repressed – Black Power! – first appeared. In 1967 (ironically the same year that the Supreme Court finally struck down the last Southern laws prohibiting interracial marriage) blacks rioted in 23 cities, leaving scores dead and thousands arrested.
Once Blacks refused to submit, two things resulted. First, many others – students, women, Native Americans, Latinos, prisoners, disabled people, environmentalists and gays – also rose up. 1968 was a surreal explosion of televised war carnage, anti-draft demonstrations, political assassinations, ferocious riots and mayhem at the Chicago convention. Following Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder, the riots spread to over a hundred cities.
Secondly, public opinion, which had solidly favored civil rights, began to change. TV showed not only the explosion of rage but also ecstatic images of blacks looting only blocks from the White House. Violence was familiar, but this was new: the internal Other would no longer serve as primary victim of American violence. The white middle class was losing jobs and feeling disenchanted, exhausted, victimized and vulnerable to reactionary backlash.
Hollywood saw the opening and responded with urban vigilante movies in the 1970’s and 1980’s (starring Charles Bronson and Clint Eastwood among many others) in which lone redeemer-heroes cleaned up the urban chaos with brutal violence. Everyone knew what “urban” meant.
Conservatives were quick to perceive class differences between white anti-war activists and the soldiers – as well as the police they were fighting. When the National Guard exploded in violence at Kent State in 1970 (few even noticed the black students killed a week later by state police at Jackson State College in Mississippi), the public was outraged at the students, not their killers. Viorst writes that many rejoiced that, “…the act had been done at last… the students deserved what they got.”
“The act” was the murder of the children – white, educated – in a nationally televised, ritual sacrifice of a new scapegoat. Enough youth had rejected American values so completely that, to the shocked elders, it seemed that they had become the Other. They were acting “just like blacks,” and this, finally, was unacceptable. Although America had been killing the children in Vietnam for years and in the ghettos for generations, here was an unmistakable response from their elders: Your purpose is to be like the fathers, or to die. Shortly after Kent State, while students were striking at 450 campuses, thugs attacked peaceful demonstrators while New York City police watched and did not intervene.
Years later, after exonerating the students, Kent State commissioned a monument. However, it rejected sculptor George Segal’s model of Abraham poised with a knife over Isaac.
The myth of innocence had weathered a series of terrible shocks, but its image of the internal Other had survived. Whites no longer perceived blacks as discreet, religious, non-violent saints who were shaming America into remembering its values. They were now dashiki-wearing, long-haired, foul-mouthed terrorists who ruled the city streets at night – “Black Panthers.” And the panther was Dionysus’ animal. The Black man once again carried the projection of America’s Dionysus. A new generation of race-baiting politicians and shock-jocks arose. And one could well ask, Did the South actually win the Civil War?
Part Four: Fifty Years Later
King’s assassination in April of 1968 marked the end of the Civil Rights movement. What has changed since then? Few would deny that significant, fundamental transformation has occurred in American race relations over these decades, especially since 1960. Discrimination is illegal everywhere and blacks can theoretically vote if they want to. A black middle class has developed, and a few have become truly rich. Hundreds of blacks and other minorities have attained elective office and some have achieved real influence in the centers of power. And of course Barack Obama was President.
According to this narrative, the agonizingly long process of acknowledging the Other as part of the polis has concluded. And if the American story is about anything, it is about progress. The Civil Rights movement succeeded! Obama was proof that we had completed the transition to a “post-racial” society. Republicans (who had viciously resisted the movement at every single step while it was happening) now adore this narrative, because it allows them to justify slashing funds for welfare and other aspects of the New Deal. Democrats love it because it allows them to ignore or co-opt the minorities who make up their actual base. Part of this narrative is valorizing Martin Luther King Jr. and covering up the history of the true radical and outspoken anti-war activist who would have been bitterly disappointed by Obama’s subservience to the empire.
But we can only ask African Americans these questions. Whites have proven over and over that their perceptions about race are hopelessly out of line, both with those of blacks as well as with the statistics.
Many African Americans will remind us that the war on drugs killed and imprisoned tens of thousands of black people; that hundreds of thousands are in prison; that literally millions of them have lost the right to vote; that school segregation is worse than it was twenty tears ago; that the financial crisis of 2008 impacted blacks disproportionately, and that the banks had deliberately targeted them; that black mothers in New York City are twelve times as likely to die in childbirth as white mothers; that the Black Lives Matter movement arose, but police continue to murder large numbers of unarmed black people without fear of reprisal; that the idea of white privilege finally entered the lexicon, but with little effect; that 87% of blacks believed that Trayvon Martin’s murder was unjustified, while only 33% of whites did; that 11% of Americans (30% of those over 65) still disapprove of black-white marriage; that blacks and whites are still worlds apart when polled on how well things are going; that arsonists torched some fifty black churches between 1990 and 2017; that the media still portray blacks negatively; and that race (as voter suppression, gerrymandering, computer fraud, voter I.D. laws, new forms of the poll tax and massive, fundamentalist backlash) turned what everyone expected to be a Democratic landslide in 2016 into a social, financial and environmental disaster. At this moment an unashamed, flagrant racist is President. So much for progress, many will say.
I’ve written many essays on race in America and on Obama in particular (these are noted at the end), so I’m trying not to repeat myself here. To conclude this one, I want to add an observation that is consistent with my argument in Part Three that in the 1960s Southern whites could not bear the tension of observing an “Other” with whom (in terms of behavior) they might well be identical.
Obama experienced a unique dilemma beginning well before his election. From the right, there was plenty of the predictable racist nonsense. Some critics on the left, however, complained that in attempting to appeal to the middle he simply wasn’t acting “black” enough. Then there were the really loony allegations: he was not an American citizen, he was a secret Muslim, he was a socialist. He wasn’t white enough. It was a branding problem that his handlers struggled with throughout his eight years in office. But at the time, I wrote that like any other candidate hoping to attract major funding, he had been carefully vetted by the Deep State and tasked with the work of shoring up the glaring holes in the fabric of American exceptionalism. Eight years later, I think I was right. But it was complicated…
In regard to that brand, Obama, despite his modest family roots, was clearly a well-mannered, rational, dispassionate, Ivy-League educated, cultured, articulate, even brilliant card-carrying member of the upper middle class, and so was his wife. Their children were talented and beautiful; they were the most photogenic Presidential family since the Kennedy Camelot of the early 1960s. They had no scandals, sexual or otherwise. The “darker brother,” in Langston Hughes’ words,had finally arrived “at the table” and “They’ll see how beautiful I am – And be ashamed.”
This created a profound dilemma for countless working-class whites; the old poem was too accurate in its prediction. Throughout their adult lives, they had been subjected to a daily, unending barrage of hysterical fear-mongering about the racialized Other that was far more intense than anything their parents had seen in the fifties and sixties. And they experienced eight years of war, job loss caused by affirmative action (an absolute lie of course, but much easier to digest than the fact that the politicians they’d elected were screwing them) and countless examples in the media of assaults on their sense of white masculine potential; all of which led to an opiate epidemic that by 2016 would kill 50,000 of them per year. Is it any surprise that it was white males who perpetrated almost all of the 336 mass murders in 2017? That’s right: almost one per day, and almost always white males.
Ironically, the fact that Obama was continuing the financial and military policies of his Republican predecessor seems to have mattered little to the Tea Partiers, Alt-Rightists and Christian extremists who would eventually become Trump’s foot soldiers. What mattered to them was branding, symbol, imagery and race.
To many, perhaps millions of white people, the constant sight of this, yes, privileged family in the seat of power was a daily reminder of how low they had sunk, and that (quite inaccurately, of course) three hundred years of injustice was being rectified: the Other was at the table – their table. The shock-jocks seemed to be right. Blacks were replacing them at that table. Polls indicated that white people now actually perceived themselves as more discriminated against than blacks.
Plenty of political writers have analyzed this subject. But I insist on the psychological and mythological approaches, because when we look through these lenses, we can see that little has changed since 1960:
The whites, “crackers” or middle-class, are facing a profound dilemma. They can’t project self-contempt for their sexuality, their bodily connection to the old pagan gods, to Dionysus, onto the blacks. Forced to contemplate people just as self-controlled as themselves, and quite often more so, they face an Other with whom they are identical.
Their perception of Obama – and of the possibility of true racial healing – seems to have been determined on three levels. On one level, the constant media barrage (with massive funding from the Koch brothers and friends) was successful. The shock-jocks and the televangelists repeated the old con, converting disillusionment with the system itself into racial animosity and hatred of immigrants.
But on another level, their spokesmen were, in a sense, unsuccessful. None of the venomous and very thinly-veiled racism of Fox News or Republican politicians could incite Obama into retaliating in anger, to re-inhabit that psychic space of the Other, to act like a dangerous, angry black man. By contrast, what they got was a leader who seemed comfortable weeping at the thought of dead (American, not Muslim) children.
…so that they, the whites, could be free of the oppressive weight of awareness…If the Other was everything that the citizen of the polis was not, and the Other was self-controlled – or beautiful – what did that make the citizen?
Hate grew on a third level, out of frustration and denial. I think the dynamic was and is the same as in 1960: we hate them because they’re lazy and dangerous. And we hate them more when they prove that they aren’t.
Trump didn’t create any of this. But as an old TV con-man and Reality star, he was simply smart enough to perceive it and run with it – directly, proudly, arrogantly, with no shame and using only the thinnest of euphemisms – in a way that even the Republican establishment had not dared to. Joshua Zeitz writes:
…Trump has also, arguably more than any other candidate for president in the past hundred years (excepting third-party outliers like Strom Thurmond and George Wallace), played to the purely psychological benefits of being white. From his racially laden exhortations about black crime in Chicago and Latino gangs seemingly everywhere, to his attacks on an American-born federal judge of Mexican parentage and on Muslim gold star parents, he has paid the white majority with redemption…Trump might be increasing economic inequality, but at least the working-class whites feel like they belong in Trump’s America…to privilege race over class when they entered their polling stations.
The other Republican candidates attacked him in the primaries not because he was a racist thug and a bully – they had been doing precisely the same ever since the days of Nixon, with more restrained hints and innuendo (“urban”, “gang violence”, “welfare queens”, etc) – but more for his style. By comparison, their brands were higher-class.
But of course they quickly rallied around him when he won, because they sensed the possibility of achieving the reactionary legislation that their corporate sponsors had always demanded.
Once in office, he quickly became, as Charles Derber writes, a “fig leaf for the GOP's Horrific Policies.” And within six months, his public support dwindled down to that base of angry and fundamentalist whites. Why? Because they were the only crowd with an imagination impoverished enough to value race hatred over their own economic self-interest.
Many analysts predict that these people will eventually figure out exactly how and where Trump and the Republicans have been sticking it to them and move back to the center or even the left. May it be so. But a blogger who calls himself “Forsetti” and grew up among fundamentalists, explains why they won’t, in a brilliant article that I recommend you read fully. Here are few excerpts:
When you have a belief system that is built on fundamentalism, it isn’t open to outside criticism…Christian, white Americans…are racists…people who deep down in their heart of hearts truly believe they are superior because they are white. Their white God made them in his image and everyone else is a less-than-perfect version, flawed and cursed.
The religion in which I was raised taught this…Non-whites are the color they are because of their sins, or at least the sins of their ancestors. Blacks don’t have dark skin because of where they lived and evolution; they have dark skin because they are cursed. God cursed them for a reason. If God cursed them, treating them as equals would be going against God’s will.
Since facts and reality don’t matter, nothing you say to them will alter their beliefs. “President Obama was born in Kenya, is a secret member of the Muslim Brotherhood who hates white Americans and is going to take away their guns.” I feel ridiculous even writing this, it is so absurd, but it is gospel across large swaths of rural America.
A significant number of rural Americans believe President Obama was in charge when the financial crisis started. An even higher number believe the mortgage crisis was the result of the government forcing banks to give loans to unqualified minorities. It doesn’t matter how untrue both of these are, they are gospel in rural America. Why reevaluate your beliefs and voting patterns when scapegoats are available?
A popular narrative claims that millions of evangelicals first entered the political world after the nation made abortion legal. Randall Balmer, however, makes it quite clear that the issue that actually aroused them was the same one that had motivated their southern ancestors to sacrifice themselves by the thousands in the Civil War: race. Then, and for a hundred years, the issue was “race mixing.” For the next fifty years it has been the issue of desegregation, as mandated by eastern liberals.
If it isn’t perfectly obvious to you that religion is a mere fig leaf concealing their racism (and the fear that lies below it), simply recall that black evangelicals have never shared their opinions or voted with them.
This is what a demythologized world looks like. Our politics and our religion are so utterly corrupted that millions of under-educated people are supporting billionaire con-men who are fleecing them blind but offer a refuge in othering; and millions of other, well-educated liberals are taking refuge in another narrative that offers a different kind of refuge in a different kind of denial.
Ever since Jimmy Carter, the Democratic leadership has progressively abandoned their traditional working-class base, moving further and further to the “center” in an often unsuccessful attempt to curry favor among suburban moderates and corporate money sources. If any of these people are serious about social change, they must understand two facts:
1 – From the point of view of the one hundred million Americans who do not vote at all – who have never voted – there is simply no difference between Democrats and Republicans. They – white, black and brown – are not privileged enough to care about global warming; they care about where their next meal is coming from. They care about not getting killed by the police. This is not a “radical” idea. It’s a practical one.
2 – The Democrats will never inspire the white, rural vote. And they should stop trying.
Granted, in the recent Alabama election, Doug Jones beat Roy Moore (who, despite his slimy reputation received 80% of the white, evangelical vote). Jones is no radical, but he won not by, or at least not entirely by pandering to the middle, but by inspiring the left – black women in particular. If the DNC has a shred of uncorrupted essence left in 2018, it will follow this example.Don’t hold your breath.
My articles on Race in General:
-- Privilege: https://www.academia.edu/34697917/Privilege
-- The Real Affirmative Action: https://madnessatthegates.wordpress.com/2013/01/06/the-real-affirma...
-- The Race Card: https://madnessatthegates.wordpress.com/2013/01/11/barrys-blog-31-t...
-- Did the South Win the Civil War? https://www.academia.edu/32175726/Did_the_South_Win_the_Civil_War
-- The Election of 2016: https://www.academia.edu/30818962/The_Election_of_2016
-- The Dionysian Moment – Trump Lets the Dogs Out: https://www.academia.edu/34082310/The_Dionysian_Moment_Trump_Lets_t...
My articles on Obama:
-- Obama and the Myth of Innocence: https://madnessatthegates.wordpress.com/2013/01/11/barrys-blog-38-o...
-- The Con Man: An American Archetype: https://www.academia.edu/34876011/The_Con_Man-_An_American_Archetype
-- Obama’s Tears: https://www.academia.edu/34464186/Obamas_Tears
-- Grading the President: https://madnessatthegates.wordpress.com/2016/03/01/barrys-blog-157-...