White supremacy. It’s not just terrorists in white hoods who burn crosses and lynch black people. It’s an ideology that has completely permeated the social consciousness of white people to the point that it’s become invisible to us. It’s not white peoples’ fault that we’ve been born into this mess, but it’s our responsibility to deconstruct and dismantle it so that we don’t unwittingly pass the same harmful anxieties and presumptions onto our children. Since open racism became unfashionable, white supremacy has perpetuated itself in sublimated, coded language that refuses to acknowledge any connection to race. One of the most successful white supremacist movements was the 1970’s movement [depicted in the photo above] against “mandatory busing” that successfully undermined public school desegregation not only in the South, but in major cities across the country like Los Angeles, Detroit, and Boston. There are a number of concepts and phrases in our political atmosphere today that have similar white supremacist undercurrents. Here are four that we ought to reconsider.
1) “Taking our country back”
The core ethos of the white evangelical culture warrior movement is the idea that “our” country has been taken away from us and we’ve got to fight to get it back. It’s true that our culture is changing at a dizzying, disorienting speed, and many of these changes involve a deterioration of values. Pornography has never been more widely available. Families rarely eat meals together anymore. Kids are addicted to video games and social media. People don’t really know or trust their neighbors.
But one of the biggest changes over the past fifty years has been the slow dismantling of the “good old boy” network that has been in power since the beginning of our country. While white men are still mostly in charge on Wall Street and in the Capitol, we are no longer exclusively in charge. So when we talk about “taking our country back,” who are we taking it back from? Our black president whose authority has been consistently disrespected by white men? Were the “good old days” of segregation somehow less sinful than today?
It doesn’t matter whether or not you’re thinking about race when you talk about “taking our country back.” What matters is how this phrase is received by people of color who hear you saying that you want to undo the progress that has been made. Why do we need to pretend that there’s a glorious past to which we should return? Why not simply promote the holiness and justice of God’s kingdom that is coming into the world? Many of the changes that have occurred in the last fifty years could be described as God taking our humanity back from white supremacy. But we’ve got a long way to go!
2) “Government bureaucracy”
When Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1963, he knew that this act would change the white perspective on the Democratic Party and the federal government forever. One of the most entrenched presumptions of the white imagination in the decades following the federal government’s “intrusion” into the Jim Crow South is the idea that the federal government is an oppressive, maddeningly inefficient “government bureaucracy.” This evil, wasteful behemoth is contrasted with the pristine, perfectly efficient “free market” where wise, practical white men are still in charge and able to make good decisions that benefit everybody.
I wonder how much of the white middle-class imagination about “government bureaucracy” is shaped by our interactions with the Department of Motor Vehicles, the one government agency with which we cannot avoid face to face encounters. I don’t know the actual statistics on DMV employees, but the proportion of black employees in the public sector is generally much higher than the private sector. When I’ve gone to the DMV, the employees with whom I’ve interacted have almost always been black. Instead of appreciating that they have a thankless job whose anal retentiveness is mandated from above, it’s easy to allow the faces from these interactions become the faces that are racially associated with the phrase “government bureaucracy” in my white supremacist imagination.
3) “Culture of dependency”
The most powerful myth of the 1980’s was the story of the “welfare mama,” an unemployed, unmarried, morbidly obese black woman who kept on having children with random men in order to get a bigger check from the government. Despite the fact that President Clinton oversaw the dismantling of the country’s welfare program, the myth has persisted in a slightly more sublimated form. Now there is an assumption that any government program which supports poor people in any way creates a “culture of dependency” that incentivizes staying poor. Never mind that unemployment benefits, EBT cards, and other government programs have very strict hoops for people to jump through that incentivize finding work if it’s available. Never mind that offering access to free health care through Medicaid doesn’t involve giving anybody free handouts, just keeping people healthy so they can work. What makes this myth work are the unnamed imaginary figures it presupposes: lazy black people. There’s a complex mixture of reasons why poor people stay poor, but providing them with free health care and supplementary food stamps does not incentivize poverty.
4) “Failed public schools”
When my family moved to New Orleans last summer, everybody wanted to know what we were going to do with the schools down here. There’s one local charter school called Lusher that has enough black kids to be “diverse” but is majority white. The only other “viable option” for white parents is to put their kids into private school. One of the things that conservative and liberal white parents quietly agree upon is that they will not put their children in majority-black schools. It’s never because of the black kids. It’s always because of test scores, “gang” violence, and the supposedly “incompetent” teachers who are imagined to sit behind their desks and play on their phones while their classrooms degenerate into battle zones. Nobody ever wonders if “urban” public schools are “failing” because of their lack of resources. It’s because of their “unruly” (black) students and their “incompetent” (black) teachers. My wife and I have broken the rules of good white parenting here in New Orleans, partly because we didn’t have our act together enough to jump through all the hoops to get our kids into the right school. Our sons are in a charter school called Encore Academy only because New Orleans has very few non-charter options left. It’s about 70% black, 15% white, and 15% other races. The teachers are great. The school has a performing arts focus with monthly “Family Fridays” where all the kids perform for their parents. Neither of our sons have been bullied. They seem to be making friends as well as they did in the Northern Virginia suburbs. They seem to be learning more complicated things than I remember learning at each of their respective grade levels. It really isn’t the terror that so many white parents think it would be.