Sunday, November 21, 2010
The White American Dreamworld
Years ago I had a conversation with my boss at the time: he was an Italian-American guy from Jersey, a small business owner, and probably in his late fifties to my late twenties. He was telling me about the Amos and Andy tapes he listened to in his car stereo. I expressed some shock; Frank kept a pretty diverse crew employed at his two offices. "Oh yeah," he said. "They're so funny! I don't care what people say. You can learn so much about black people from Amos and Andy!" He said this without a trace of irony. Amos and Andy, of course, were characters played by white actors in blackface.
It seems like many white people in this country live in a strange dreamworld of delusion and resentment when it comes to race, when it comes to black people. This has never been clearer two years into the term of America's first African-American President. There's a really interesting column in this weekend's New York Times from liberal (and African-American) columnist Charles Blow, whose weekly OpEd piece looks at how various statistics reflect American political realities. In this column, Blow reports a survey that shows that 62% of self-identified white "tea partiers" believe that "today discimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities." The number drops slightly to 56% of white Republicans, 52% of conservatives, and 50% of people over 65. The number stays high for people with less education and for white Christians. An optimist could look at the total average number and see that 54% of people disagree with this statement. But that's still a huge number of well, completely clueless angry white people with a giant chip on their shoulder. In my opinion a giant Barack Obama-Al Sharpton sized chip on their shoulder.
Sarah Palin, as vocally outspoken leader of the teabaggers, has frequently alluded to the elitism and privilege of the Obamas in office. She would never use these words but it's always obvious that the unspoken point of reference between Palin and her worshipful audience is that the President is some kind of "uppity ni**er" and his mere presence someplace that a black man should know better than to try to be is proof that he used devious (and shifty!) means to get there. Palin and her followers love to deride Obama for his use of a teleprompter. This attack is seemingly nonsensical given Obama's clear ability to handle himself and words even when they're unscripted, but what they are really doing is suggesting that Obama is some kind of trained monkey who would clearly be unable to mouth large and complicated words and topics if they weren't being spoon fed to him.
Given that American electoral politics is by and large the field of rich people, the frequently used charge of "elitism" against Democrats and Obama by teabaggers and Republicans is fascinating. Although they will happily paint the Obamas as spend-crazy, witness teabagger accusations against Michelle Obama's trip to Spain and Sarah Palin's insane suggestion that the President's recent Asia trip would cost 200 million dollars a day, what they seem to be saying by using the term "elitist" doesn't seem to be suggesting membership in a moneyed aristocracy but rather in some kind of rarified club of...educated people who think they're too good for the rest of us. Or, President Obama is clearly not like what they believe black people to be, so therefore he must be some kind of freakish privileged alien.
The overall disrespect offered to Obama by the newly-victorious and somewhat cocky Republicans in congress seems to me colored, if you will, by their completely unspoken but completely obvious issue with Obama's race. I wish I could remember what work of African-American fiction this is reminiscent of, but the story of a young black man trying to get ahead while white society constantly moves the goalposts is grimly familiar. Say what you will about Obama's moderate policies, whether or not they're Republican-lite as many left and liberal commentators have come to believe, the Republicans have more interest in humiliating and defeating the President than in getting him to adopt their own political program and agenda.
There's a whole narrative of resentment among many white people that finds particular expression in the teabagger movement. ACORN being behind both vote fraud and the mortgage crisis, an outsized outrage over the New Black Panther Party sectlet, the blank check of support given to police accused of violent atrocity against innocent and unarmed people, the derision of living African-American spokespeople (like Al Sharpton) as nothing but media whores, and the need to paint Obama as alien other...and the suggestion that white people are the new victims of racism: these are nothing but a feverish delusion rooted in white racism.
(Image from an unknown film of African-American actor Lincoln Perry better known as the simpering stereotype "Stepin Fetchit.")