The degree to which some will go to maintain their sense of innocence is nothing if not astounding. Nowhere is this truer than when it comes to white people (bless our hearts) and the desire to show our clean hands to all who might otherwise suspect them dirty.
You can see it in the insistence by white folks who have done or said something incredibly racist that despite our words or actions we are no such thing, and this we can demonstrate by virtue of our black friends.
That most who say this can’t actually name these black friends, let alone produce them to vouch for their racial ecumenism matters not.
Nor does it seem to faze them that even were their black friends real it wouldn’t acquit them of the charge of perhaps being racist. After all, as I’ve noted before, straight men are often quite sexist, and this truism is not diminished as to its accuracy just because we sleep with, date or even marry women. As I suspect pretty much all women can attest.
So too are we quick to deny racism on behalf of the country and the culture. As in, “Oh sure, once upon a time there were some problems” — the passive voice and understatement being things that white people apparently invented as some kind of linguistic armor — “But that was a long time ago. At some point, we really have to move on.”
Of course, lots of things happened a long time ago — like, for instance, that whole July 4, 1776 thing — but we certainly haven’t stopped talking about that.
The Constitution was drafted in 1787 and ratified the following year, but not only have we not “moved on,” we have Supreme Court Justices who think we should interpret that document in precisely the way the founders would have. No matter their slaveholding, their embrace of white domination, their denial of the vote to women and non-property holders. We should defer to their wisdom and their understanding of liberty so as to determine the boundaries of our own.
Move on indeed.
Lately, I’ve begun to doubt even the ability of an awful lot of white Americans to acknowledge the historic awfulness of the nation when it comes to race. That used to be the easy part, at least relatively speaking. So long as there was no call for rectification of historical injury, acknowledging past sins was something even many conservatives were willing to do, especially if it allowed them to brag about how much progress we had made since.
But sometimes I wonder if even that simple task — admitting how painful and wretched our national past has been — is something of which we’re still capable. And the thought that it might not be is terrifying. Because if we can’t even agree on the historically inarguable reality of American white supremacy — if we can’t even see that as a settled matter — the future of the country we share is bleak.
The need for some historical perspective was, for me, driven home even more clearly than before after the publication of my recent essay, MAGA is a Slur, and Your Hat is Hateful.
Some of the replies I received (in my e-mail and on social media more so than here on Medium) reflected a serious lack of perspective, and a fragility common among white Americans whenever issues of race are raised.
Don’t misunderstand, those who sought to defend the “Make America Great Again” slogan or the hats adorned with it did so in ways that were typically polite, and I suspect, genuine. But although the individuals defending the slogan were not hostile, the motto itself is hard to read as anything else.
As I explained in the previous piece, to believe that America was once great is to ignore the lived realities of millions of people for whom there was never such a time. People of color, LGBTQ folks, religious minorities and even most women as women surely cannot recall a time when things were truly better for them, however much more needs to be done to ensure real equity. To suggest otherwise is either to mock their lived experiences or at the very least remain utterly and blissfully oblivious to them. And either way, the result is to manifest hostility to members of those particular groups.
Of course, the MAGA crowd denies any such thing, much as the Tea Party insisted they meant nothing untoward a decade ago with their calls to “take our country back.”
Among the replies I received, the most common claim was that the desire to make America great again had nothing to do with going back to segregation or anything like it. Rather, they insisted, MAGA is simply a call to return the country to simpler times, more innocent times — a time when the culture was less coarse and more Godly.
As one detractor put it:
“We just wish for a time when America was more care-free, kinder, more neighborly and polite…less crass.”
Mmm, hmmm. Because if you were looking for someone to be the avatar for kindness and the opposite of crass, you would naturally select Donald Trump for the job.
Of course, every denial proved the point more. In what sense was America, in these fictive good-old-days more innocent and carefree? Carefree for whom? Certainly not for the people of color who labored under institutionalized oppression and Jim Crow. Not for the LGBTQ folks who had to fear arrest were their sexuality discovered.
For whom were those days “neighborly?” Were they such a thing for the black and brown folks who, by law, could be (and regularly were) excluded from becoming neighbors to white folks in the first place? Were they neighborly for the people of color who faced violence and even white-led race riots upon moving North in search of jobs and opportunity?
And what, exactly, was Godly about those days to which they would return? Only people who believe in a white God — itself a fantastically racist presupposition — could deign to call the America of the 1950s and before by such a term. Or if not that, at least a people who feel God had less problem with enslavement, lynching and the theft of Native land than, say, same-sex marriage or the removal of mandatory prayer in school. After all, these are the things they feel demonstrate that we have lost our way. These — but not those other things — are the transgressions for which God will presumably judge us.
What such folks are really clamoring for is a time when they could be carefree, and more to the point ignorant as to how other Americans were experiencing the country and its broken promises.
When they could think of the nation as a place filled with drive-ins, hula hoops and sock hops, but not racial terror. Elvis and Ed Sullivan but not Emmett Till and the Little Rock Nine.
Speaking of which, it’s the perfect metaphor for everything wrong with this country that one month after those black teens integrated Little Rock Central High School amid spit and verbal assault, America tuned in to watch the premiere of “Leave it to Beaver” — perhaps the most obvious example of nostalgic absurdity in the pantheon of American hagiography.
Seriously, the two pictures below represent the same America, at the exact same time, leading one to wonder if there has ever been a more glaring contrast and testament to this nation’s proclivity for self-delusion?
What the MAGA cultists want is for us to celebrate the first of these — and more than celebrate it, to presume that it was indicative of the broader American experience for everyone — while ignoring the latter, or at the very least assuming it aberrant. So Ward and June and Wally and the Beav were typical. Racists doing racist things to black people? That was rare and hardly worth mentioning at all.
Even more, what they want is a return to a time when their norms were everyone’s norms: uninterrogated and taken for granted. They wish to return to a time when people like them were the floor model of an American, where ethnic food meant spaghetti and meatballs, and where those who were different than themselves either got with the program or, at the very least, didn’t intrude upon their limited understanding of the world.
What they desire is to return to a fairy tale in which they were the leading characters. But their childhoods were based on a lie. Their entire lives have been. And while it must be scary to realize that your fantasy is just that, and not a reflection of the real world, the future of the country they profess to love now depends on them coming to terms with this truth and indulging the fantasy no more.
Their nostalgia— and the privilege of obliviousness that makes it possible — is nothing to respect, and surely nothing to mimic. Rather, it is something that must be ended, however painful the awakening will be.
Because before America can be great, it must first be self-aware.