Confronting my Own White Privilege; or Follow the Black Lady

Confronting my Own White Privilege; or Follow the Black Lady

William B. Turner

It feels so weird to say this. Okay, I’m gay, but I definitely have white privilege and male privilege, and the one we’re not supposed to talk about: class privilege, which in some ways is the most important. My father paid to send me to the same exclusive, private high school he and my mother both went to. He paid the entire cost of my first year in college. I depended increasingly on financial aid after that, but he got me that far entirely on his earned income.

I paid for my Ph.D. myself, and borrowed the money for my law degree, but with my father’s help. His tax return at that time was far more impressive than mine.

I’m an expert in a couple of fields. I have taught at the college level and worked as a practicing attorney, involved in hearings and trials in courts before judges. I have spent a lot of time as an adult in situations where lots of people would shut up and listen when I spoke. I have no problem expressing my knowledge and opinions and expecting other people to accept what I say.

Now we’ve had a very singular election that attracted huge attention, the take away message the day after is that African Americans, especially African American women, carried the day.

The message for white boys like me is, sit down, shut up, and listen to the black women. When I stop and think about it for two seconds, I have no problem with that. But it still feels a bit funny. I’m not sure where my parents got it. The only African Americans they knew growing up were domestic servants, but they somehow managed to escape the worst of the racism they grew up with. Even as others in their social set hurriedly created a whole new private school so their children wouldn’t have to go to school with any black children in the newly desegregated public schools, my parents left their children in the public schools, such that I was friends with, and in academic competition with, black people starting in kindergarten. Later, after they put me in the exclusive, private high school, there were several black people in my class, including the guy who went to Harvard, which had put my father onto its waiting list (and which I didn’t bother applying to, having no interest in going there).

I am happy that I earned the friendship, and I hope some trust, of several African Americans, mostly women, in college and law school. They’re smart, independent minded, tough people. I admire them. I value their friendship.

In some ways, Doug Jones’ victory in Alabama feels like a whole new era. In some ways, it’s nothing new. For various complicated reasons (read up on it – the history is fascinating and complicated), by 1964, the Democratic Party had produced a white, southern president in Lyndon Johnson who was willing to bend his incomparable political skills to getting major civil rights legislation passed. To do that, he had to rely on Republican votes to get past the rump of diehard segregationists in the Democratic Party who represented the southern states that had resolutely changed as little as possible since losing the Civil War (or the War of Northern Aggression) nearly 100 years before.

The Democratic Party in the 1960s was home to both Lyndon Johnson, who helped mightily in passing the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act, and George Wallace, who, as governor of Alabama, loudly declared, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

Johnson’s leadership in enacting civil rights legislation had the effect of driving white supremacists to the Republican Party. It started in 1948, when Strom Thurmond bolted the Democratic nominating convention over the strong civil rights plank that year. It got a big boost in 1968, when Richard Nixon had the bright idea of claiming to run on behalf of the “silent majority,” all those people who were tired of protest; whether protest against the Vietnam War or against racial segregation didn’t much matter. A lot of people think they know about Nixon’s “southern strategy,” but they don’t know what a professor of mine in graduate school pointed out – Nixon’s was a border south strategy. He wanted to appeal to the moderates – people who wanted peace and quiet, but who did not want to think of themselves as racists. Nixon was not willing to compete with George Wallace in the deep south in 1968, because that would have required expressing the sort of overt racism that would have scared off the moderate middle whom Nixon was pursuing.

Reagan would pursue much the same strategy with his denunciations of “welfare queens.” Conveniently for Republicans, after 1970, along came abortion and gay rights, which they could use as psychologically gratifying proxies. “Conservatives” really did oppose both abortion rights and gay rights (and all permutations, up to and including the modern LGBTQ rights), but those were also useful excuses to vote for the Party that always also relied on dog whistle racism to signal to white moderates that they were going to continue to demonize those lazy black people who lived off federal benefits that hard-working white people paid for. (Do you ever see a black person who isn’t working? Think about it.)

So it is that, since 1970 or so, as one of my African American friends says frequently, she doesn’t so much vote for Democrats as against Republicans. There are two distinct, but importantly related, points here. Point one is that Republicans really are a threat to black people. They are cavalier in their racism. Anyone who watched Strom Thurmond or Jesse Helms very closely at all could see it, in their personal conduct, but also in their endless ability to devise clever policy stratagems that looked neutral, but had disproportionate effects on African Americans. This was easy to do in a culture that has deep seated practices and expectations of subjecting people with dark skin to greater scrutiny and judgment than their lighter skinned neighbors.

Anyone who was surprised that Roy Moore, good Republican, could say that the United States was better off when we had slavery (!) hasn’t been paying attention.

Now we are at a critical policy moment. The Republicans control both Houses of Congress and the presidency. After their spectacular failure to repeal the signature policy achievement of our recent, first African American president, which not coincidentally disproportionately benefited other African Americans just because, as a class, they are still likely to be poor, the idiot Republicans are desperate to pass their no good, very bad, downright evil tax bill, which visits disfavorable tax treatment on every socially beneficial activity that shows up in the tax code (repealing the deduction for the money teachers spend out of their own income on classroom supplies? Who does that?) in order to pay for (sort of) tax cuts for billionaires.

Doug Jones’ single vote in the Senate will not keep the tax bill from passing, especially if Mitch McConnell refuses to seat him until after that vote occurs.

No matter. For heroic turnout by black voters to win an election for the Democratic candidate in a special election in a very Republican state is a black eye for the so-called president and, especially after the Democratic victories in Virginia last month, a hopeful harbinger for things to come.

Point two is that African Americans don’t get what they deserve from the Democratic Party.

The debacle in 2016 has left Democrats arguing with each other over where to go next. I have always been more of an issue and policy person than a party person. I care about equality and civil rights, for African Americans, for women, for disabled people, and for my fellow queers. Like my African American friend, I vote against Republicans more than I vote for Democrats.

What Jones’ victory tells us, should tell us, is that Democrats can win, and win big, when they motivate their most loyal constituents. The single most loyal constituency in the Democratic Party is African American women. They don’t have a lot of choices, but they are aware that they don’t get much for their loyalty to the Party. They should get more. They should get lots of leadership positions within the Party. They should get a lot of support from the Party when they run for office. And they should get a policy program that puts their needs and preferences front and center.

The Republicans will use their standard tricks to try to convince white people that improvements for African Americans come at the expense of everyone else, but this is false. What’s good for black women is good for me. This has always been true. Those welfare programs that Republicans love to bash have always had far more white than black beneficiaries, as one would expect, since African Americans make up about 14% of the population. Be not fooled. Reliable access to high quality healthcare is good for everyone. Family leave is good for everyone. Enforcement of laws protecting workers from workplace hazards and wage theft are good for everyone. Equal opportunity and equal treatment are good for everyone. Black women are at least as smart as everyone else. We all heard recently the much-underreported story of the African American women who worked on the space program. Imagine what they will contribute when we pursue policies that ensure their equal access to opportunities in education and employment.

Someone said on Facebook recently that racial and ethnic minorities will determine the future of our nation, which is what old, white guys like Roy Moore are afraid of.

I’m really glad that I’m not afraid of black ladies in charge. In 2016, Donald Trump tried to sow discord among Democratic constituencies by promising to protect queers from a hateful foreign ideology. I’m a lot more worried about Trump’s hateful domestic ideology. Given the choice between having Maxine Waters or Gwen Moore or Kamala Harris in charge and having the Donald in charge, it’s not even a contest. No need to think about that one. Give me the black lady every day of the week.

So, if you see me running my mouth, tell me to sit down and listen to a black lady.

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