by William B. Turner
“It’s okay to be white.” This is the new rallying cry of U.S. “conservatives.” There are no real conservatives in the United States. Real conservatives are monarchists, so they found the Declaration of Independence, a statement of defiance to the King of England, horrifying and decamped, post haste. The closest we had left were slave owners. Many prominent Founders of the United States were slave owners, including a majority of the presidents before the Civil War.
Slavery in the United States always rested on, and thus installed in our culture, racism. The trivial difference of skin color became the cheap excuse for why it was supposedly okay to enslave Africans and their visible descendants in British North America, and slavery was far too well entrenched at the Revolution to go easily from the new republic. Even after we prohibited slavery, the racism stuck around. It’s still with us.
For reasons that are not clear, a significant percentage, perhaps the majority, of the “white” people who live in the places where slavery predominated, and where the descendants of slaves still mostly live, developed a deep attachment to the belief that their skin color made them better than the people with much darker skin. This is a ridiculous proposition, but it survives fulsomely.
Since the mid 1960s, shortly after we finally enacted statutes to prohibit the most obvious forms of discrimination against the descendants of the slaves, this bad attitude has been politically useful to Republicans, who have been only too happy to spread it around the country as a key component of their sedulous quest to get and keep political power for no good reason. Republicans do not seek public office in order to govern well. They seek public office because they enjoy the prestige and the perquisites of office and the opportunities to enrich themselves and their cronies.
Although it started as hostility to Africans and their descendants in the United States, this commitment to supposed racial superiority has long since become a roving racism that can attach to any visible minority, as Donald Trump seems to understand intuitively and, as a good Republican, to be pleased to exploit to his own advantage, or to what he thinks is his advantage. So he attacked Mexicans and Muslims in his campaign announcement and continued to do so after he took office.
Unsurprisingly, his accession to the presidency has produced various increasingly vocal responses from the segment of the population who considers our history of slavery and racism profoundly embarrassing and a fact that we have to make up for. Advocacy of these propositions threatens the precious self perception of the “white supremacists,” who choose to see rights and the benefits of U.S. citizenship as a zero sum game in which improvements for any other group have to come at their expense.
Of course this is ridiculous, but these “white supremacists” are not the sharpest tools in the shed, and being good “conservatives,” are fiercely loyal to their bad ideas. Real conservatism, while being nonsense overall, does have some worthy ideas within it, but U.S. “conservatives” mostly miss the good parts and only get the idea that change is bad and something they should resist automatically.
So they have hit upon the idea that they need to proclaim, “it’s okay to be white.” No one ever suggested the contrary. This is rank nonsense. No one ever said it’s not okay to be white. It’s not okay to be a “white supremacist,” for lots of reasons. The difference of skin color only has meaning if we choose to make it have meaning. “Conservatives” are very fond of disavowing any desire to practice racism, even as they persist in doing exactly that. Bleating about how “it’s okay to be white” is a perfect example. Insofar as it is true that the descendants of slaves still tend, as a class, to fall out at the bottom of every metric of social well being – lower life expectancy, higher disease rates, higher unemployment, higher maternal mortality, lower family wealth and incomes, etc. – it makes far more sense to explain that as the result of historical factors – it’s hard to accumulate wealth when your ancestors spent their first generations in North America performing menial agricultural labor for no pay. That fact alone explains the difference. No inherent difference between “black” people and “white” people explains it because there are no inherent differences between “black” people and “white” people.
This is a continuing problem that we could likely solve pretty easily with some fairly obvious policy choices, but those are policy choices Republicans do not want to make. They cover up their motives with whining about “big government” even as they pass the Patriot act and prohibit abortion and start unnecessary wars (hint: there is no better way to increase the size and power of government than to start a war). This is rank hypocrisy and nothing more.
Yeah, it’s okay to be white, but you don’t need to say so.