The poison we are weaned on
Shifting the lens from whiteness to witness
Saying the quiet part out loud is the 45th president’s malign gift to our national discourse.
It is not as if racist remarks were never heard in public prior to Mr. Trump’s arrival in Washington. But for several decades before that, most people inclined to make such remarks in mixed company would pause and look to the left, to the right, and possibly over their shoulder to make sure the coast was clear before letting loose with a hateful remark whose smug dismissiveness indicated long practice. This “genteel racism” is racism with a veneer of politesse. Something comparable arose in recent years regarding queer folk as our increased visibility caused many people to curb overt expressions of their hatreds. The erosion of that social restraint portends danger.
Last week, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell said the quiet part out loud when he dismissed concerns about voter suppression against people of color by saying, “If you look at the statistics, African American voters are voting in just as high a percentage as Americans.” Say again? After people jumped on this remark, he indignantly insisted he had merely made a slip of the tongue, as if his ruthless pursuit of undemocratic power has not been on public display for years.
As Elie Mystal observes in The Nation, “A lot of white people generally don’t think of themselves as ‘white’ people; they think of themselves as the default people.” He notes that not only did McConnell ignore non-black people of color, his factual claim was wrong: “The Brennan Center estimated that 70.9 percent of white people voted in the 2020 election, compared to 63 percent of Black people, 60 percent of Asian people, and 54 percent of Latinos.”
If Republicans were free of racial animus as they insist, they would not have responded to Trump’s Big Lie about a stolen election with aggressive efforts in state legislatures to facilitate future voter suppression and nullification, nor used the same states’ rights justification as their forebears. That bears a whiff of the Lost Cause myth, and close behind it an echo of the Civil War. This is not leftist hysteria, but simple observation.
That events have brought greater attention to latent assumptions of white racial superiority — a poison many of us were weaned on — does not make the problem new. When McConnell’s wife Elaine Chao became Secretary of Labor under George W. Bush in 2001, she asked the Blacks In Government Choir to sing “My Old Kentucky Home” for her husband. A friend of mine at the department (where I worked for 32 years), a proud black woman, gently explained the problem with asking a black choir to sing a racially patronizing song. By the waters of Babylon, or rather in the coffee shop at the Frances Perkins Building, we shook our heads. A different song was chosen.
Even if Stephen Foster originally intended his song as a slave’s lament, when sung at the Kentucky Derby it is widely taken as a wistful evocation of the antebellum South. The substitution of “people” for the racial slur in the original lyric merely renders the paternalistic lens less blatant rather than fundamentally altering it.
Things have deteriorated in two decades. In 2001, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 had not been gutted; that was done by the Supreme Court in 2013. More than embarrassment now looms.
Our violent history lives on in our language. Embracing diversity does not erase that history nor enable us to speak for one another. None of us identifying as LGBTQ+, for example, can embody all the categories in the list. America’s diversity is not a brand but a reality that presents an ongoing challenge. For one shrinking part of it to insist on exclusive power is presumptuous, destabilizing, implicitly violent, and mangles our avowed principles.
The point is not that white people should feel guilt over America’s troubling, persistent racial legacy. What is needed is honest witnessing to our history. Efforts to suppress that history include caricatures of curricula and explosions of ignorant rage at school board meetings. We must learn and practice cooperation to build our country, not play a zero-sum game that hammers its foundations.
To be sure, there are radicals at both ends of the spectrum. The crucial difference is that far left ideologues have little power outside the groves of academia and did not ransack the Capitol.
Richard J. Rosendall is a writer and activist at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2022 by Richard J. Rosendall. All rights reserved.