Sometimes racism isn’t about vicious bigotry and hatred towards those with different skin color than your own, let alone a willingness to walk into a church and massacre nine of those others because you think they’re “taking over your country.” Sometimes, racism is manifested in the subtle way a person can dismiss the lived experiences of those racial others as if they were nothing, utterly erasing those experiences, consigning them to the ashbin of history like so much irrelevant refuse.
In the last few days, since Dylann Roof’s terrorist rampage in Charleston, we’ve seen some of that on the part of those who steadfastly defend the confederate flag, which Roof dearly loved, from its critics. As the flag has come down in Alabama and is poised for removal from the statehouse grounds in South Carolina, its supporters have insisted that the flag is not a sign of racism, even if the government whose Army deployed it made clear that its only purposes at the time were the protection of slavery and white supremacy.
Those who defend the flag consider the black experience irrelevant, a trifle, hardly worthy of their concern. Who cares if the flag represented a government that sought to consign them to permanent servitude? Who cares if segregationists used that flag as a blatant symbol of racist defiance during the civil rights movement? Remembering the courageous heroics of one’s great-great-great-grandpappy Cooter by waving that flag or seeing it on public property is more important than black people’s lived experience of it. That such dismissiveness is intrinsically racist should be obvious. But what of less blatant examples?
For instance, what are we to make of certain comments by Congressman Louis Gohmert, Senator Ted Cruz and conservative media personality Sean Hannity in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision legalizing marriage equality nationwide? While those comments were not about race per se, it is hard to deny that their implicit subtext demonstrates a worldview entirely shaped by a white racial frame, viewed through a white racial lens, and one that takes as it starting point a profound disregard for the lives of persons of color: in short, a worldview that is (whether consciously or not), white supremacist to the core.
Start first with Gohmert. Given to hyperbole, one is loath to pay too much attention to the likes of Louis, and yet, his comments in the wake of the marriage equality decision represent far more than his solitary views, so similar are they to the kinds of things heard from many an evangelical white Christian whenever their moral sensibilities are offended. According to the Texas Congressman, because of the ruling, “God’s hand of protection will be withdrawn” from America. In other words, God so loves the world (but hates the gays) that he will either smite us directly, or at the very least no longer offer his thus far really impressive protection from things like economic recession, killer tornadoes, scorching heat waves, disastrous blizzards, a crumbling national infrastructure, and for that matter, racist young men who walk into churches and slaughter nine of his followers in cold blood. Got it? No more “protection” from those things!
At first glance, perhaps this comment seems to have nothing to do with race at all; but think about it. For Gohmert to claim that now God’s protection will be withdrawn is to suggest that prior to this time we were the active recipients of that protection, that to this point God had shined his light upon America, blessing us with all good things, happy at the sight of our superior morality. And yet, for that to be true, one would have to believe that God saw nothing wrong with the enslavement of African peoples for over two hundred years, the slaughter and forced removal of indigenous peoples from their land, the invasion and theft of half of Mexico, the abuse of Chinese labor on railroads, the internment of Japanese Americans—nothing wrong with lynching or segregation. You would have to accept that God is more offended by marriage equality than any of those things, that God was essentially sanguine about formal white supremacy, and willing to extend his protective blanket over us even in the face of that, but somehow so-called “gay marriage” is a bridge too far.
Aside from the loony-tunes nature of such a belief as this, on its face, is it not obvious that the position amounts to an erasure of the lived experiences of people of color? That it diminishes the horrors with which they lived and suggests that those horrors were not horrors after all, at least not in any moral sense that the presumed Creator might recognize? And if so, how can such a belief not be called racist? If I deny your experience, relegate it to the category of the irrelevant, or suggest that the denial of your rights as people of color was morally less problematic than the extension of rights to others, how can I possibly claim exculpation from the charge of holding an implicitly white supremacist worldview? Is one such as Gohmert not clearly implying here that the experiences of people of color do not matter? Or at least not that much? Is he not suggesting that whatever terrors they experienced were basically no biggie so far as the Lord was concerned, and as such, should certainly prove no great distraction for the likes of mortal men and women like ourselves?
Indeed, to believe that God protected America all through those periods of formal and overt white racial fascism is to believe that those days weren’t so bad after all—a fundamentally racist worldview that disrespects people of color by definition—or that God is a white supremacist, which view not only disrespects people of color but would likely displease any Creator should he exist and actively intervene in the affairs of man. In which case, Louis Gohmert might want to chew his food especially well from this point forward.
Then there’s Ted Cruz. In the wake of the Supreme Court ruling, Cruz took to Sean Hannity’s radio program, where he proclaimed that the previous twenty-four hour period (in which the court not only legalized marriage equality but also saved affordable health care for between 6-8 million Americans) had been “among the darkest 24-hours” in the history of the nation itself. It was a claim to which Hannity responded that he could not have said it “more eloquently” himself.
Really? A 24-hour period during which the court extended rights to millions of people and guaranteed that upwards of eight million wouldn’t lose their health insurance was among the worst 24-hour periods in history?
As bad or worse than any 24-hour period under slavery, under segregation, or during which day-long progression multiple black bodies may well have been strung up from tree limbs?
Worse than the 24-hour period in which the same court issued its decision in Dred Scott, holding therein that blacks had no rights the white man was bound to respect?
Worse than the 24-hour period in which whites bombed and burned the Greenwood district of Tulsa, Oklahoma or slaughtered dozens of African Americans in East St. Louis, Illinois in orgies of racial terrorism?
Worse than any 24-hour period in which multiple slaving ships pulled into port in cities like Charleston or New Orleans and offloaded their human cargo for sale at market?
Worse than any 24-hour period in which Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw and Muscogee Indians were forcibly marched westward during the Trail of Tears, or any 24-hour period in which Lakota and Dakota peoples were being hunted in the Black Hills, or the 24-hour period during which Colonel John Chivington led his forces in a sadistic massacre of Cheyenne families at Sand Creek?
It would seem axiomatic to rational people that any day under enslavement or Jim Crow segregation, or debt peonage or the Black Codes, or the virtual re-enslavement of African Americans that existed even well into the twentieth century in many parts of the South, would have been worse than the 24-hour period about which Cruz and Hannity are so exorcised. But then again, that would only be true for black people, and as such, would not count to the likes of men such as they. And that’s the point: to disregard the racialized horror that defined the black experience every single day for centuries, or to consider it somehow less horrible than a 24-hour span in which LGBT folks were treated as full and equal citizens and eight million people were kept from being thrown off of health care rolls, is to possess a worldview that is not only stupendous in its thoroughgoing mendacity, but also embarrassingly white and implicitly racist. Only someone who didn’t care about the history of America as regards people of color could say such a thing; and one who doesn’t care about said history is engaged in a form of racism by default—guilty of committing racial memoricide by way of their dismissiveness.
And yet this kind of historical mis-remembering is virtually a requirement for being a modern conservative in the United States. It’s why Donald Trump can say, with no sense of misgiving (and Bill O’Reilly heartily agree) that thanks to defective black culture and bad parenting, black children are “in worse shape today” than at any other time in American history, including, one presumes, that time during which they were being forced to pick cotton from dawn to dusk, beaten or mutilated for learning to read, raped by depraved owners, sold away from their families, or relegated to deliberately inferior separate and unequal schools (or in some cases denied education altogether).
Despite the ongoing chasms that exist between white folks and black folks in every area of well-being, the fact remains that despite the supposedly corrosive influences of hip-hop and saggin’ pants, black youth are more likely to graduate from high school, more likely to enroll in college, less likely to live in poverty, less likely to suffer from hunger and less likely to die in infancy than at any point in the nation’s history. All of this, thanks to the legacy of the civil rights struggle, in which neither Trump nor O’Reilly nor any prominent conservative played a part. Though people of color still face persistent obstacles to full equality of opportunity, and ongoing racial discrimination (as many, myself included have long documented), suggesting that they are worse off than ever before is not only asininity on stilts, but so too an act of supreme disrespect for the lived experience of black and brown peoples. It minimizes their pain in a way that only someone who never lived it could, and wipes clean their history in a way that only a person who didn’t care about those whom that history injured, possibly would countenance.
By their statements, the modern American right shows itself not only dismissive of racism’s continuing presence in the contemporary period, but even its central role in the nation’s history. They demonstrate their ignorance, and more, their nonchalance at the pain and suffering inflicted upon black and brown peoples so as to make possible this country they love so much. Indebted though they are to those peoples of color, without whose forced labor and stolen land they would still be among Europe’s most spectacular failures, white conservatives continue to believe, against all evidence to the contrary, that with this week’s Supreme Court rulings they are among the nation’s greatest historical victims.
The delusion would be laughable were its consequences not so dangerous.
Tim Wise is antiracism educator and author of seven books on race, racism and inequality in America. He blogs at www.timwise.org and tweets @timjacobwise