In almost every discussion of race in this country—whether private conversations among friends and family or public debates between political antagonists—those engaged tend to talk past one another. Passions often displace reason; facts disappear like smoke in the wind, blown aside in the rhetoric of extreme beliefs.
Who among us, having lived any appreciable time in the United States, lacks an awareness of our nation’s intractable racial frictions? And, after rubbing against the rough edges, who eschews the seemingly hard-wired opinions shared by peers of the racial others?
Ripped from the recent headlines, an example is the “gag reflex” kerfuffle kicked up by The Washington Post’s Richard Cohen, who included a passing line in a column that suggested that some white people want to throw up at the sight of an interracial family such as the one of New York City Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio.
Judging by my personal and extensive conversations, a good number of black people consider such comments as a fool-proof indication of white racism. To them, it’s a short walk from the Tea Party to a Republican caucus to a guy with a pickup truck sporting Confederate flags to a conclave of the Ku Klux Klan. To them, they’re all fungible identifiers of resurgent white supremacy.
I appreciate where they’re coming from, given this nation’s racial history. Black Americans have long, painful memories. The rise of white nationalism is nothing new to those who remember or have closely studied American history. Roughly a century ago, in the shadow of the Reconstruction Era, racist, white politicians such as Benjamin Ryan Tillman Jr., the governor of South Carolina and U.S. senator at the turn of the 20th century, appealed to the lost masculinity of white men after the Civil War and the immediate political empowerment of former black slaves to reimpose white supremacy across the South.
In his 2000 book, Ben Tillman and the Reconstruction of White Supremacy, Stephen Kantrowitz, an American history professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, describes Tillman’s role in the Hamburg Riot on July 8, 1876, which resulted in the cold-blooded murder of black militiamen who paraded through Hamburg, South Carolina, to celebrate Independence Day.
Kantrowitz points out how Pitchfork Ben—so named because he went to Washington, D.C., with the promise to stick a pitchfork in “that bag of beef” Grover Cleveland—rose to political celebrity by supporting the lynching and mass murder of black people and appealing to rural, white men of the South “to reclaim what they had lost through emancipation and the experience of Reconstruction: their sense of independent, unfettered manhood.”
Is history repeating itself? I don’t think so. Moreover, I fear some African Americans who suspect the worst of all whites are succumbing to the same trap that befuddles those narrow-minded white Americans who tend to think of African Americans as all the same. Indeed, an increasing number of studies are revealing that, like the wide ranges of political and social thought among African Americans, all white folks aren’t of a single mind about race in America.
Charles Blow, a perceptive op-ed writer for The New York Times, captured this dilemma perfectly:
There are different perceptions of racial realities. What some see as slights, others see as innocent opposition. But there are some objective truths here. Racism is a virus that is growing clever at avoiding detection. Race consciousness is real. Racial assumptions and prejudices are real. And racism is real. But these realities can operate without articulation and beneath awareness. For those reasons, some can see racism where it is absent, and others can willfully ignore any possibility that it could ever be present.
Unpacking all this is hard work, too hard for many Americans who, as Blow describes some of them, “have simple understandings of complex concepts.” Yet the evidence is out there for those who dig deep to find it. A case in point is Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era, a recently published book by Stony Brook University sociology professor Michael Kimmel.
Kimmel has made quite a name for himself in gender studies circles by focusing on white-male masculinity issues instead of the more common feminist theories. His new book attempts to explain why downwardly mobile white men are so angry and prone toward far-right views that lead to hate, violence, and suicide. In an extensive excerpt of the book, posted at Salon.com, Kimmel draws bright line distinctions among white Americans. He argues that they are not a racist monolith:
On the extreme Right, by contrast, race is a proxy for class. Among the white supremacists, when they speak of race consciousness, defending white people, protesting for equal rights for white people, they actually don’t mean all white people. They don’t mean Wall Street bankers and lawyers, though they are pretty much entirely white and male. They don’t mean white male doctors, or lawyers, or architects, or even engineers. They don’t mean the legions of young white hipster guys, or computer geeks flocking to the Silicon Valley, or the legions of white preppies in their boat shoes and seersucker jackets “interning” at white-shoe law firms in major cities. Not at all. They mean middle-and working-class white people. Race consciousness is actually class consciousness without actually having to “see” class. “Race blindness” leads working-class people to turn right; if they did see class, they’d turn left and make common cause with different races in the same economic class.
Where Kimmel dives deep into the psyche of angry, white men, my colleague and Center for American Progress Senior Fellow John Halpin takes an empirical plunge, beyond anecdotal, into nearby waters. Writing on ThinkProgress earlier this week, Halpin makes the convincing argument that “there is really not such thing as ‘white’ opinion anymore.” Drawing from a poll conducted for the recent CAP/PolicyLink study, “Building an All-In Nation,” Halpin notes that the results should be studied more, but “the conclusions are nonetheless striking. White liberals think far more like the bulk of African-Americans, Latinos and Asians than white conservatives on the country’s biggest ideological questions. That’s particularly true on diversity questions.”
Perhaps, our collective attention might be better served on those disaffected whites that don’t buy into the extremist, far-right ideology of white supremacy. They are ripe for conversion about progressive political thought, if the serious effort is made to demonstrate common cause with the growing empowerment of racial and ethnic minority Americans.
To be sure, the hardcore racists that Kimmel describes so well are, as Halpin acutely observes, “a significant if declining bloc of voters, [and] the real outliers” on issues of race in America. They are a dying breed, soon to be as dead as old Pitchfork Ben and his brand of racist politics. This is the significant fact to keep firmly in mind because it points us all toward the hopeful, progressive direction of our nation’s future.
Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.
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