My American Identity
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Confused about who I am
Like a Twin Brother Who Went the Other Way
How did it happen that our dominant political culture puts America’s majority population - white people - in a negative light?
First, start with race-based slavery. I would argue that this was driven by a desire for economic gain rather than by white people’s sadistic desire to subjugate blacks. Black Africans were sold into slavery by other African blacks. But the slave trade now has a purely white face. Slavery as a racial institution feeds a political agenda that remains even after slavery in America has legally been abolished for nearly a century and a half.
If slavery were seen as an example of economic exploitation, then its opponents would have to confront the continuing cases of economic exploitation. However, the exploiters are politically too strong; they may even fund “progressive” groups. It’s easier today to kick the corpse of race-based slavery than take on a living monster. A hate-filled interpretation directed against an unorganized group has greater political appeal.
Americans fought a Civil War over slavery. The anti-slavery North won the war but put a Reconstruction program into effect that humiliated and antagonized white southerners who then made a deal with northern Republicans to support Rutherford B. Hayes for president in return for withdrawal of federal troops and reestablishment of white rule in the southern states. The races would live side by side but in separate sets of institutions.
Southern segregation put blacks into an inferior position: separate but not equal. The Democratic principle of political equality required that the situation be changed. However, justice did not come without a struggle. The struggle, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, featured a cast of villains - southern politicians, brutal police officers, small-town thugs, and jeering mobs, all white people. And that is the legacy passed along to us now from the Civil Rights movement.
whites adopt the Civil Rights paradigm
An important element of the story was that black people were in the minority. Vastly outnumbered, they were relatively powerless when confronting a social establishment dominated by whites. But the Civil Rights movement brought victory. It was an improbable, amazing victory that inspired others to try the same thing.
Soon other groups of people thought that this pattern of political activity might work for them: Women, even if they outnumbered men in the population, might also be considered a minority if they were underrepresented in society’s power structure. Staying home to raise children lacked prestige. Then came the gays and lesbians, more distinctly a minority, who were despised and persecuted even more than blacks. More recently, ethnic immigrants, including persons who entered the country without permission, have become a militant minority. All these groups, combined in a “rainbow coalition”, confront a retrograde power elite on the wrong side of history, consisting largely of white males.
Being a white male myself, I have only the larger society with which to identify. Not part of any organized power group, I must see American society as my society and hope its leaders will do well. I belong to no demographic subgroup that would allow me to stand back from this society and criticize it or bring forth grievances through identity politics. The political reality is that the culture of aggrieved minorities has become the majority culture, or at least the dominant one, so that, in this context, the fingers of accusation are pointing straight at me. My natural allies (other white males) have deserted me. I have nowhere to hide. Society’s leaders - persons who may look like me - have gone over to the other side.
To the extent that a “backlash” has developed among white people, it either takes the form of extreme defiance - neo-Nazis and the like - or of people who ineffectually complain about preferential policies like affirmative action or minority set-asides. I see, or am encouraged to see, black people and others as my competitors receiving an unfair advantage. Yes, that is true but it is not the worst thing that has happened. I sense in our culture an unspoken opinion that despises people like me and passes us off as inconsequential and weak. We are made homeless in our own land. We are destined to be reduced to nothingness and are scorned if we complain.
Ironically, it is not black people expressing that attitude so much as other whites. We have white women despising white men, and white men avoiding white women. We have an attitude that whatever we, the majority population, might have accomplished is because of undeserved “privilege”. Because of our present or past discriminatory practices, it is said that other kinds of people must work twice as hard as we to achieve the same results. Therefore, we receive no sympathy. We have no effective community. We Americans have leaders who treat their positions of public trust with reptilian disregard, the bonds of affectionate kinship (within the white community at least) having dissolved long ago.
In earlier times, it was different. America was not cursed with self-hatred. The turning point may have been in the 1960s when the Civil Rights movement came of age. This was a time when young Americans from affluent homes rebelled against college and against their own society. They took psychedelic drugs or engaged in sexually promiscuous acts, and a large number of America’s brightest young men and women protested against an Asian war that their country was waging.
We sometimes call this social movement the “counter-culture”, meaning that it was a movement of protest against America’s “mainstream” culture. The protesters, with little apparent cause, were dissatisfied with their own society. They had developed an identity of alienation from American culture. The paradox of affluence and privilege combined with revolutionary intent to overthrow the society that had created it was an element in this identity.
In the run-up to the Civil Rights victory, the 1960 election had put a Harvard man in the White House. Overcoming religious prejudice, American voters had elected the first Roman Catholic. President Kennedy was urging “the brightest and best” of that generation of educated persons to serve their country. This new class of people on college campuses felt morally elevated. On their way to success, they were driven by a sense of duty to serve others. Their intelligent, supple young minds were open. They were not like the narrow-minded persons living in small towns who stuck with their own type of people; they were tolerant and broadminded.
Then came reports that black people were being mistreated in the south. Southern bigots were trying to maintain by force a segregationist order that put white people above blacks. Who were these “bigots”? They were rural hillbillies who never went to college. They were small-town sheriffs, rednecks, and assorted “white trash”. Television reports showed the uncouth white people shouting profanities at blacks, threatening violence, or exhibiting other personal indignities. These were low-class people from a parochial rural society who were the opposite of the affluent, well-educated northern youth. The time was right for a crusade.
I would therefore suggest that part of our attitude about race is the product of an ethic that centers on belonging to a higher class. The young white crusaders came south to help black people in distress. That’s what upper-middle class people do - help the less fortunate. They looked on those uneducated whites in the southern backwater as a type of person they wished not to be. The drive toward upward mobility in America had left that type of person behind. Race prejudice was a lower-class attitude, not theirs.
Tom Hayden's oppositional stance
The Port Huron Declaration, founding document of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), begins with these words: “We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherited.” In later passages, it referred to racial injustice, the Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation, “meaningless work” combined with “idleness”, and other ills produced by the same society that offered them a privileged place.
I must admit that I harbored a vague dislike of the author of that document, Tom Hayden, who, after his student career, went on to work for racial integration in the south, organize a protest at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and marry Jane Fonda. At the root of my dislike was a perception that Hayden had contempt for Americans and for white people, in particular. The revolutionary posture then was to be against something - something of which I was a part. It was the posture of an elite group of intellectuals opposed to America’s philistine culture. I sensed that Tom Hayden and his colleagues were fundamentally insincere in dealing with people like us. Maybe that was not his attitude, but it seemed that way to me.
In the summer of 2008, I watched an interview with Tom Hayden on C-Span which opened my eyes to another side of this man. Hayden was not a ranting ideologue, who spouted incendiary phrases, but a man who analyzed situations in a lucid and articulate way. I was also struck by how similar Hayden’s thoughts were to my own. In the early 1990s, I was involved in the fight against NAFTA and free trade. Hayden, a relative latecomer to that cause, went to Seattle to participate in the protests against the World Trade Organization. Hayden also criticized high-priced education, a view that I share.
Of greatest interest to me, however, was what Tom Hayden had to say about personal identity. Being a political revolutionary from a comfortable household had troubling implications for him. In the late 1960s, said Hayden, if I paraphrase him correctly, “I had my American identity beaten out of me. I was a young white man from the midwest. Being a white man was not promising. My true identity was ‘stolen away’ from me by my upbringing and parental expectations.”
Later on, Hayden solved this personal dilemma by taking an interest in Irish politics and the struggle against British rule in northern Ireland. Being an Irish-American helped “reconstruct who I am”, he said. This formulation helped Hayden remain true to his principle of siding with an oppressed minority struggling against the establishment. Unlike the situation with the Civil Rights movement of the ‘60s, he could also himself be a part of an oppressed minority in regard to his ethnicity.
I started then to see Hayden as a kind of twin brother who had gone off in a different political direction. We are roughly the same age and we both grew up in Detroit suburbs. Our fathers worked in managerial or administrative positions with automobile companies. I, however, went to Yale while Hayden attended the University of Michigan. Politically, Hayden turned to the left while I, less prominently, turned to the right. I never went over the hump to oppose my own society.
The reason, in my case, was that, as a midwesterner from a privileged if provincial background, I was alienated by the political liberalism that pervaded the Yale campus at the time. It was the same East Coast arrogance that William F. Buckley and, later, George W. Bush, rebelled against. Support of the Civil Rights movement was a part of this culture. As a result, I never became involved in that cause. While I was interested in politics, political liberalism seemed unattractive. It was arrogant and dogmatic, having little respect for people like me.
Tom Hayden, the far-left revolutionary, was not tilting at windmills but, in fact, succeeded in bringing mainstream America over to his point of view, at least as far as race relations are concerned. He organized voter-registration drives in the south in the early 1960s and was a sympathetic eyewitness to black protests in Newark later in the same decade. For more than a decade, he was a state senator in California. It is a political success story which few can match.
The cornerstone of Hayden’s political career was the Civil Rights movement. This enterprise succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest expectation. The reason is that the efforts of Martin Luther King, Tom Hayden, and others involved in this movement found favor with the political establishment during the administrations of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, and, to a surprising extent, with big business, big labor, educators, journalists, and religious clergy of various creeds. Big-business support was significant. According to one theory, its support of Civil Rights was a move to co-opt the issue of race and divert communist influence. Economic issues were side tracked.
Today, opposition to white racism has become a civic religion enshrined in law as well as in people’s hearts and minds. The problem I have with this is not the advancement of black Americans to a position of “equality” but the concurrent degradation of white people. The anti-racist “religion” is built on a foundation of white privilege and white guilt. The purpose of “black history” is to remind whites of their historical guilt and their innately hateful behavior threatening to re-erupt at any time.
As a part of this culture, we remember uncouth white “bigots” shouting at black children who were integrating southern public schools, and the water hoses and police dogs turned against peaceful black protestors, but forget the fact that a moral appeal was made to the white population to suspend the prejudice that they might have against all black people for the misdeeds of a few . Whites generally accepted that proposition. Whites, not blacks, turned the corner on race prejudice. Their reward for being tolerant has been an enduring legacy of guilt.
Let us be clear about this: Whites had a reason to be prejudiced against blacks. They may personally have witnessed bad black behavior - what one might call “ghetto” behavior. They may, for instance, have heard young blacks loudly arguing on the street late at night, or been personally panhandled or physically threatened or sexually solicited by blacks, or have heard boom-boxes blaring rap-like music throughout the neighborhood, or watched blacks throw trash on the sidewalks, or let their pants sag down to their knees, or walk carelessly through traffic whenever they please. They may be aware that blacks have a relatively higher crime rate, do not do as well as other groups in school, and that illegitimacy followed by welfare support is higher among blacks than most other groups of people.
My purpose here is not to build a case against black Americans - for bad behavior is found in all groups - but to make the obvious but forbidden point that whites are not being hateful or irrational when they exhibit “prejudice” against black people. They are often reacting against something legitimately to be disliked.
Having said that, however, I must also agree that the appeal made to whites not to judge all black people for the misdeeds of some was valid. Behaviors can change. President Obama is an example of someone who breaks the negative stereotype of black people. It is certainly not fair to the person who is conscientious, considerate, and otherwise a good citizen of the community to place him under a blanket condemnation for what others of his race have done. A civilized society must try to maintain uniform standards of conduct, judging the behavior of individuals rather than groups.
My argument is, therefore, not focused on the behavior of black people but on the “conspiracy against the truth” when it comes to white people’s perception of blacks. As I said, the white dislike of blacks may well be rooted in fact. It is in the nature of human thought to generalize from particular cases. Therefore, when whites see blacks often exhibiting a certain type of behavior, they will naturally form a general conclusion about black behavior. They will think this behavior is typical of blacks and tend to judge all blacks accordingly. It is a habit of mind that needs to be kept in check, but it is not malicious or untruthful. The conclusions of honest thinking deserve to be respected.
Most Americans today realize, however, that if one makes the type of argument that I made above - which tends to blame blacks as a group for certain undesirable behavior - one will be severely criticized, if not worse, for saying such things. (Maybe black people will riot!) To express this kind of opinion marks one as a “racist”; and our culture teaches us that racists are ignorant, violent types who want to lynch black people. White racism cannot be tolerated in this society, say the self-styled “decent” people.
But I say: It is never dishonorable to think or speak the truth. The facts speak for themselves. If you disagree with me because you think my facts are wrong, then I will, of course, listen to your fact-based arguments and be open to changing my point of view. But if you try to silence me or call me a racist and a liar because I am going against the dominant or a politically enforced view, I will oppose you. If you try to threaten or coerce me for thinking certain things, I will resist. Yours is a conspiracy against the truth; and I will be your enemy to the end of time.
I believe that white people have been brought to the point of accepting racial guilt, not by the presentation of compelling facts but by intimidation. They must always be walking on egg shells, for fear of black anger. People know in their hearts what is true but they are afraid to say it, so powerful is the stigma of racism. We know that this stigma has real consequences. People lose their jobs for real or perceived racial slurs. They can be prosecuted for “hate speech”. Even so, there is a core of innermost thought that cannot be successfully invaded or disturbed unless the person himself permits this. And too many whites have permitted it out of fear. They have let themselves be forced to think in a certain way. That, too, is a source of deep shame.
One often hears of white guilt suggesting that whites feel guilty because of how they treated blacks over the years. Whites ought to feel guilty about how they have treated themselves. They have surrendered their integrity of thought to persons making insistent, hateful arguments. If America was once “the land of the free and home of the brave”, white Americans are no longer free or brave. They are enslaved to certain political opinions and not brave enough to admit this, even to themselves. They are, as Eric Holder said, “racial cowards”. If one white person stands up for his race, a thousand other whites, even agreeing with him in private, will remain silent.
I know this. For a time, I was that one person willing to speak out on the subject of race. (Read about my experiences at a certain race workshop.) I learned first hand what was out there in the realm of political opinions when I ran in Minnesota’s Independence Party primary for U.S. Senate in 2002. My strategy was to differentiate myself from candidates of the two major parties. The Republicans, I thought, were mainly the party of big business. To irritate them, I announced that I favored legislation to reduce the workweek to 32 hours. The Democrats, on the other hand, were the party of the “rainbow coalition”. To give them a jolt, my campaign platform included a plank to the effect that I supported “dignity for white males”, adding “and (dignity) for everyone else, too.”
My shorter-workweek plank raised no particular concern. It was a harmless proposal that went nowhere. The opposition to my “white-male dignity” plank, however, was fierce. It came from an unexpected quarter: the (Minneapolis) Star Tribune, the state’s largest newspaper. Not only did this newspaper refuse to give my campaign any press coverage (while running a front-page article about my principal opponent) but it also refused to accept any paid ads from my campaign so long as they included the words “dignity for white males”. I was told that the paper’s “legal department” had advised against it. Although my name was not once mentioned in this newspaper during the campaign, I still managed to receive 31 percent of the statewide vote in a three-person race.
Something was not right. Evidently to say that I was in favor of dignity for white men marked me as a white racist and, therefore, a certified example of evil. This showed me how twisted our political values have become. Dignity, I thought, was something that every human being should have. I was delighted when a black-female member of Congress told me that she, too, supported the concept of “dignity for white males”. It was instead a newspaper staffed mainly by white editors and reporters that considered my views beyond the pale. (There’s a story in here somewhere.)
In summary, white Americans cannot feel good about themselves in having submitted to what they know to be wrong. This acquiescence to untruth creates a spiritual sickness that leads to political impotence and allows our government to continue in its corrupt ways. It is disgusting that a group of people, white Americans, comprising sixty percent of the electorate, would allow themselves to be buffaloed this way. As a white, I’m tempted to despise my own people. Nathan Hale said he had but one life to give to his country. Cannot some white person today find the courage within himself to say that he disagrees with this idea of “racism” and how it has been used? I doubt if he will be hanged.
Free speech and free thought are the road back to health. To speak the truth in public engenders pride in oneself. A courageous and self-respecting people can, in turn, seize political control and reform the government. As it is, the present discussion of race has led to a particularly nasty type of politics where people are demonized for what they say. Even certain kinds of jokes are forbidden these days. We need to take America back from the demonizers in elite institutions and restore free speech. Then freedom itself will prevail.
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