Race is a Political Project: Reflections on Why Your Black Friend (Or Candidate) Is Irrelevant

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By Tim Wise

Sometimes the act of denial is the thing that condemns you. It simply gives away too much, suggesting that it was intended more to convince the one issuing it than the one to whom it was offered. And so, when addicts insist to their interventionists that they haven’t a drug or alcohol problem, we generally know where things are headed. So too, we can tell by the ferocity of the proclamation that the addict isn’t much concerned about whether others believe them. The thing is to reassure oneself. Perhaps it is demanded out of shame or guilt — a glimmer of recognition that indeed one has a problem and really should get help — or perhaps the speaker truly believes it. But whatever the case, it is nothing if not wholly unconvincing.

The same dynamic is readily visible in the case of White Americans who insist that we “haven’t a racist bone in our bodies,” even as we proceed to cut loose with any number of vile and demeaning statements about people of color. As if one can call Black culture pathological and defective and yet remain something other than a racist. As if one can insist that “most Mexican immigrants” are rapists and murderers and yet avoid the label “bigot” in the process. Racial stereotypes and generalizations — like black tar heroin to the junkie — remain sufficiently ubiquitous as to give the game away, no matter the earnest disclaimers of the prejudiced.

This morning offered yet another glimpse into the Alice-in-Wonderland thinking of such folks, embodied by an e-mail sent from someone who, despite echoing Donald Trump’s exhortations against Latinos and Bill O’Reilly’s claims about the cultural depravity of African Americans, promised me he wasn’t racist.

To wit, his penultimate paragraph (right before the part where he told me to go to hell):

And just so you know, I’m no racist! I support Ben Carson and would vote for Allen West in a heartbeat!

Although altogether unoriginal in its proclamation of cross-racial conservative unity, it’s the kind of statement I’ve heard often from White folks on the right: their very own version of “some of my best friends are Black.” It’s not unlike the iteration offered by White liberals, to the effect that somehow a vote for Barack Obama proves their own antiracist bona fides.

And yet, the idea that one’s willingness to vote for a Black person, or the actual having of a real Black friend, provides ablative protection from the charge of racism could only be believed by someone who fails to understand what racism is and how it operates. Just as men can obviously be sexist even if they date women and ultimately marry one, so too can White folks manifest racism no matter our willingness to play poker with a Black buddy or support a candidate for office whose melanin levels far exceed our own.

Racism — even on the personal level to say nothing of the institutional — never required Whites to hate Black people, let alone all Black people. It never required a totalizing and unanimous antipathy towards persons of color. No doubt there were White folks during the days of enslavement who were genuinely fond of those whom they held in bondage (the latter were helping to make the former wealthier, after all, by doing all the hard work), and yet, said affections hardly altered the fact that by enslaving Black bodies they were, by definition, engaged in an act of White supremacy. Their every comfort was derived from racism, every aspect of their being was bound up with the racist subordination of those deemed the “other.” The White slaveowner’s very existence as such was racist to the core.

So too, I have little doubt that there were White folks who felt admiration for indigenous persons even as they participated in (or passively accepted) their displacement from their lands and even campaigns of extermination against them. We know this is true, in fact, as evidenced by Thomas Jefferson’s own statements about native peoples, even as he was among the chief architects of their ultimate demise. In 1785 for instance, Jefferson wrote to the Marquis de Chastellux — who served the American Revolution in the French expeditionary forces — proclaiming that so far as he could discern, the Indian was, “in body and mind equal to the whiteman.” And yet, even as he proclaimed a belief in the inherent equality of native peoples, Jefferson was truly a key instigator of ethnic cleansing when it came to the indigenous of the continent. Long before Andrew Jackson it was Jefferson who professed a rapacious desire to move them westward if not utterly obliterate them. In 1813, the willingness of Indian peoples to fight back and resist their purging led Jefferson to write, in terms we would recognize as genocidal were they written by any other statesman in any other country save our own:

This unfortunate race, whom we had been taking so much pains to save and to civilize, have by their unexpected desertion and ferocious barbarities justified extermination, and now await our decision on their fate.

In other words, one can perform racism regardless of one’s personal bigotries … or lack thereof. One can indeed be racist by virtue of one’s actions, irrespective of the meditations of one’s heart. And more to the point it has always been the deed rather than the thought about which persons of color have been chiefly concerned. It is the rare Black person who would have cared much about how White employers or shop owners felt about them during the days of segregation, after all; rather, how those White folks actually treated Black people was the issue. Bull Connor’s maniacal hatred for the Black communities of Birmingham would have remained a trifle had he not driven tanks down their streets and turned water cannons on their residents. So too, if he had been given to playing horseshoes every Sunday after church with some local Black barber, his enforcement of Alabama apartheid would have been made no less egregious as a result.

Ultimately, what most White Americans fail to understand is that race in this country is not mostly about skin color or ancestry. It never has been. In many ways, race is not only a social construct — as we’ve long heard — but more so, a political one. Indeed, race is a political project in America, and racial categories largely attached to a compendium of beliefs that either serve to reinforce existing relations of political, economic and social power, or to challenge them.

If we look at history we can see that the boundaries of the so-called White race have often been drawn less upon the basis of ancestry per se, and more upon that of ideology. Specifically, one’s Whiteness has often been contingent upon the extent to which persons, regardless of ancestry, were prepared to identify their allegiances and interests with those of the larger power structure, which was indeed “White.” So the Irish, who were hardly considered members of the club upon arrival to the Unites States, quickly learned the value of identifying with the very Anglos who had long oppressed them. When Irish dockworkers in New York City attacked Blacks hired to work alongside them in 1863, they were performing Whiteness, no matter how the city’s blue bloods may have felt about their qualification for group membership. And when largely Irish mobs attacked a Black orphanage that year as part of the city’s Draft Riots — to protest abolitionism and conscription into a war they understood to be for that purpose — they were signaling their allegiance to elites, no matter the famine and servitude to which those same elites’ ancestors may well have subjected their own.

And if we understand Whiteness as a political project, then we should be able to comprehend that racism and white supremacy are less about hating persons who are not technically White, and more about despising those who oppose that project and stand in its way. A Black person whose politic, whose understanding of America and whose ideology fits with the traditional and dominant White narrative will be embraced, even as a White person whose understanding, politic and ideology opposes that traditional narrative will be rejected. What is being rejected is Blackness as a political position, a social position, and as a narrative that challenges the dominant racial lens. White people can embrace Blackness as a political project; likewise, people of color can embrace Whiteness, and throughout history many have. Many Whites celebrated Booker T. Washington, for instance, because they understood him as embracing self-help and rejecting agitation for equality. Though this was a somewhat simplistic reading of Washington, it is still important to note what it means: Simply put, if Theodore Roosevelt could embrace Washington and invite him to the White House, even as he called Africans “ape-like naked savages” and gleefully defended the slaughter of over 250,000 Filipinos at the turn of the twentieth century, it is not possible to believe that support for a Black figure alone is enough to insulate oneself from the charge of racism. Indeed, the selective embrace of such a person may only further prove the charge accurate.

Consider some readily obvious analogies. When a Jews embrace Jesus as their personal savior, Christians are quick to hold them up and to celebrate them, which is why evangelicals are so happy to host “Jews for Jesus” meetings in their churches on Saturdays. Those Jews are telling those Christians exactly what they want to hear and confirming what they already believe. Reactionaries love a good conversion story: the Muslim who rejects Islam, the immigrant who embraces the inherent goodness of America and even changes his name to something like Bobby (as just one totally random example the origin of which I can’t even discern), or the enslaved African who talks about his master in loving and glowing terms and rats out the other slaves who are plotting to rebel against their oppression. But the question is: Do those convenient embraces really tell us anything about the larger views held about the groups in question by those who are doing the embracing? If I believe that most Jews are going to hell, and that most Muslims are terrorists, and that most immigrants are coming to destroy American culture, and that most slaves were treacherous and worthy of enslavement, then what does it matter that I carve out an exception or two for the few who ratify my pre-existing reality? How am I not still spiritually anti-Semitic? How am I not a nativist, an Islamaphobe, a racist?

The master was no less racist for the praise he heaped upon his favorite house slave. And no, I am not saying that Black conservatives are literally house slaves. That is not the analogy. I am merely saying that supporting certain Black people, while rejecting the narrative and politic of Black Liberation, is a longstanding American tradition, and one that roots its practitioner firmly in the camp of the oppressor and the system over which that oppressor presides. If a person of color endorses a system in which persons of color are viewed as (and largely treated as) unequals and inferiors, then that person of color is an agent of Whiteness, just as surely as John Brown was not.

It brings to mind something James Baldwin wrote in his book, No Name in the Street, about the historical delusions with which so many White Americans live, and what it means when Black people ratify them:

White children, in the main, and whether they are rich or poor, grow up with a grasp of reality so feeble that they can very accurately be described as deluded—about themselves and about the world they live in. White people have managed to get through entire lifetimes in this euphoric state, but bla…

Indeed, and which appellation fits nicely Messrs. Carson and West, whose hagiographic understanding of their nation — our nation — mirrors the most absurd westerns in which Wayne starred, and about whom Brother Baldwin would no doubt have much to say.

And so, if race is a political project, let us then choose a side. While choosing Blackness, Brownness and the politic of resistance will not allow those of all called White to escape the implications of our historical and cultural category or the unearned privileges and benefits that flow from it — just as choosing whiteness will not protect folks of color from racial profiling and mistreatment at the hands of those unaware of their stance — let there be no mistake that embracing a politics of resistance will ultimately help us to regain some of the humanity lost so long ago when our ancestors opted for something quite different and less worthy of emulation.