Some of the most haunting and enduring images of the 20th century are photographs of white adults taunting Black children attempting to enter segregated schools, festive white mobs enjoying the lynching of a Black as the victim’s burnt body swings from a tree limb, Blacks students being assaulted at a lunch counter, and a southern governor blocking the door of a public university in an attempt to prevent the registration of Black students. In hindsight, it is difficult to comprehend the white hate triggered by Blacks’ simple exercise of constitutional rights. Yet, we are witnessing more of the same in the 21st century as the browning of America is unleashing an irrational and dangerous white backlash.
Like the post-Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras, political actors seeking to exploit the insecurities of whites for their own personal gain are fueling these fears. What makes the current environment that much more toxic is the availability of technology that spreads hate more rapidly and makes legitimate, the illogical and conspiratorial theories that willing conspiracy theorists treat as “fact” simply because the rhetoric appears in print or has been voiced on television or radio. The mythology of white disadvantage consists of several “beliefs” that are rooted in deep-seated animosity toward the shifting demographics of our nation. Fundamental to this new genre of racial animus is the following core myths.
Affirmative Action is discrimination against whites: Despite statistical evidence that shows Blacks and Latinos are still economically disadvantaged, many whites still maintain that people of color are receiving unfair advantages in the labor market and higher education. The few incidents in which quotas were used to advance racial balance in the workplace or on a college campus are inflated to create the impression that whites are being cheated out of jobs or college enrollment. Meanwhile, a simple examination of the professional ranks reveals the paltry number of African-Americans in such fields as law and medicine despite the perception of many whites that Blacks are taking over. The same is true of public service jobs in law enforcement, academia and fire prevention.
Immigrants are taking jobs: This is a troubling perspective that even some Blacks maintain. The fact is that illegal immigrants are most often working under the worse conditions and receiving paltry wages with no legal protections or health care. Immigrants are performing tasks at wages most Americans find unacceptable, yet they are now viewed as a major cause of the nation’s economic troubles.
Blacks are violent: Popular culture – television, film and music – and the news media has helped embed imagery of Black violence in the minds of many whites. As a result, mass incarceration has decimated the Black community, plundered Black families and has made Black men perpetual suspects. There is no denying that there is a crisis of urban violence driven by drug trafficking and gang activity. Yet, incidents in which whites are at the root of violent acts are not racially characterized. We consistently hear about “Black on Black” violence but violent acts committed by whites, including domestic violence and mass shootings, are never subjected to the same racial filter.
Most Blacks are uneducable: This is the current trend in public education and forms the basis of white support for the charter school movement and vouchers. Attacks on public education and the obsession with testing as a qualifier of competence at its root are being driven by the idea that “some can be ‘saved’ but the masses are beyond redemption.” Black children fortunate enough to navigate around the landmines in secondary education and earn diplomas and degrees are touted by many whites as “special” or held up as examples of our supposed meritocracy.
Black poverty is driven by individual failure: While there are more poor whites in this country, the proportion of Blacks who are impoverished has been at the heart of claims that poverty among African-Americans is the result of laziness and cultural factors. In other words, Blacks are poor because they choose to be. Whites who hold this view never make the connection between the implosion in public education, residential segregation, mass incarceration and labor market discrimination, and the millions of able-bodied and work-ready African Americans who are unemployed or underemployed.
The outcome of this theory of Black inferiority is the dehumanization of African-Americans, and other people of color, and their being viewed as disposable by unstable whites who are taking their cues from so-called legitimate figures in the public arena. It is producing an irrational and violent reaction among some whites who see it as their patriotic duty to engage in a form of ethnic cleansing in the wake of the growing numbers of Blacks, Latinos and Asians who are approaching majority status in our country. It is such a virulent strain of hate that it has even infected many Blacks. Sadly, some African-Americans echo the irrational rants of whites against other people of color and immigrants. While violence is not always the outcome, it is a consistent possibility as we have just witnessed in Arizona. It is why our President must adopt a different tone on race and racism if we are to begin to deconstruct the present typology of Black inferiority and cut to the heart of lingering white supremacist attitudes.
Walter Fields is Executive Editor of NorthStarNews.com.