Tag Archives: White privilege

The Long, Strange Tale of American Race Relations

Rev. Martin Luthrt King Jr. after delivering his "I Have  Adream Speech" in Washington D.C.,  August 28, 1963. From that moment on, racism was no longer a problem.

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. after delivering his “I Have A Dream Speech” in Washington D.C., August 28, 1963. From that moment on, racism was no longer a problem.

Here’s the thing about racism in America: it’s both ubiquitous and non-existent. Race plays a role in every major cultural issue that seems to tarnish our otherwise more perfect union — except when it has nothing to do with any given problem and we should stop talking about race because only racists talk about race. The latter is the preferred talking-point of the right-wing, whose collective fetish for American exceptionalism utterly inhibits their ability to interpret U.S. history as anything more than the triumphant march of alabaster altruists spreading benevolent, capitalistic, freedom-stuffed fruit baskets to all manner of benighted minorities who should be eternally grateful for this ivory-colored benevolence. Obviously, the history of race relations is more complicated than that, and leave it to a famous, gravel-voiced comedian to shed some light on how race really works in America.

In a recent Q & A with Frank Rich for New York Magazine, stand-up legend Chris Rock made some rather insightful comments about American race relations following the verdict in Ferguson, Missouri that let white police officer Darren Wilson off the hook for gunning down black civilian Michael Brown. When discussing the idea of racial progress, Rock was straightforward in his response: “When we talk about race relations in America or racial progress, it’s all nonsense. There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before,” he stated. Continue reading

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Ferguson and the Black Outsider in America

Black protestoers clash with Ferguson, Missouri's largly white, militarized police force.

Black protestors clash with Ferguson, Missouri’s largely white, militarized police force.

If you’ve never been black in America, then you can never fully understand what it means to be black in America. White folks like myself, regardless of our socioeconomic status, are born with the privilege of color — white privilege — and no matter how we conduct ourselves in our public and private lives, we’ll always be citizens of America in a way that black people still can’t be. To be white in America is to be a full citizen, but to be black in America is to be the perpetual outsider. When a St. Louis County grand jury failed to indict officer Darren Wilson for the August 9, 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the continued outsider status of blacks in America was laid bare for the world to see. Wilson, of course, is white, and Brown was black. If you think those facts don’t mean anything, then you haven’t been paying attention.

Following the verdict, parts of Ferguson once again exploded, as rioters set fire to multiple buildings and smashed and burned police cars. Predictably, America’s right-wing media lined up in lock-step support for the verdict and for Wilson, and reactionary Twitter feeds lit up with the usual spiel of white victimhood. But the surge of anger among many of Ferguson’s black residents is not merely the response to the Ferguson verdict: it’s also a response to the historical legacy that laid the foundations for such a verdict. Whatever really happened on the day that Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown, the history of institutional racism, suburban white-flight, and racially based redlining and housing discrimination have, over the decades, culminated to create a modern environment — in both Ferguson and across the country — that designates blacks as outsiders to be feared in a culture that gives special preference to whiteness. Continue reading

The Triumph and Tragedy of American Whiteness

Angry white people protest school integration in Little |rock, Arkansas, 1959. That guy in the middle of the photo gets the award for angriest white dude EVER.

Some pissed-off white people protest school integration in Little Rock, Arkansas, 1959. That guy in the middle of the photo gets the award for angriest white dude EVER.

Let’s all shed a tear for the untimely and tragic demise of American whiteness. No, I’m serious. At no time in history have those-of-the-pasty-complexion had it so bad. It’s almost as if they’re on the brink of losing their sacred, inalienable rights to reap the best social, economic, and cultural goodies just because they’re melanin-challenged. To quote one of the most famous of all white philosophers, “this aggression will not stand, man!”

I mean, just look around you! White peoples’ percentage of the electorate is shrinking fast; their standard-bearer lost the presidency to a communist-socialist-Kenyan-Muslim-Buddhist-Podiatrist-usurper in the 2012 election, and perhaps worst of all: white people can’t even hold their annual “White History Month” parade in the proud American small town of Hope Mills, North Carolina without fear of being criticized by dusky people who just don’t know their place, dammit.

But thankfully, some heroic white people are standing up, walking tall, and vowing not to relinquish their white privilege without a (white) fight. One of these alabaster Argonauts is even a member of Congress. That’s right, Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Obviousville Alabama) recently went on Laura Ingraham’s radio show to respond to an accusation by political-pundit/stable boy, Ron Fournier, who claimed that the Republican Party “cannot be the party of the future beyond November” because they’re “seen as the party of white people.” Well just you wait and see what that proud Republican congressman stated in return! “This is a part of the war on whites that’s being launched by the Democratic Party. And the way in which they’re launching this war is by claiming that whites hate everybody else,” the noble congresscritter told Ingraham. Brooks then went on to cite a bunch of issues, especially illegal (read: brown person) immigration, that he claims Democrats use as a cudgel to attack patriotic white folks everywhere.

Brooks’ comments, while amusing, are nothing new. The phenomenon of right-wingers (who are usually members of society’s most privileged social class) adopting the mantel of victimhood is one of the major pillars of conservatism. In his fantastic book The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, political scientist Corey Robin notes that victimhood has long been one of the Right’s core talking-points. “The conservative, to be sure, speaks for a special type of victim,” he writes, “one who has lost something of value, as opposed to the wretched of the earth, whose chief complaint is that they never had anything to lose.”* And the sense of conservative victimhood runs deep in today’s Republican Party: a sociopolitical faction so lily-white that it has to slather itself in SPF 300 sunscreen just to pass anti-Obamacare resolutions.

Mo Brooks’ “war-on-whites” remarks may have been off-color, but he spoke to a very real feeling shared by many conservative white Americans: a feeling that their identity as the natural, default color of American-ness is evaporating before their eyes. Consider, for example, the dire warnings of former presidential candidate, and lovable Übermensch, Pat Buchanan. “The Census Bureau has now fixed at 2041 the year when whites become a minority in a country where the Founding Fathers had restricted citizenship to ‘free white persons’ of ‘good moral character,'” Buchanan moaned in 2011. Uncle Pat then concluded that Western civilization can’t possibly survive with a slightly diminished level of white privilege. Bummer.

Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Al). Damn, he's very white.

Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Al). Damn, he’s very white.

But however hyperbolic their rantings are, conservative whites’ fears of their diminishing cultural status in America exist because, for the majority of U.S. history, “whiteness,” — especially white maleness — has been synonymous with privilege in the domestic, political, racial, economic, and cultural spheres of American life. Indeed, up until very recently, to be an American WAS to be exclusively white. Of course, whiteness is also inextricably connected to the cultural, religious, imperial, and racial subjugation of non-white peoples — a subjugation that fostered white privilege for centuries. This has been true throughout the whole of the modern era — the time from Columbus’ fourteenth-century arrival on New World shores to the present day.  

Now, of course, the white people who founded America gave the world some great things, such as (modern) republicanism, capitalism (to an extent, anyway), and a religious pluralism, among other boons. But the problem is that, historically, whites haven’t been too keen on sharing their privileges with non-whites. In the U.S., the most explicit white/non-white divide has been between whites and blacks. There was that whole slavery thing. That whole Reconstruction thing. That whole Jim Crow thing. That whole Civil Rights thing. That whole “Silent Majority” thing. Throw the brown Messicans’ into the mix, stir vigorously, add a dash of equal rights, and you’ve got a recipe for some serious reactionary white porridge! As Robin writes, “because his losses are recent…the conservative can credibly claim…that his goals are practical and achievable. He merely seeks to regain what is his, and the fact that he once had it — indeed, probably had it for some time — suggest that he is capable of possessing it again.”*

It’s this spirit, the promise that white privilege can be possessed once again by those who took it for granted for so long, that animates conservative white reactionaries like Alabama representative Mo Brooks. Heck, it’s no coincidence that a pasty, conservative politician from the Deep South is worried about a non-existent “war on white people.” Back in 1928, the historian Ulrich B. Phillips observed that race was “The Central Theme of Southern History,” and a major component of that theme was (and is) the fear of losing the benefits of being white. The very “essence” of southern identity, Phillips wrote, was the commitment to keeping the South “a white man’s country.” The fear of losing southern white privilege arose “as soon as the negroes became numerous enough to create a problem of race control in the interest of orderly government  and the maintenance of Caucasian civilization.”*

Thus, the locus of southern exceptionalism can be found in its historical commitment to white supremacy even when other issues splintered the region into multiple factions. Historian Ira Katznelson reiterates this point in his brilliant study, Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time. While he notes that white supremacy has always been national in scope, Katznelson makes clear that, “the tension that marked the relationship between racial inequality and the country’s rights-based political system based on free citizenship — an association that had vexed the American republic from its first days — was more insistent and most acute” in the South.*

The American South, where white privilege has always been a big deal.

The American South, where white privilege has always been a big deal.

Politicians like Brooks, and the people who’re swayed by his rhetoric, are following in a grand conservative tradition in which fear is cultivated to prevent the loss of long-enjoyed white privilege. Although the fires of southern race-baiting have dimmed significantly over time, their embers still create heat in the form of reactionary stances against the loss of an American identity that is white-by-default. While most persistent in the South, this fear expanded across the nation as conservatism grew in popularity over the last few decades of the twentieth century. And make no mistake: fear and whiteness are close bedfellows.

A few years back, Scientific American reported that, “conservatives are fundamentally more anxious than liberals, which may be why they typically desire stability, structure and clear answers even to complicated questions.” American conservatives are mostly white, a majority of them are in the South, and fear helps them address their anxieties by motivating them to continually impose their moral order over those who they believe threaten the “natural” stability of things. And in modern America, those who threaten this “stability” are the growing non-white populations. For the right-wing, the “war on white people” is very real, and the history of white privilege guarantees that this “war” will wage on for many more years — or at least as long as Pat Buchanan can type.

* See Corey Robin, The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 58-9.

* See Ulrich B. Phillips, “The Central Theme of Southern History,” The American Historical Review 34 (Oct., 1928): 31.

* See Ira Katznelson, Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time (New York: W.W. Norton, 2013), 134.

Fear of a Black Santa: Kris Kringle and the Historical Color of American Identity

The gloriously 1970s-ish album cover for Akim's 19773 Christmas novelty tune, "Santa Claus is a Black Man."

The gloriously 1970s-ish album cover for Akim’s 1973 Christmas novelty tune, “Santa Claus is a Black Man.”

Everybody knows what Santa Claus looks like, right? Sure we do: he’s an obese, hirsute, exceptionally jolly home invader who shows up in malls, Christmas parades, and your living room every December armed with a sack full of goodies with the intention of teaching well-behaving youngsters the value of rampant materialism. Oh, and Santa is a white guy. We know all of these facts despite the overwhelming fact that Santa isn’t even real. Yes, I’m sorry Virginia, but Santa Claus is indeed a mythical figure. Yet, as anyone whose studied comparative religions knows, humans often imbue mythical figures with the very real powers to shape social discourse. How humans perceive mythical figures speaks volumes about the way they perceive important issues in their society.

Case in point: writer Aisha Harris, in a recent a column for Slate, recounts how, during her youth, the overwhelming cultural image of a white Santa Claus contrasted with the depictions of a black Santa in her own home. “I remember feeling slightly ashamed that our black Santa wasn’t the ‘real thing,’ Harris writes, “[b]ecause when you’re a kid and you’re inundated with the imagery of a pale seasonal visitor…you’re likely to accept the consensus view, despite your parents’ noble intentions.” Harris goes on to suggest, only semi-jokingly, that Santa should be changed into a penguin, because having such an omnipresent cultural figure depicted as a white guy “helps perpetuate the whole ‘white-as-default‘ notion endemic to American culture.”

Following the publication of Harris’ article, Fox News host Megyn Kelly decided to squelch any attempts to colorize St. Nick by defiantly reasserting that “Santa just is white.” Leaving aside the obvious weirdness of arguing over the racial background of a figure that doesn’t actually exist, Kelly’s comments stirred plenty of internet outrage. Liberal media outlets like Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show mocked Kelly relentlessly (she also claimed, in the same segment, that Jesus was a white guy), while the Los Angeles Times insisted, per input from its readership, that there’s nothing wrong with a black Santa.

Of course, Fox News, being the undisputed media Delphi of white, reactionary outrage that it is, came to Kelly’s defence. Bill O’Reilly, self-proclaimed “Culture Warrior,” and noted General on the front lines of the non-existent “War on Christmasreasserted that “Megyn Kelly is correct. Santa was a white person.” Following this unequivocal statement about Santa’s honky heritage, O’Reilly then claimed that “the spirit of Santa transcends all racial boundaries,” as long as those boundaries don’t move beyond that of a white guy.

So what’s the big deal here? On the one hand, the whole “Black Santa” controversy can be attributed to the needs of the now standard 24 hour news cycle to fill airspace with vacuous, manufactured tripe. Fox News itself excels at turning absolutely any story into an excuse for its white, geriatric viewership to snatch persecution from the jaws of privilege. But there is an important theme underlying this whole story. As I noted above, and in case you weren’t aware, Santa Claus isn’t real. In that respect, he has no race or ethnicity. So why do so many Americans care about the race of a mythical, jolly, bearded fat guy who gives kids toys every December 24th? Americans care because what constitutes a default “American” racial identity has always been a contested concept.

Much of the trajectory of American history can be defined by a dichotomy of black and white and the struggles that dichotomy unleashed over time. In the 18th and 19th centuries, notions of “blackness” and “whiteness” weren’t just markers of outward appearances; rather, these notions also symbolized broader concepts like “slavery” and “freedom.” In his classic book Liberty and Slavery: Southern Politics to 1860, Historian William J. Cooper identifies the symbiotic existence of slavery and freedom in early American history by observing that for white Americans, especially southerners in a slave society, slavery was the real, manifested opponent of freedom. Seeing black slaves in their midst constantly reaffirmed white Americans’ own identities as free citizens of the United States.*

Indeed, from the constitutional period up to the Civil War, white Americans equated blackness not only with slavery but also with the idea of “otherness;” that blacks did not share a truly American identity with whites. The early juxtaposition of black slavery with white freedom helped forge the still existent notion that equates whiteness with American identity and blackness as somehow an aberration from the cultural default that is an American white face.

Fox News' host Bill O'Reilly: defender of Christmas and a honky Santa Claus.

Fox News host Bill O’Reilly: defender of Christmas and a honky Santa Claus.

Even after the Civil War, when slavery ceased to exist as a legal institution, the idea that blackness somehow constituted a “lesser-than” form of otherness in an American sea of “normal” whiteness survived and thrived. As historian Grace Elizabeth Hale notes, white northerners and white southerners sought to reconcile after the Civil War, and it was a reconciliation grounded in “modern whiteness” that contrasted with the “culture of segregation” that marked African-Americans as legally and culturally inferior to whites by the turn-of-the-century.* Although they were no longer slaves, blacks were still a cultural and racial minority who were denied equal rights because of their blackness well into the 20th century.

The idea that blackness has historically be seen as an aberration from the “normalcy” of (white) American identity is hard for actual white people like Megyn Kelly to comprehend. For them, whiteness “just is,” just as Santa Claus is white because he “just is.” Kelly and other white Americans can’t understand why anyone would care if a beloved mythical character is claimed by white people because they don’t take the time to try to view American society from the perspective of someone not blessed by white privilege. Whiteness, according to sociologist George Lipsitz, is “the unmarked category against which difference is constructed.” This means that “whiteness never has to speak its name, never has to acknowledge its role as an organizing principle in social and cultural relations.”* This is the fog of white privilege: it allows those who benefit from it to claim ignorance of its very existence and criticize those who see white privilege from an outsider’s perspective as misguided or “politically correct.”

Hence, Bill O’Reilly can simultaneously assert that “Santa was a white person. Does that matter? No. It doesn’t matter.” But of course it matters: it matters to O’Reilly, hence his devoting airtime to firmly establishing the racial provenance of a mythical figure. In one sense, however, O’Reilly is right; Santa Claus is a white man because the dominant (white) American culture created him in its own image.

In America, Santa Claus is what scholars call an “invented tradition,” defined by the late scholar Eric Hobsbawm as “a set of practices, normally governed by overtly or tacitly accepted rules and of a ritual or symbolic nature, which seek to inculcate certain values and norms of behaviour by repetition, which automatically implies continuity with the past.” Invented traditions claim to have a rich history, even though they’re usually rather new, and they tend to reflect the values of those who create them. It’s no surprise, then, that Santa Claus, who was popularized in the early 19th century by the dominating white members of an American white supremacist society, emerged as white. After all, by that point in U.S. history, whiteness had itself become a tradition invented by those who gained the most from it.

In his great book The Battle for Christmas: A Cultural History of America’ Most Cherished Holiday, historian Stephen Nissenbaum explains how Santa Claus falls squarely into the realm of invented tradition. The American Santa Claus as we know him: white, fat, jolly, bearded, and prone to squeezing down chimneys to give toys to deserving rug-rats, emerged in the 1820s from the writings of Clement Clark Moore, the patrician New Yorker who wrote “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” better known as “The Night Before Christmas” (1823). Moore’s depiction of Santa Claus inspired the cartoonist Thomas Nast to create later iconic images of Santa that fixed the jolly holiday icon into the American popular imagination as a character who had always been there, even though he had only been invented, in an American context, in the 1820s.*

An iconic image of a (white) Santa Claus by Thomas Nast. From Harper's Weekly, 1881.

An iconic image of a (white) Santa Claus by Thomas Nast. From Harper’s Weekly, 1881.

The fact that Santa Claus emerged as a white guy was a given, considering the historical time period during which he became a fixture in American culture. But American culture was, and in many respects remains, a culture projected through the default prism of whiteness. Thus, conservatives who become apoplectic over attempts to topple the pasty-white image of Santa Claus are really fearing the loss of white privilege that such attempts symbolize.

If the whiteness of such an iconic character as Santa Claus can be challenged, then whiteness itself, or at least the inherent privilege that comes with whiteness, can also be challenged. Those who benefit the most from the projection and consumption of white privilege via mass media, such as highly paid Fox News anchors, have much to lose from the gradual erosion of whiteness as the default characteristic of American identity. Of course, if you’re one of those people who understand that traditions can and should be changed, then the idea of a black Santa should be no more threatening than the idea of a black president. Both images reflect long overdue changes to an America in which one cultural perspective wielded far too much influence. A “White Christmas” indeed.

* See William J. Cooper, Jr., Liberty and Slavery: Southern Politics to 1860 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1983, 2000), 30-31.

* See Grace Elizabeth Hale, Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890-1940 (New York: Vintage, 1998), 9.

* See  George Lipsitz, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006), 1.

* See Stephen Nissenbaum, The Battle for Christmas: A Cultural History of America’s Most Cherished Holiday (New York: Vintage, 1996), 65-89.

Richard Cohen, Thomas Jefferson, and the Legacy of White Privilege in America

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen. Even his beard is white.

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen. Even his beard is white.

Richard Cohen, columnist for the Washington Post, understands something. He understands that white people have it rough. Or, at least they think that they have it rough. Some white people think that they’re losing their traditional privileges as the default ruling demographic in America. Their ensuing anger has, of late, once again lit the age-old fuse of white grievance in the United States, and numerous media outlets have spilled plenty of real and electronic ink trying to access the implications of this anger on American culture.

Richard Cohen is, like me, a white person, and he wants to understand a particular brand of grievance that motivates other white people and manifests most potently in the form of that drooling, reactionary blob of grammatically challenged rage, the Tea Party. In a recent column, Cohen pissed off a large chunk of humanity by attributing Tea Party rage not to racism, but to fear of change. Despite devoting portions of his column to mocking Tea Party rodeo clowns like Sarah Palin, many readers saw a particular paragraph in Cohen’s column as evidence of the author’s apparent sympathy for conservative white cultural dominance. The offending paragraph claimed that:

Today’s GOP is not racist, as Harry Belafonte alleged about the tea party, but it is deeply troubled — about the expansion of government, about immigration, about secularism, about the mainstreaming of what used to be the avant-garde. People with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York — a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children. (Should I mention that Bill de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, used to be a lesbian?) This family represents the cultural changes that have enveloped parts — but not all — of America. To cultural conservatives, this doesn’t look like their country at all.

Now, Cohen has had some nasty bouts of foot-in-mouth disease in the (recent) past. This is the same guy who, earlier this month, claimed to have just learned that American slavery “was not a benign institution in which mostly benevolent whites owned innocent and grateful blacks,” but was, in fact, “a lifetime’s condemnation to an often violent hell in which people were deprived of life, liberty and, too often, their own children.” That’s right, Cohen just figured this out in 2013, and only after watching Steve McQueen’s film “12 Years a Slave,” because book-larnin’ is hard work.

But seriously, Cohen’s column stirred up a whole mess of anger because it appeared to reveal a stunning obtuseness on his part about the changing demographic face of America. Its been over sixty years since the end of legal segregation, yet Cohen admits that some Americans still have a “gag-reflex” when confronted with an interracial couple. Moreover, Cohen described the Tea Party as a group with “conventional” views, which, by default, seemed to suggest that non-Tea Partiers hold “unconventional” views. Cohen himself may or may not hold these views, though his history of writing oversimplified, bone-headed columns on the subject of race suggest that the former is possible. Plenty of people, for example, have labeled Cohen an “unreconstructed bigot” and a “racist.” But whatever Cohen’s own views, his column was, poor choice of words notwithstanding, an accurate description of Tea Party rage and the extremely potent source that fuels that rage: white privilege.

Simply dismissing Cohen as a good ole’ fashioned racist is not a particularly helpful way of discussing the kind of “indirect racism” (yeah, I just made up that term right now) that fuels modern white privilege. Liberals who call conservatives outright racists tend to get massive amounts of pushback from people aghast at being lumped together with the most theatrical and well-known symbols of American bigotry, such as the Old Confederacy, the Ku Klux Klan, and the southern lynch mob. Thus, the cycle merely repeats: liberals accuse conservatives of being racists, conservatives accuse liberals of playing the “race card;” rinse, wash, repeat.

The kind of indirect racism that animates the Tea Party, however, is less about outright hatred based on mere skin color (though it is a legacy of that idea) and more about how the truly domineering racism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries bequeathed the legacy of white privilege to modern-day Americans. For American whites, cultural, political, and economic dominance became common to the point of it being second-nature.

Let’s unpack that idea a bit further, shall we? There’s mounds of literature on the concept of white privilege, but let’s go with a straightforward definition: white privilege means that society affords you preferential treatment because you are white. Historian Linda Faye Williams helpfully expands on this idea in her book The Constraint of Race: Legacies of White Skin Privilege in America. Faye Williams writes that white privilege constitutes situations in which “whites display a sense of entitlement and make claims to social status and economic advantages, actively struggling to maintain both these privileges and their sense of themselves as superior.”*

In addition, white privilege tends to blind its benefactors to the very existence of their privilege. As Faye Williams notes, for many whites, “‘racism’ is a problem belonging to people of color, not to whites.”* Those who perceive their whiteness as the default, “normal” setting, and, by extension, equate whiteness with normality, often get defensive when others point out how such a stance could lead to the normalization of white racial dominance.

But, of course, such a normalization of white racial dominance is exactly what happened for much of U.S. history. Because the America was a nation paradoxically founded on the principles of equality and racial slavery, every one of its major historical events — from constitutional debates over taxation, to geographical expansion, to the Civil War and Reconstruction, to the Civil Rights Movement, to welfare reform — have, in some way, involved debates over the how the constructs of race afforded benefits to whites at the expense of non-whites.

Thomas Jefferson. Wearing a coat like that was totally a sign of privilege.

Thomas Jefferson. Wearing a coat like that was totally a sign of privilege.

Perhaps no single figure better encapsulates the reckoning with the consequences of white privilege than the undisputed Grand Poobah of American Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson. So hallowed a figure is Jefferson in American culture that even his biographers — who should know better — are nonetheless loathe to criticize the man for fear that recognition of Jefferson’s basic human faults would somehow negate his inherent genius and monumental accomplishments. The debate over Jefferson’s faults is at its most contentious when it comes to his views on slavery and race. Jefferson was, after all, an immensely wealthy slaveholding planter, but he also wrote about the detrimental aspects of slavery as an institution, most famously in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1788). Such writings have led many historians to claim that Jefferson was, in one form or another, anti-slavery.

However, as legal historian Paul Finkelman notes in his article “Thomas Jefferson and Antislavery: The Myth Goes On,” Jefferson’s reservations about slavery hinged less on concerns for the enslaved, and more on concerns about how slavery as an institution affected his status as a privileged white slaveholder. As evidence for this interpretation, Finkelman cites Jefferson’s famous statement about slavery: “[W]e have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.”* Historians have traditionally interpreted this statement as a fear of slave revolts, but Finkelman observes that the “self-preservation” to which Jefferson alluded could also refer to his personal fortune. The labor of his slaves afforded Jefferson the good life, making the thought of losing that labor downright unpalatable.

Finkleman describes Jefferson as “compulsively acquisitive.” Indeed, on one trip to France, Jefferson  bought over 60 oil paintings, over 40 luxury chairs, 7 busts by French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon, multiple full-length, gilt-framed mirrors, 4 marble-topped tables, and a vast assortment of ‘items of personal luxury.’* For Jefferson, Finkelman writes, “the wolf may also have been the wolf of gluttony and greed.” Indeed, slavery gave Jefferson his lavish lifestyle, and though he may not have liked being dependent on slaves, “he did not dislike it enough to anything about it.”* Jefferson could own slaves because he was a white man and his slaves were black, and the wealth generated by his slaves allowed Jefferson to live an aristocratic life.

No wonder he couldn’t let the wolf go: slavery was predicated on the concept of white privilege — that whites were superior and blacks inferior. Jefferson was a great man, but a man nonetheless, and those men (or women) placed into positions of power by the normalization of dominance over others are seldom in a rush to give up such a privileged status.

Got white privilege, America? You bectha' we do.

Got white privilege, America? You bectha’ we do.

Jefferson’s struggles with the moral implications of white privilege echo in the contemporary musings of people like Richard Cohen, who run into trouble when they casually brush off the type of indirect racism created by centuries of American white privilege. To be sure, the Tea Party types about whom Cohen writes are not racist in the same vein as the cross-burning Klansmen or the angry lynch mobs of decades past. Rather, like Jefferson and millions of whites before them, segments of the Tea Party have been simmering in the soup of white privilege for so long that they don’t even recognize that an earlier form of racial dominance helped make the base of that soup. Thus, you don’t need to be a flaming racist to defend cultural norms that were forged in a far more racist past.

American conservatives genuinely fear the consequences of losing their white privilege. Slavery is obviously no longer the issue, but slavery’s legacy has, as Linda Faye Williams writes, long resulted in the “unequal allocation of educational resources, substantial insider networks that funnel good jobs largely to whites, and social policies that deliver more generous benefits to whites.”* These are the modern fruits of white privilege.

It’s no coincidence that, according to a recent Democracy Corps study, the Republican Party’s Tea Party base “are very conscious of being white in a country with growing minorities. Their party is losing to a Democratic Party of big government whose goal is to expand programs that mainly benefit minorities.” Just as Jefferson feared losing the white privilege that created the luxurious life of an eighteenth-century planter, the modern Tea Party fears losing the white privilege that has long directed the benefits of social programs and political power disproportionately into the hands of American whites at the expense of non-white minorities. Richard Cohen, I think, understands this fear, but he also, on some level, identifies with it, which helps explain the befuddlement that he and others express when charged with racism. To paraphrase a particularly plain-spoken white guy, “It’s the whiteness, stupid.”

* See Linda Faye Williams, The Constraint of Race: Legacies of White Skin Privilege in America (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003), 10-11.

* See Paul Finkelman, “Jefferson and Antislavery: The Myth Goes On,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 102 (April, 1994): 205.