I was bullied as a teenager, but that’s not what this post is about. It’s about this quote:
With us the two great divisions of society are not the rich and the poor, but white and black, and all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals, if honest and industrious, and hence have a position and pride of character of which neither poverty nor misfortune can deprive them.
John C. Calhoun, a pro-slavery political firebrand from South Carolina, spoke these words in the United States Senate on August 12, 1849. The words are rather clear, but in case the meaning is missed, here’s the short paraphrase:
If you can convince the poor white man that he is better than ANY black man you can keep him on your side even though he remains poor.
This is how the South conned millions of poorer white people to support a war for slavery and racism even though most of those poor southerners did not have the means to own slaves themselves. The lowliest white man is superior to any black man. This is what white supremacy is all about.
It’s also what today’s Republican party is all about. As an Abraham Lincoln scholar I began noticing the overt rise of this philosophy back in 2007 when Barack Obama was running for President. The “tea party” came out of the woodwork, arguing that they were like the patriots who threw tea into Boston Harbor in 1773. After someone pointed out that they had the historical reference backwards (the British had actually given tax breaks to a huge British tea corporation and tried to make the populace pay for it), the “tea party” invented a backronym “T.E.A” to suggest “taxed enough already.” Besides being dishonest, it was ridiculously false. The Obama-pushed stimulus bill (officially the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) had just given substantive tax breaks to 95% of Americans, so “taxed enough already” was a ruse.
So what was the real reason for the growth of the “tea party,” which subsequently took over the entire Republican party, which is now the “Trump party”?
Robert Reich, who formerly worked in the administrations of Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton, put it this way when talking about bullying behavior:
Trump used this anger [i.e., working class whites upset over being left behind by the economic recovery] to build his political base, channeling the frustrations and anxieties into racism and nativism. He encouraged Americans who have been bullied to feel more powerful by bullying people with even less power: poor blacks, Latinos, immigrants, Muslims, families seeking asylum.
Keep in mind that Trump is a billionaire who got that way because he father gave him hundreds of millions of dollars in cash and connections when Trump was a toddler, then more when he was a teenager, then even more as a twenty-something. He’s been a terrible money-manager. He’s also thoroughly corrupt, a misogynist, and his only intellectual capability (according to his own cabinet and co-workers) is knowing how to swindle people. Hardly the kind of guy you would turn to if you were angry at the current economic system. Trump immediately put in place “his best people,” i.e., billionaires who have been caught swindling the public treasury and destroying human health and worker protections while immediately increasing the public debt by over 1.5 Trillion Dollars. Huge tax breaks were given to the 1% while tiny tax breaks to normal people were immediately negated by increased costs and plans to water down social security, Medicare, and other programs that benefit 95% of Americans (and which the 1% don’t need so don’t care about).
Think about that. The Republican party and Trump have done exactly what we expected them to do – steal from the working and middle class and give to the rich and the corporations. There simply is no honest way to rationalize putting such people in power based on the “taxed enough already” talking point. Rich people got richer, the non-rich white people who voted them into power got poorer. And they will get poorer still when the Republican party follows through on its promise to disband programs that help workers, the middle class, and the poor, all while increasing the profits of the very rich.
The above might seem to be an aside, but it isn’t. The Republican party and Trump always favor the rich and take away from the rest of us. Always. Proven over the last 30+ years. This isn’t a secret. This is what they always do. The Democratic party, while it has had it’s share of historical embarrassments, has for those last 30-50 years been the party of the working class and the middle class. Without the hard work of the Democrats and activists, the economic position of the middle and working classes would be even worse. The actions taken by the Republican party since they gained power in all three branches of government has proven that they always hurt the working and middle classes and the poor while grossly benefitting the very rich, all at taxpayers expense and while Republicans run up the national debt. Abraham Lincoln, who would be considered way too liberal and progressive for today’s far right “conservative” movement, pointed out the problem with the “divine right of kings” such as the corporate and billionaire classes that the Republican party currently represents: “You toil and work to earn bread, and I’ll eat it.” This is today’s Republican party.
So if the economic rationale for the majority of white people voting Republican is invalid, and it is, then why did working and middle class whites vote for the party that cares only about the 1% and against the party that cares about 95% of Americans?
See John C. Calhoun.
Now, I want to thank the few privileged white people who have bothered to read this far. That shows intellectual and personal honesty on your part. Many white people stopped reading long ago. Many would get to the Calhoun quote, swear that they are not racist or bigoted in the slightest way, and run away without reading or thinking any more about it. I see this in any discussion, where “conservatives” refuse to have an honest discussion. I see this in social media, where people who once thought government debt, playing golf, lying, and any hint of improper conduct was grounds for immediate attack, yet now either say they aren’t important or conveniently ignore these formerly abhorrent atrocities as not worth comment. Talk about a double standard.
For the record, I’m not calling all white people racist. But some of us are. Maybe even the majority of us. Ah, but you’re not, you insist. You have a black friend, or a Muslim friend, or know someone who is Hispanic. You’re not racist. You’ve never ever said anything remotely racist.
True. Maybe. At least not overtly. But racism isn’t just about screaming obscenities at minorities (be it racial, religious, economic, gender, preference, political, whatever). You don’t have to march with Nazis or the KKK to be a racist. Sometimes you just have to be white and believe that you’ve achieved all you’ve ever achieved on your own and that if others (“others”) would just apply themselves and work harder they could achieve their dreams too. I know many of us think this because many of us have said this. Repeatedly.
See the problem with this? As a white man growing up in a white world I wasn’t arrested just for walking down the street. I wasn’t pulled over just for driving a nice car. I wasn’t followed around stores. I never felt that the job I didn’t get was because everyone who worked there was white and I wasn’t. I wasn’t tossed out of college for having a bad semester. No one questioned my capabilities because I didn’t go to Harvard. [Okay, this one might have happened.] No one assumed the worst simply because I wasn’t white, or was overtly non-Christian.
My point is that we, as whites, especially white men, live in a white-majority world in which the default value is white, Christian, and largely, male. Everything else is devalued. White Christian males have had the power in this nation since its inception (whether that Christianity is true faith or faked for personal benefit). Not only the power, but the forced “inferiorism” of non-white, non-Christian, and still to some extent today, non-male. The entire society is set up to benefit, or at least privilege, white men. That same society devalues and disadvantages non-whites and non-Christians. It isn’t always overt, and sometimes not even intentional, but it is there. Meanwhile, despite priviledge cries to the contrary, there is no attack on white men, no attack on Christians. None. All non-whites want is for the “all men are created equal” and the U.S. Constitution to apply equally to them. “They” aren’t taking any rights from us, “they” are simply asking that those same rights guaranteed to them by the Constitution in theory, be accepted in practice.
Back to John C. Calhoun. Calhoun and the white aristocracy of the South had for many decades threatened secession from the Union. The entire reason for those threats, and eventual secession, was to protect and expand slavery. They admit it. The Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens explicitly stated that the Confederacy was all about white superiority and subjugation of the black man. Every seceded state stated as their rationale for breaking their constitutional bond with the Union the desire to protect slavery and keep the “inferior” in their place. The Confederate constitution was a carbon copy of the U.S. Constitution except that it explicitly added their belief that slavery was right and that whites were superior to blacks. Those were the only changes. They were fine with the guaranteed rights; they just wanted those rights to apply only to white men. The Confederacy was explicitly focused on the principles of slavery and white superiority. [It certainly wasn’t “states’ rights” since slaveholding states were actively trying to violate the rights of other states, not to mention they invalidated states’ rights even within their own confederacy.] Any suggestion that the Confederacy wasn’t born of racism and treason is false, as proven by the words of the Confederacy itself.
So Calhoun argued that “they” (the slaveowners, aristocrats of the South, like-minded racist of the North) must band together against “them” (black slaves, abolitionists, “black Republicans”) to protect their white superiority.
To this day the white middle class and the white worker class and the “evangelical Christians” often vote against their core beliefs and their best interests. Most white women do the same. They do so because being white is still considered more beneficial than being non-white. And without any sense of the irony, they do so while claiming that being white provides no special benefit.
I grew up white Christian in an almost universally white Christian small town in New England. I spent most of my career working in professional companies whose professional staff was almost all white. I attended scientific and history conferences that were largely white, although some diversity has begun to creep in over the last decade. Not once did I ever think of myself as privileged. And yet this last decade has repeatedly proven me blinded by my own privilege as reality demonstrated that very fact. I know now that if I hadn’t been white or hadn’t been Christian I could have easily ended up facing the same societally-enforced restrictions and biases that non-white, non-Christians have been facing for the entire duration of this country.
I love this country and I have no intention of moving elsewhere. I’ve traveled to many others, including countries that Americans have historically hated (at least until our recent love affairs with our biggest enemies), and the complaints we whine about here pale in comparison to real issues in some of those other places. This is my country, and to borrow the phrase bastardized by racists, I want my country back again.
Not the country where whites can lynch non-whites. I want the country that believes in “all men (and women) are created equal.” I want the country where the U.S. Constitution applies to ALL Americans, whether they were born here or moved here. I want the country where we all, as Abraham Lincoln said, have an equal “right to rise.”
From Robert Reich again:
This bullying game has been played repeatedly in history, by self-described strongmen who pretend to be tribunes of the oppressed by scapegoating the truly powerless.
Trump is no tribune of the people. He and his enablers in the Republican Party are working for the moneyed interests — the Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson and other corporate and Wall Street chieftains — by cutting their taxes, eliminating regulations, slashing public services and allowing them to profit off public lands, coastal waters and privatized services.
To overcome this bullying game we need those with common gripes to band together, their combined power enough to create meaningful change. American workers did this when they formed unions to fight for better working conditions (e.g., getting rid of child labor, insisting on health and safety protections, achieving reasonable pay and work weeks). Likewise, American women did this to gain the right to vote, to become educated, to hold jobs. Now workers are being left behind again as billionaires are given tax breaks for pushing paper around the back room of banks while not creating any actual jobs here at home. The days of making money by building bigger factories are gone; now the rich make money by shipping jobs overseas or, even more likely, by trading derivatives that have huge upside to them while putting the risk largely on the American people. Giving more money to the rich doesn’t create jobs, it diminishes them. Republicans know this (it has been proven over several decades and repeated failures) but they lie to the American people anyway because it helps the very rich, who donate billions to Republican politicians.
So we must disavow Calhoun and Trump’s philosophies. Our economic enemies are not our fellow workers, be they white, black, brown, Muslim, immigrants, or refugees. Our enemies are the plutocrats who now own all three branches of government. And we don’t defeat them by disparaging government itself; we do so by getting rid of the party that has a proven track record of caring only for the 1% economically, and the white supremacists socially. We do so by getting rid of the party that engages in corruption and Anti-Americanism. The party that aggressively acts to reduce the number of people voting through unconstitutional gerrymandering, illegal voter suppression tactics, and intimidation.
Every election counts. Make sure you are registered. Make sure you vote.
[P.S. I’m not a Democrat, so don’t try to write this off as some sort of partisan screed. I would love to spend my time arguing with Democrats about this issue or that (as I have done in the past), but the Republican party has so institutionalized dishonesty, corruption, and Anti-Americanism that we can’t have the honest discussion we need to have. It’s time for all of us – especially us white men (and women) to be honest with ourselves and with our country.]
David J. Kent is an avid science traveler and the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, in Barnes and Noble stores now. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.