Return of the 'Real' White People

The Democratic primary has unleashed some old forces and feelings that had largely disappeared from the public space. They were just in hibernation.

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I'm glad to see that real white people are back, the kind that justify the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's paranoia. For a while I assumed those kinds of white people had disappeared into the multiculti, Starbuck-sipping, bilingual, globe-trotting crowd that I routinely run across in our nation's capital—the kind you read about on Stuffwhitepeoplelike.com—the kind I mostly like.

But, now I know that the real white people were just on the down low. They had been stifled by political correctness, hushed into inarticulateness by an inability to use ethnic slurs and openly call a spade, well, a spade. The Democratic presidential contest has liberated them.

Once again, they're free to be authentic, and it has reminded me of why, growing up in the de facto segregated city of Dayton, Ohio, I was wary of strange white people, assuming them to be unpredictable and potentially violent. I didn't think of these people as inherently evil. I knew they were ordinary human beings, accustomed to a skin privilege they refused to—and continue to refuse—to acknowledge.

I was reminded of this not only by Hillary Clinton's reference in West Virginia, to "hard working Americans… white Americans" and the Robert F. Kennedy assassination justification—a slip of the tongue, part of the political game my Hillary-backing friends assure me—but also on a recent trip to Colorado.

In a Denver suburb, I observed a group of white Americans, men and women, discuss whether minorities and women still needed a boost to balance past exclusion from jobs and other opportunities. Were these laws relevant in an era where you have a white woman and an African-American man (technically, biracial, but we seem to have reverted to the "one drop" rule) vying to be the Democratic Party's presidential nominee?

These accountants, clerks, small businessmen, housewives and secretaries were lovers of the American myth of individualism: We all arrive where we are by dint of our own hard work. They were sure that's how they'd gotten where they were and their answer was a resounding "no" to any program that specifically targeted women and minorities.

Maybe these programs had been needed immediately after the bad old days of segregation and overt discrimination, but nobody needed them now. If people didn't succeed today, it was because they lacked drive, discipline, determination and goals.

Sure, we needed to help children; children didn't have any choice about their circumstances. But Michael Jordan's and Edward James Olmos' children certainly didn't need any assistance. As for women, there was billionaire Oprah Winfrey and Senator Clinton, a Democratic presidential contender, proof that women didn't need a push to get ahead.

Listening to these hard-working white Americans, I realized that they were throwbacks to the people, who five decades ago, opposed integration of schools, public transportation, housing, equal access to job opportunity—not overtly, but tacitly.

The men weren't blatant racists, like Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby, who reads Rise of the Colored Empire and rants that "the white race will be utterly submerged," by immigrants, Jews and Negroes. They were nice guys—they would help me, a black woman, put luggage in the overhead compartment of a plane if I were struggling—but they were also the same kind of fellows who once thought women should stick to being nurses and teachers. 

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