How Conservative Myths Stoke Racial Fear

In the twisted right-wing version of history, whites are bias victims. Meanwhile, the poor get stiffed.

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Slavery was so essential that the Continental Congress deleted language that condemned the Atlantic slave trade from an early draft of Declaration of Independence. These architects of the Early Republic were loath to condemn the slave trade that had been so central to their wealth and the future wealth of their new nation. And after the American Revolution, almost every state enacted laws that prevented people of color from voting, serving on juries or testifying in court. The first federal law regarding immigration mandated that only "free white persons" could become U.S. citizens.

Thomas Jefferson, perhaps the most celebrated Founding Father, in his Notes on the State of Virginia, did not equivocate regarding his belief in white supremacy and the subjugation of black people, whom he regarded as "inferior to the whites in the endowments of both body and mind." He explained that their inferiority was "a powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people."

Yes, Federal Handouts for White Folks

When pressed to explain how she could say that the Founding Fathers "fought tirelessly" to end slavery, Bachmann offered up John Quincy Adams as proof. Again, wrong answer. John Quincy Adams was a child during the American Revolution, not a Founding Father. His father, John Adams, however, was actually one of the seven men who historians generally agree were Founding Fathers. He was also the only one of the first five presidents not to enslave people.

So what's so remarkable about Bachmann's wildly ahistorical proclamations? Essentially it's the ways in which she and others on the right promulgate pervasive myths about the legacy and current state of white privilege. Bachmann says that European immigrants "did not come here for the promise of a federal handout ... or a welfare payment." Instead, they came here for the "limitless opportunity" that the "most magnificent country" in history afforded them.

Well, actually, European immigrants did get special federal handouts in the form of white-only citizenship rights: Germans, Greeks, Jews, Irish, Poles and Italians were never barred from the "white only" military, voter rolls, juries or federal jobs, unlike people of color. Keep in mind that citizenship itself was limited to "free white persons." When more than 90 percent of black people were enslaved in the U.S., the Homestead Act of 1862 gave millions of acres of land to white immigrants. Yep, federal handouts.

There's no need to list the horrors of white supremacy from the Colonial era through the civil rights movement, but the more significant point -- that pundits are engaged in historical mythmaking -- should not be lost. It is an insidious and troublesome practice of politicians and firebrands who have relied on a mythic history of whites: as people who never got special treatment and did not get federal help but who now face hoards of lazy, welfare-recipient minorities who are undermining the essence of American democracy and civilization.

This myth is grafted onto a national political agenda that aims to constrict the very opportunities that have lifted millions of Americans out of poverty over the generations: public support of education, housing and health care expansion. The myth attempts to close doors to education and services that have benefited Americans across the country. It convinces working-class and poor whites that they must oppose legislation that seeks to address the particular challenges they face as a class.

Class is dangerously collapsed into a subtext of racial interests in which the political interests of "Joe the [white] Plumber" are seen as identical to the political interests of billionaires like Donald Trump and Rupert Murdoch instead of those of James the [black] Bus Driver. In the end, we witness a unique moment in human history in which the most ardent defenders of the rich happen to be the poor and working class, whose sole sense of confraternity rests on twisted history and nebulous notions of white racial victimhood and rage.

Jeffrey O.G. Ogbar is a professor of history and associate dean for the humanities in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Connecticut. He is author of Black Power: Radical Politics and African American Identity and Hip-Hop Revolution: The Culture and Politics of Rap.