While life and familiarity have, for the most part, left me unfazed by the audacity of whiteness, there are times when I am still awestruck by its reckless cockiness. How it can feel nostalgic about slavery and wax poetic over wickedness. How it dances in the middle of the ballroom floor, twirling on top of recently-stomped shards of skulls, yelling to the astonished onlookers: “Look at my death dance! Why aren’t you clapping?”
Or, as my uncle told me last week while puffing on a Newport 100 (I can’t verify the Newport part, as it was over the phone but still, I’m positive it was menthol-flavored): “A white man will slit your throat and blame you for bloodying his knife.”
It is simultaneously extraordinary and unremarkable. It is, at once, nauseatingly marvelous.
So when I read the headline for Wednesday’s opinion article in the New York Times, I figured it was probably a bad pun or something. Sure, it was titled: “Why We Miss the WASPs,” but even after the Twitter backlash, I figured it was all a misunderstanding. In my mind, there was no way the Times was referring to White, Anglo-Saxon Protestants.
Even after reading the tagline that said, “Their more meritocratic, diverse and secular successors rule us neither as wisely nor as well,” I still figured that my initial supposition was wrong. I decided to read it, hoping I was wrong, and that maybe the Times was really into insects now.
Plus, white people love puns.
First, I must applaud opinion writer Ross Douthat for managing to put himself at an arms-length distance from the opinions he espoused. Douthat employed the oft-used Fox News, Trumpian “people are saying ...” trick, essentially explaining that some white people think like this. Not him particularly—but some people.
The article can be basically summarized as such: The death of George H. W. Bush has caused many people not named Ross Douthat, but who also just happen to be white and firmly entrenched in the upper echelon of “the American caste system”—which he refers to as “the Establishment”—to mourn the time when the country was ruled by white men or, WASPs.
He describes the Bush nostalgia posited by respected, but decidedly not Douthat-ians, as a lament for the time that predates warring political factions, resentment of the first black president and the diversity of inclusion. It is a collective reminiscing back to the years before patrician New Englanders with Ivy League predecessors were replaced by people who actually knew things. In condensing his theorem, Douthat writes:
I think you can usefully combine these takes, and describe Bush nostalgia as a longing for something America used to have and doesn’t really any more — a ruling class that was widely (not universally, but more widely than today) deemed legitimate, and that inspired various kinds of trust (intergenerational, institutional) conspicuously absent in our society today.
Put simply, Americans miss Bush because we miss the WASPs—because we feel, at some level, that their more meritocratic and diverse and secular successors rule us neither as wisely nor as well.
In somehow channeling the subconscious pinings of non-Douthat white people (because, of course, he doesn’t think like that. He just somehow knows), Douthat writes eloquently about the bygone era of starched white shirts, wool suits and spaces where anyone who wasn’t white and male was banned from entry.
I must admit, this utopian Whitekanda sounds alluring in its dreamlike vanilla-ness. When Douthat describes “a spirit that trained the most privileged children for service, not just success, that sent men like Bush into combat alongside the sons of farmers and mechanics in the same way that it sent missionaries and diplomats abroad in the service of their churches and their country,” he manages to make colonization and a quest for world domination sound almost aspirational.
Even when Douthat reaches a murky conclusion that the nostalgia is (maybe) misguided or misplaced, he fails to call it what it is:
Setting aside the squalid ziplock bag of hippopotamus semen currently occupying the White House, Douthat never makes a single point that supports his argument that things are actually worse since the reins of America’s wagon train was supposedly (we’ll get to that later) snatched from the white man’s hands.
He doesn’t argue why things were better when white men were in charge. Instead, he just proclaims (through the proxy of his invisible strawman) that things were better simply because the Establishment was white.
The most notable marker for this idiotic but well-written display of white fragility occurs at the beginning of Douthat’s piece. And this is a point that should be made more often:
The only difference between Barack Obama and all of the “great” presidents is skin color. His administration had fewer scandals than any in recent history. He was as devoted a family man as any other previous commander in chief. He was an Ivy-leaguer. He was a legal scholar. And although some may denigrate the title of “community organizer,” it symbolizes a dedication to public service.
Obama was as uncontroversial, as stable and as “establishment” a president as any man in history. Take away his skin color and Obama was almost unremarkably qualified to be president. But he was black, so ... you know.
And while Douthat’s conveniently-summoned reminiscers notably ignored how the legitimate class of blue-bloods contributed to mass incarceration; a still-separate and not equal education system; wage disparity; a corporate oligarchy and everything that warranted even white people to declare that their country needed to be made “great again,” perhaps the most egregious willful ignorance embedded in his piece is one fact:
What the hell is there to miss?
Aside from a few IQ points, a hairline and a willingness to eschew dog whistles for simpler, more obvious rhetoric, how is Donald Trump any different from Ronald Reagan and George Bush? They are all white, Anglo Saxon and protestant.
Most black people (56 percent) thought Ronald Reagan was racist according to a 1986 poll from the Washington Post and ABC. According to Roper, fewer black people voted for Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984 (10 percent both times) than for Donald Trump in 2016 (12 percent). And like Donald Trump, the last real WASP president, George Bush, was elected by an overwhelmingly white majority.
The same WASPs are still in charge.
While the U.S. is 62 percent non-Hispanic white, Congress is still more than 80 percent white. The President is white. The Vice President is white. State legislatures are 85 percent white. Ninety-two percent of state governorships are held by white people. More than 95 percent of the Fortune 500 CEOs are white.
The only logical conclusion one can make is that, while white people are still in the driver’s seat, they don’t want anyone else in the car. It’s not just regurgitating that time you scored four touchdowns your senior year in high school. It’s more than recency bias or sentimentality.
It is a more erudite version of associating the Confederate flag with “southern culture.” It is wanting to “make America great again,” while being too genteel to wear a red baseball cap emblazoned with Times New Roman “MAGA.” The longing for WASP rule is latent bigotry masquerading as nostalgia.
Also, one can’t help but point out that this is a perfect example of the need for more black people in white newsrooms. I can’t believe that a black person at the New York Times didn’t see this piece before it was published and said: “I don’t know who needs to hear this, but Charles Blow did it better.”
Having said all of this, unlike some people, I do not think that articles like these should be censored because it “normalizes” white people’s subconscious racism. If it wasn’t for people like Ross Douthat, or the New York Times’ tap dancing, soft focus on a white supremacist, how else would we hear about the ice cream dreams of people who are too prim and proper to enunciate their racism?
Ninety-five percent of the racist screeds I come across are riddled with misspellings and grammatical errors. He represented well. Douthat did that.
But he could have at least owned his thesis instead of painting himself as a clairvoyant channeling the collective Caucasian anxiety into a wistful requiem for whiteness. Or maybe his weeping left him dehydrated and delirious.
Calm down, bruh.
Just wipe the blood off your knife.