Many Americans are struck by how politics has taken such a sharp turn toward the openly racist since the election of the nation's first black president. Some Republicans have distributed cartoons depicting watermelon patches growing at the White House, and the president smiling with fried chicken and barbecue. One prominent South Carolina GOP activist even called the first lady a gorilla.
But I am also struck by how much the right has relied on outright fabrication of the country's history by insisting that institutionalized racism hardly ever existed. The right generally insists that white racism has no real effect on people's lives in the U.S., while exploiting racial fears and pernicious racial stereotypes with coded and not-so-coded language. The only "discrimination" is that directed against whites, pundits often argue. In fact, white Americans in general believe that whites suffer more discrimination today than African Americans do, according to a study released this May.
Many whites believe that blacks are hired and promoted and get home loans easier than whites because of "racial preferences." Some even argue that the criminal justice system is soft on black people. One white nationalist website complains that because of the civil rights movement, "all [black criminals] have to worry about is a slap on the wrist from a judicial system that couldn't care less about White victims."
What is remarkable about these "facts" is how far they are from the truth. Studies find that with identical résumés, those with "white sounding" names have a 50 percent higher response rate from prospective employees than do those with "black sounding" names. Whites on average outearn Latinos and blacks, with or without controlling for education.
Since the Great Recession, average white net wealth has increased to 18 times that of Latinos and 20 times that of African Americans. The Latino unemployment rate is about 40 percent that of whites, while the African-American rate is 100 percent higher. Whites and blacks consume illegal drugs at similar rates, but whites are less likely than blacks to be stopped by the police, arrested or convicted — or to receive prison time once convicted — even for first-time offenders of the same crime.
Michele Bachmann, Master Manipulator
So what accounts for this wildly inaccurate worldview of white racial subjugation and black domination? How can it be argued that "minorities are taking over"? Part of this paranoia is grounded in the ways in which the right cultivates a mythic landscape of current racial politics, as well as the careful — or careless — manipulation of history. One of the master manipulators is GOP presidential hopeful Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota.
Earlier this year she told an audience that the United States, at its founding, was a bastion of fairness and opportunity for "different cultures, different backgrounds, different traditions." She went on to say (in an awkward sort of way) that the U.S. was a "resting point from people groups all across the world. It didn't matter the color of their skin … [or] language … or economic status." She was on a roll: "Once you got here, we were all the same." Even assuming that she was talking only about the men, I still say, uh, no.
But wait; what about slavery? Her answer: "The very founders that wrote [the Constitution] worked tirelessly until slavery was no more." Hmmm. Wrong again. In fact, not only did the Founding Fathers not work tirelessly to end slavery, but most were wealthy because of slavery. More than half of them amassed great wealth on the backs of the thousands of people whom they enslaved.
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.