How White Rage Led to the Federal Shutdown

Reps. Paul Ryan, Eric Cantor and Dave Camp (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Reps. Paul Ryan, Eric Cantor and Dave Camp (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

A "small group of congressman who represent a lily-white, neo-Confederate nation" have caused the government shutdown, writes Andrew O'Hehir at Salon magazine. Their frustration can be attributed to a "white rage and white derangement" about America's changing racial landscape.

Statistics and recent electoral history paint a deceptive picture of an increasingly diverse society that mostly appears harmonious, despite worsening economic inequality: White births are now a minority, the white majority population continues to shrink toward 50 percent, and a moderate biracial Democrat has been comfortably elected president twice, winning several previously conservative states. But a great many white people, more than anyone really wants to admit, find these facts profoundly troubling. They have been pandered to for generations by conservative politicians who assured them that their mythological vision of a white-picket-fence, exurban America was more authentic than anyone else's. I remember covering George H.W. Bush on the campaign trail in 1992 – the son of a senator and Wall Street banker, raised in Greenwich, Conn., and educated at Phillips Andover and Yale – when his stump speech included lines about "rural America, real America."

Of course "real America" hasn't been rural since the 19th century, and white panic about the changing nature of American society goes clear back to "No Irish Need Apply," the "gentleman's agreement" that barred Jews from elite universities and the housing covenants that prevented black families from moving to the suburbs even in states where there was never legal segregation. (F. Scott Fitzgerald specifically mocks this racial paranoia in the character of Tom Buchanan in "The Great Gatsby," published in 1925.) Every time we suppress that stuff in American life, it comes boiling back up in a different form, and the government shutdown strikes me as a long-delayed sequel to Pickett's Charge, a self-appointed and doomed crusade on behalf of White America, flipping the multicultural usurpers the double-handed bird as it burns down the house. It would almost be noble, if it weren't evil and pathetic and damaging.

As my colleague Joan Walsh has repeatedly observed, the racial subtext of American politics in 2013 — and hell, it's the text, not a subtext — is impossible to miss, but every time you bring it up you get lambasted by the right as a race-baiter.


Read Andrew O'Hehir's entire piece at Salon magazine. 

The Root aims to foster and advance conversations about issues relevant to the black Diaspora by presenting a variety of opinions from all perspectives, whether or not those opinions are shared by our editorial staff.

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