On Wednesday night, as the world learned about allegations of domestic violence against presidential aide Rob Porter, pundits and politicians from across the political spectrum focused on White House chief of staff John Kelly’s defense of Porter and Kelly’s recent comments about the laziness of immigrants.
The sentiments of the wide-eyed people perplexed by the Marine general’s behavior can be summed up by MSNBC political analyst John Heilemann on Tuesday’s episode of The Last Word With Lawrence O’Donnell. Heilemann said that Kelly’s recent actions exposed a “certain cultural and racial simpatico-ness with Donald Trump.” A few seconds later, national security expert Mieke Ouyang added:
But the thing that’s most disappointing to me about John Kelly in all of this is that I have known him my entire career. And I’ve always thought of him as a man of integrity who would not tolerate this kind of violence ... and watching him do this, I’m not quite sure who he’s become.
It is apparent who John Kelly has become. The Caucasian confusion is only because he is now unencumbered by the restrictions of his old uniform and the protocol of the U.S. military. He has not changed. He has become an unfiltered version of who he has always been:
John Kelly is a white man.
I know what you’re thinking: “OK, this is the part where Michael Harriot uses whiteness, and white men in particular, as a metaphor for Trump supporters, racists or how Caucasians, in general, have unmasked themselves in the Trumpian era. He will now equate Kelly with the cold, unfeeling audacity of whiteness and its unrelenting need for power and control, even if it achieves it by crushing the windpipes of any opposition. If sunshine is a metaphor for truth and freedom, then Kelly represents the cool, dark malevolence of whitemannery. Go on, Michael.”
Nah, B. This ain’t no metaphor.
I hate to use the phrase, but it is what it is. To expect some level of noblesse or unwavering integrity from him or any other white man is foolish. It ignores the example of history. I wish there were a more complex, nuanced meaning that I could extrapolate from this, but it’s too uncomplicated to muddy with similes. The simplest explanation is always the most likely, and he is doing what white men do. He is doing what white men have always done. He is a man. He is white. Case closed.
When Kelly assumed his role as chief of staff, from the way in which political analysts confidently explained how the decorated war hero would bring order and logic to the White House, I assumed that the Trump administration had mastered a secret DNA-altering process that would transform Kelly into something other than what he was. Men who have honor or integrity don’t willingly get in bed with the devil.
Yet Kelly left mouths agape when he blatantly lied on Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.) after she revealed Trump’s crass treatment of the widow of war hero La David Johnson. He called Wilson an “empty barrel.” People could not believe that Kelly cast aside his credibility to dishonor a veteran, a widow and an elected official for the sake of politics.
Where the hell have those people been? Maybe I’m the one who’s delusional, but I can’t recall a single point in history when white men haven’t willingly thrown a black woman under an oncoming bus and willingly changed history to make themselves look better. Have they forgotten about the white men who called the cops on Rosa Parks, bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church or dragged Sandra Bland across the concrete?
When has a white man ever given a damn about a black woman’s feelings, well-being or life? Can you name one incident when they have not been willing to lie and manipulate history to sidestep any responsibility on their part?
When Kelly said, in an October 2017 interview, that Robert E. Lee was an “honorable man,” people thought that Kelly’s background as a student of military history should have precluded him from making such an idiotic statement.
John Kelly grew up in Boston. He has no ties to the South and is supposedly a patriot and a scholar. There is only one thing that could possibly give Kelly the warm and fuzzies about a traitor to the country he spent his career serving. One thing, and one thing only, connects him to the national assortment of Confederate sympathizers and rebel-flag wavers.
I don’t know if I said this earlier, and I don’t feel like hitting the scroll bar, but have I mentioned that John Kelly is a white man?
White men have the privilege of disregarding facts that show undocumented immigrants work harder, commit fewer crimes and pay more in taxes. Black and brown people don’t have the means or the need to create alternate versions of history or trade in demeaning stereotypes. When Kelly the Creator disparaged immigrants as “lazy,” it was a luxury only white men are afforded.
And none of this is to say that John Kelly wants to travel around the country lopping off the heads of Negroes, Mexicans and Muslims, just as there is no indication that Kelly ever possessed an unusual amount of the virtue and integrity for which he is so often attributed.
He didn’t set aside his principles when he joined the Trump administration; he has always been this guy. He has always been the recipient of the respect and admiration that any stone-faced white guy in a starched white shirt is accorded. That’s essentially what privilege is: dignity by default.
Kelly’s military career is laudable because he led brave men who defended this country. But his current career of leading a xenophobic group of racists intent on tearing this country apart is equally important. Neither of those facts means that Kelly is uniquely special or worthy of praise.
He’s just white.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly attributed to White House chief of staff John Kelly a tweet regarding Jay-Z and Beyoncé. The tweet was from a parody account.