If ever there was a “teachable moment” about race in modern America, now is it. With the birthers and the reparations conspiracy theories and the Nazi imagery at health care meetings, someone’s gotta explain why all these white folks are wilding out. We need an articulate, impassioned race man to clarify things. But not Al Sharpton; I say pass the mic to Jim Webb.
Remember way back when Webb, a Democratic senator from Virginia and the voice of Appalachia’s neglected white yeoman, was sniffing around a veep nod? In the midst of that media moment, he hit on an idea we’d do well to dwell upon. “Black America and Scots-Irish America are like tortured siblings,” Webb patiently explained to Pat Buchanan in a May 2008 Morning Joe appearance on MSNBC. “There’s a saying in the Appalachian mountains. … ‘If you're poor and white, you’re out of sight.’”
Webb went from there into a bizarre attack on all the nonwhite and nonblack people who he believes have hijacked affirmative action. But his core message is deeply relevant to today’s tumult. Poor whites have always gotten screwed in America, Webb told us, and they’re terribly angry about it. Whoever directs that rage harnesses a powerful political tool.
Which brings us to both the profiteering right-wing media and the aimless Republican Party stuck in its tail wind. Both have decided their survival in America’s new multiracial reality depends upon a very old playbook: pursue narrow financial and political gain by exploiting the justified anxieties of working-class whites.
As a result, we all feel like we’re living through a Saturday Night Live skit. Each day brings another twisted punch line. More than half of Republicans aren’t convinced Obama’s a citizen? Huh? Fox host Glenn Beck actually attracts viewers by proclaiming Obama has “a deep-seated hatred of whites”? Health reform as Holocaust? Really?
Most commentators try to make sense of it by harking back to Nixon and the GOP’s “Southern strategy,” when it consolidated regional power by stoking reactionary fear of the civil rights movement. That’s true as far as it goes. But years earlier Martin Luther King described it more broadly. “The Southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow,” he explained, summing up the region’s history in a sentence. “And when his wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than a black man.”
The white aristocracy is still serving that gamy old bird. All that’s changed is the waiter. Gone are thugs like Bull Conner and the local elites whose power they protected. In are stooges like Beck and the corporate media elites they enrich. Rupert Murdoch may have decided that the feud between his guy Bill O’Reilly and MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann hurts News Corp.’s bottom line, but you’ll see no such restriction on demagoguery. And Rush Limbaugh brags that 2009 revenue is “through the roof.”
These loud-mouthed robber barons bedevil national Republicans. But the party knows the fear and anger they stoke is nonetheless as useful as ever in the heat of battle, because convincing poor whites to hurt themselves remains a powerful tool for blocking reform. The ugly mobs of GOP operatives-turned-grass-roots activists at this summer’s town hall meetings are only incidentally fighting health care reform. Their real purpose is to show how frustrated whites can direct their anger at Democrats. Feeling poor, white and out of sight? It’s because that black guy’s trying to reshape America without you. Get him!
Fox’s Glenn Beck said it best: “Everything that is getting pushed through Congress, including this health care bill, are transforming America, and they’re all driven by President Obama’s thinking on one idea: reparations.” And Limbaugh, back in November: “The objective is an expanding welfare state. And the objective is to take the nation’s wealth and return to it to the nation’s quote, ‘rightful owners.’ Think reparations. Think forced reparations.” (Your lips to God’s ears, Rush.)
That sounds absurd, but it’s a heck of a lot easier to assert than, say, explaining that a small, white aristocracy has spent centuries robbing America, poor whites included. Slavery made a tiny sliver of Southern whites extremely wealthy, while preventing most from making a living. Reconstruction floundered, at least in part, because lawmakers freaked out when white laborers started talking about getting rights, too. A century later, during the Bush years, worker productivity shot up 20 percent, the wealthiest 400 Americans became $670 billion wealthier—and median wages fell.
Webb wants Democrats to finally free the poor white mind from the grip of its self-defeating fear. “If this cultural group could get at the same table with black America, you could rechange populist American politics,” he told Morning Joe viewers. “Because they have so much in common in terms of what they need out of government.”
Webb wasn’t the first to make the point, but he’s been the only one to get away with it. In the 2004 primary, Howard Dean got maligned by fellow Dems for saying it; Obama tried and failed to make the point during the great “bitter” debate of 2008. The anxieties of poor whites have become the third rail of Democratic politics.
But Democrats cannot avoid the conversation. Indeed, poor white anxiety will only grow as the nation becomes ever more demonstrably multiracial. Either profiteering white elites like Limbaugh will whip them into violence, or someone will finally figure out how to build the populist coalition of Webb’s dreams.
Kai Wright is The Root’s senior writer.