The white guy was looking up at the TV in a rest stop on the Jersey Turnpike. Onscreen, the news was showing John Lewis speaking at the anniversary of the March on Washington. "I am not going to stand by and let the Supreme Court take the right to vote away from us," Lewis said. The white guy in the rest stop glared at the TV, then looked around the dining space. What's he TALKING about? he asked his family or the air, the world around him. He was seething; he wanted to be heard. He HAS the right to vote.
His kids—three of them, dark blond—kept eating their fast food. His female companion said nothing. His angry, stupid, would-be-superior observation hung in the air, useless.
Maybe it made the white guy feel better, talking back to the old black man on the television set. Who knows what makes white people feel better, these days? Laura Ingraham, the white radio host, cut off a clip of Lewis' remarks with a gunshot sound effect, after spending the lead-in talking about the problem of black criminality. "Did anyone talk about the horrific crime rate in the black community?" the white radio host asked, celebrating the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's call for an America in which black and white people could be counted as one community.
White people have to make judgments. Their status as white people depends on making judgments. This is why black criminality is a big topic with them these days. It is how they have decided to resolve the problem of an unarmed teenager having been shot to death while walking home. Statistically, white people say, it makes sense to shoot a teenager if he's black. Or at least it makes sense to be prepared to shoot the black teenager.
It is a perilous world, the world white people inhabit. Murder and rioting are always just around the corner, lurking in the shadows. White people have been killing trees and clearing farmland for decades to get away from that corner, to build streets that don't even have corners. And still the white people are angry and afraid. Still they feel threatened or cheated.
This is 90 years after H.L. Mencken diagnosed the "hereditary cowardice" of Americans who identified as "Anglo-Saxon" and wrote:
The normal American of the "pure-blooded" majority goes to rest every night with an uneasy feeling that there is a burglar under the bed, and he gets up every morning with a sickening fear that his underwear has been stolen.
In the intervening years, the white American race has expanded its boundaries beyond self-styled Anglo-Saxons and Nordics to include such formerly inferior or untrustworthy strains as the Irish, the Italians, or even the Jews. But the fundamentally defective character of white Americans has not changed; if anything, it has gotten worse.
Because white people ruin everything, they have spent the past week particularly focused on ruining the legacy of the March on Washington (with a brief interlude to ruin twerking). The March, in white people's recounting, was when Martin Luther King Jr. brought hundreds of thousands of people to Washington D.C. and told them to stop making a big deal about race.
Pulitzer Prize winner Kathleen Parker, of the Washington Post, offered the standard white take on history last week, in her column about how black people are prone to rioting and how President Obama was irresponsible to rile them up about the Trayvon Martin case:
How sad, as we approach the 50th anniversary of the march Martin Luther King Jr. led on Washington, that even the president resorts to judging not by the content of one's character but by the color of his skin—the antithesis of the great dream King articulated.
How sad. White people, like Kathleen Parker, are sad that the president should mention skin color. Laura Ingraham likewise invoked King's mention of "character," to launch into her discussion of the crime rates assigned to groups of people classified by their skin color. White people hammer at this over and over, King's "great dream" of a color-blind America, a dream that is only being thwarted now by the people who insist on talking about racial issues.
Here is what King actually said, in this one quote of his that today's white people take as proof he was on their side:
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
When white people cite this passage, they tend to replace "my four little children" with something generic—"people," for instance. The specific facts of 1963, of a caste of children born in a society that intentionally excluded them from opportunity, give way to an ahistoric (and therefore pointless) idealism. America is about how everybody is treated the same. Equality is replaced with equivalence.
So we arrive at a color-blind society, one in which if you did look at the people who are poorer, or less educated, or sicker, or more likely to be imprisoned, or more likely to be turned aside from the polls under voting laws passed this very year, you would see that they just happen to be disproportionately nonwhite. But it is wrong to look. Dr. King—the white people's version of Dr. King—told us so.
The genuine Martin Luther King Jr., 50 years ago, said this:
When the architects of our Republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men—yes, black men as well as white men—would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds."
But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we've come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.
Here is where white Americans failed themselves and their country. That image of the promissory note was too much for white people's greed and selfishness to accept. White people had defined themselves, as a race, by having the things that other people could not have. So the vaults of opportunity would not be opened, not without white people staging a run on the bank first. If the public schools had to educate black children and white children together, the white people would get out of the schools, declare war on the whole idea of public school. If black people could participate in civic life, white people would clear out of the cities. White people would revolt against paying taxes, against poverty relief, against food stamps, even.
And then, after decades of this, white people would look back at the things white America had abandoned or refused to build, and they would blame black people for living in the ruins. Their character. Their culture. Their music. Their pants.
Yet white people are still afraid: of young men in hoodies; of being blamed for their fear of young men in hoodies. Of reverse racism. Of armies of fake voters, bent on electing white-hating militants. Of sharia law. Of mild ethnic putdowns. Of the New Black Panther Party. Of one tiny and absurd thing after the next.
What white people fear, at bottom, is retribution. This is why discussion of actual injustice is supposed to be off-limits. Despite the glorious principles spelled out 50 years ago on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, they lack a functioning concept of justice. To admit the harms of the past is to invite payback. When Andrew Breitbart raised a race panic over Shirley Sherrod, the real issue was that he and his followers were incapable of understanding Sherrod's story of transcending racial resentment. They were too trapped by rage and paranoia to get the point.
Who wants to be part of this degraded and ignorant culture? Whiteness is a dead end. It's trashing the apartment after receiving the eviction notice. White people are so confused and terrified by regular America and American values, they now openly argue against letting more people vote. They write incoherent passages like this, from the National Review, reflecting on its original opposition to the March on Washington:
Too many conservatives and libertarians, including the editors of this magazine, missed all of this at the time. They worried about the effects of the civil-rights movement on federalism and limited government. Those principles weren’t wrong, exactly; they were tragically misapplied, given the moral and historical context.
Who could put it better that that? White people weren't wrong, exactly, unless you mean that they were wrong in the light of history and morality—in which case, yes, white people were wrong, and remain wrong, and seem bent on staying that way.
Why do so many white people have to be like this? Watch the video of King's speech. Fifty years ago, white people were in the March. But the pathologies of whiteness persisted.
When you say this, if you're white, white people like to call it "white guilt." The implication is that there is something hypocritical and shameful about pointing out the failings of white America, after having profited from its advantages. I step to the curb and raise my arm, and three taxis pull over at once. So I should share in the anger of the white guy at the rest stop.
But the white guy at the rest stop is an asshole. This isn't white guilt; it's white blame. It's infuriating that he expects anyone to agree with him, in his willful ignorance, his disingenuousness amped up to rage. As a white person, I want him to shut up.
[Image by Jim Cooke, source photos via Getty/Shutterstock]