The “Vast Carelessness” of White America

The gulf between our dream and the realities that we live with is something we do not understand and do not want to admit.

James Baldwin, “Lockridge: ‘The American Myth,'” 1948

Myrtle Wilson mangled and left for dead in the middle of the road, Jay Gatsby’s gold Rolls Royce driven by Daisy Buchanan disappearing into the night.

Gatsby face down and dead in his opulent pool with George Wilson, Gatsby’s murderer, nearby, also dead at his own hand.

These are the images that resonant with me from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby—juxtaposed with these words by narrator Nick Carraway:

I couldn’t forgive [Tom] or like him, but I saw that what he had done was, to him, entirely justified. It was all very careless and confused. They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made….

Fitzgerald’s so-called American classic, what some call the Great American Novel, is an incredibly dark work that mostly paints America as a soulless white nation of “vast carelessness.”

While I cannot claim Fitzgerald omits black America on purpose to make a point, the absence of blacks among the decadence of Gatsby’s obsessions beside Nick’s mesmerized impotence as well as Tom and Daisy’s carelessness remains a powerful commentary on the state of this nation in 2017.

Myrtle, George, and Gatsby are sacrificed on the alter of the American Dream and material wealth. While Tom and Daisy directly and indirectly are agents in this tragedy, they mostly survive unscathed.

America today has chosen not to address the rendered invisible—black America in Fitzgerald and directly addressed in Ralph Ellison—or the working class/ poor personified by the delusions of Myrtle and George, but to embrace and worship Tom, privileged white supremacist (in many ways now echoed by Trump):

“Civilization’s going to pieces,” broke out Tom violently. “I’ve gotten to be a terrible pessimist about things. Have you read ‘The Rise of the Colored Empires’ by this man Goddard? … Well, it’s a fine book, and everybody ought to read it. The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be—will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved.” [1]

Noticeably less celebrated, sitting beside Fitzgerald’s “vast carelessness” of white America was Langston Hughes:

Being me, it will not be white.
But it will be
a part of you, instructor.
You are white—
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
That’s American.
Sometimes perhaps you don’t want to be a part of me.
Nor do I often want to be a part of you.
But we are, that’s true!
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me—
although you’re older—and white—
and somewhat more free. (“Theme for English B”)

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak….

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet… (“Let America Be America Again”)

Decades after Hughes and many years after the Civil Rights movement, James Baldwin made a powerful and pointed observation:

Every white person in this country—and I do not care what he or she says—knows one thing. They may not know, as they put it, “what I want,’ but they know they would not like to be black here. If they know that, then they know everything they need to know, and whatever else they say is a lie. (On Language, Race and the Black Writer, Los Angeles Times, 1979)

Several years before that, Baldwin also confronted white America:

The truth is that the country does not know what to do with its black population now that the blacks are no longer a source of wealth, are no longer to be bought and sold and bred, like cattle; and they especially do not know what to do with young black men, who pose as devastating a threat to the economy as they do to the morals of young white cheerleaders. It is not at all accidental that the jails and the army and the needle claim so many, but there are still too many prancing about for the public comfort. (“No Name in the Street,” 1972)

The “vast carelessness” of white America in 2017 includes white denial of racism as well as outlandish claims that somehow white America is under attack.

The truth remains, as Hughes and Baldwin observed, white America would never trade being white for being black—considering the state of racial inequity now:

What this report finds: Black-white wage gaps are larger today than they were in 1979, but the increase has not occurred along a straight line. During the early 1980s, rising unemployment, declining unionization, and policies such as the failure to raise the minimum wage and lax enforcement of anti-discrimination laws contributed to the growing black-white wage gap. During the late 1990s, the gap shrank due in part to tighter labor markets, which made discrimination more costly, and increases in the minimum wage. Since 2000 the gap has grown again. As of 2015, relative to the average hourly wages of white men with the same education, experience, metro status, and region of residence, black men make 22.0 percent less, and black women make 34.2 percent less. Black women earn 11.7 percent less than their white female counterparts. The widening gap has not affected everyone equally. Young black women (those with 0 to 10 years of experience) have been hardest hit since 2000.

Why it matters: Though the African American experience is not monolithic, our research reveals that changes in black education levels or other observable factors are not the primary reason the gaps are growing. For example, just completing a bachelor’s degree or more will not reduce the black-white wage gap. Indeed the gaps have expanded most for college graduates. Black male college graduates (both those with just a college degree and those who have gone beyond college) newly entering the workforce started the 1980s with less than a 10 percent disadvantage relative to white college graduates but by 2014 similarly educated new entrants were at a roughly 18 percent deficit.

Race, gender, and social class inequity remains persistent in the U.S.—matched in resilience only by the “vast carelessness” of white America, refusing to acknowledge and thus act in any way to end the ill-gotten advantages of white privilege, and as Hughes implored, “Let America be America again./ Let it be the dream it used to be.”

Four decades ago, Baldwin recognized the failure of American politics, also victim to the “vast carelessness” of white America: “There is a carefully muffled pain and panic in the nation, which neither candidate, neither party, can coherently address, being, themselves, but vivid symptoms of it” (“A Review of Roots,” 1976).

Spoken today, these words send the same relevant message that partisan politics cannot save us because partisan politics is part of the problem.

White America must shed its “vast carelessness,” its commitment to our dark and sordid Tom core.

Otherwise, white America embraces callously the carnage by a free people who lack a soul, the nightmare instead of the dream.


[1] Late in the novel, when the tension among Tom, Daisy, and Gatsby reaches a climax, Tom, the scientific racist and adulterer, becomes self-righteous:

“Self control!” repeated Tom incredulously. “I suppose the latest thing is to sit back and let Mr. Nobody from Nowhere make love to your wife. Well, if that’s the idea you can count me out…. Nowadays people begin by sneering at family life and family institutions and next they’ll throw everything overboard and have intermarriage between black and white.”

The hypocrisy mixed with Tom’s racism creates even more tension, broken momentarily by Jordan: “‘We’re all white here,’ murmured Jordan.”

A seemingly minor comment by a minor character resonates today as not only the historical view in America but the mantra of the rise of white nationalism today.

Advertisements

One thought on “The “Vast Carelessness” of White America

  1. Pingback: The Lingering, and Powerful, Legacy of "Scientific Racism" in America - Garn Press

Comments are closed.