Beware the Average White Man

Looking back on my youth, I lived through and enjoyed in pop culture both the Average White Band and The White Shadow—as a teen, without an ounce of critical awareness, and as an average white boy, without a clue of my own blinding privilege.

As I entered college, the Reagan revolution occurred, and I recall vividly being drawn to the allure of reverse racism, the vapid claim that white men were somehow then the victims of a multicultural and gender revolution.

Rapidly approaching 60, I am both ashamed and more fully aware of who I was in my youth—a person I reject entirely but witness daily in teenaged and early adult white guys that I teach. One first-year student just wrote an essay—one I could have written myself at his age—passionately arguing he is not privileged even though every single example he offered (white, male, affluent parents) confirmed his privilege. His argument also bemoaned the “new” definition of privilege, a garbled argument at best, and railed against his belief that those with privilege today are being “criminalized.”

Juxtaposing my youthful ignorance in the cocoon of privilege with this student’s same delusion more than three decades later while the US watches as a parade of powerful and famous (often white) men are exposed for truly inexcusable behavior toward women and girls speaks to a disturbing warning: beware average white men.

Next, I’d like to juxtapose Garrison Keillor to a truism that almost every black person has been told repeatedly in their youth:

For decades, black parents have told their children that in order to succeed despite racial discrimination, they need to be “twice as good”: twice as smart, twice as dependable, twice as talented. (Gillian B. White)

There’s one mantra many black parents drill into their children’s heads throughout their life: be twice as good. It goes that as black folks in America, we’ve got to work twice as hard to get half as far as our white counterparts. (Britni Danielle)

Work twice as hard to attain half as much—what a horrible way to navigate the world, so pervasive that entire communities teach this to their children.

Keillor is among the newly fallen—though his sin tempered as “improper behavior”—and like Al Franken, Richard Dreyfuss, and Matt Lauer, Keillor’s response is itself a hedge: “The story of his alleged misdeeds is ‘more interesting and more complicated than the version MPR heard,’ Keillor wrote.”

Among this new normal, these partial admissions among the Left stand in stark contrast to a Republican president elected in the wake of his own profane bragging about being a sexual predator and a Republican senate candidate receiving a standing ovation while visiting a church after being exposed for his own open secret—his predatory habits including girls as young as 14.

Myself white, male, and affluent/privileged in many ways grounded in those first two accidents of my birth—I am deeply burdened by the question that lies before us about the essential nature of men, of whiteness: Can these revelations about how many powerful men are monsters be traced to predispositions of being born a male, to some code engrained in whiteness (even as we know race is a social, not a biological, construct)?

I am afraid of the truth about being male, about the flawed consequences of being a creature driven by testosterone even with the capacity for reason, compassion, and ethical awareness.

I am terrified about the inability to determine cause and effect among the dynamics of being male, white, and powerful—that white men have disproportionate power may allow being white and male to be absolved, may allow us all to decry the corrosive impact of power.

It is that terror that brings me back to Keillor as much more illustrative of the converse of how blacks raise their children—twice as good, half as much: the average white man is allowed to be half as good to attain twice as much.

“I am disappointed in both reviews of Garrison Keillor’s anthology Good Poems (April 2004)—nearly as much as in the anthology itself,” wrote poet Rita Dove in 2005, explaining:

Keillor dedicates his compilation to “all the English Teachers (especially the great ones),” and yet he neglects one of the cardinal guidelines for today’s English curricula—to select material that reflects the multi-faceted fabric of our society. Lake Wobegon’s Norwegian bachelor farmers may have in their youth been deprived of the smorgasbord American culture has become, but I would hope that nowadays even kids from the tiniest hamlets in rural Minnesota are a bit more informed about Walt Whitman’s multitudes than Mr. Keillor’s selection would have us believe. Young minds—hell, all minds—are impressionable, and an anthology overwhelmingly populated by white poets is likely to send the message that only white folks deserve and/or are capable of writing “good poems.”

Dove’s last charge reminds me of religious traditions that suggest God created man in His own image— the sexist language and the arrogance.

Dove’s last charge reminds me of the much smaller scale but none the less arrogant self-aggrandizing of the New Criticism movement—white men with literary power who manufactured standards of great literature both to match the sort of work they created but also to keep the evaluative gaze on the text (and thus, not on the white-male-only club they were creating, and that Keillor shamelessly perpetuated).

Could anyone be more mediocre than Matt Lauer, who earned $25,000,000 a year? Maybe Keillor, the grand patron of mediocrity.

And how does a country elect Barack Obama (twice as hard, half as much) and then Donald Trump—a man who can only aspire to Lauer’s and Keillor’s mediocrity, a man buoyed by his father’s ill-gotten wealth and a culture that allows wealthy white men to excel despite their mediocrity and moral decadence.

Keillor may too easily be swept aside as a mostly harmless minor celebrity, a victim himself of his era when men’s behavior toward women was seen as part of a normal “consensual seduction ritual,” Dreyfuss’s own effort to excuse himself as simply being “the kind of performative masculine man my father had modeled for me to be.”

Sin’s of the father and all that.

But Keillor represents more than the existential fear all women and girls must fear from all men as potential physical and sexual threats; Keillor is the quintessential average white man who is half as much but reaps twice the benefits on the wave of his privileges.

And yet as the veneer is being peeled back from men as predatory monsters, average white men themselves are desperately asking what if things are going too far, what if all the men guilty of sexual assault and intimidation are held accountable.

Yes, what if? Reckoning is a frightening thing for the guilty, and each time I read about another man hedging for the accused and punished, I am reminded, with some due gender irony, “The lady protests too much, methinks.”

Today the white male student who wrote the ham-fisted essay about privilege conferenced with me about his essay, and I was struck by how even though he is identified as privileged, he is confronted with a different world than I was. In another first-year class, a black young woman came into class upset about Lauer; she immediately said she was disappointed.

Both of those students share a naive view of the world, one shaped by the very average white men afraid of an overdue purging.

Both of those students, I worry, are not really being offered the promises they deserve, and thus, what if all the average white men face their reckoning?

We can hope, I think, and we should.

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“But this is the way the world has always worked for me”

In his recurring role as White Man Who Doesn’t (Can’t?) Get It, Mike Golic held forth on ESPN’s Mike & Mike the morning after the Texans NFL team nearly unanimously knelt in protest of their owner comparing NFL players to prisoners.

Golic became impassioned about today’s political correctness and gushed that he just didn’t take the “inmates” comment as offensive.

What Golic doesn’t (can’t?) see, of course, is that the NFL is about 70% black professional athletes, and the mass incarceration system of the U.S.—the exact one initially protested by Colin Kaepernick—reflects a disturbing parallel: “Nearly three-quarters of federal inmates, 71.4%, are either of African American or Latino descent. That’s 37.6% and 33.8% respectively. The problem with this is that these two groups collectively only make up 21.3% of the entire population.”

What Golic doesn’t (can’t?) hear is that billionaire owner McNair’s analogy is just a thin veil for “can’t let the slaves run the plantation.”

This is the consequence of white male privilege that blinds and deafens.

During an otherwise casual afternoon, Mary* told a few friends about her experience as a babysitter when she was a few years away from 18. She travelled with a couple for whom she was their regular sitter to watch their child on their vacation.

Mary noted that the husband had been somewhat flirtatious, but she was mostly around the couple together. On this trip, however, Mary experienced her first time being drunk, but the husband’s flirtations in front of his wife while Mary was inebriated sparked a harsh reaction from the wife—while making Mary feel even more vulnerable than usual.

She added that because of the husband’s behavior, she was fired from the babysitting position.

“Huh,” Mary punctuated her story, “sexual assault”—thinking, it seemed, for the first time about the gravity of the incident.

A few years later, Mary found herself with a boyfriend who was physically violent, and she stayed in the relationship for a while after the abuse.

Despite her privileges of race and socioeconomic status, Mary suffered the consequences of being a woman; this story parallels the one by NFL player Michael Bennett, who personifies how race inequity trumps his financial privilege and celebrity.

In response to her experiences, Mary explained: “But this is the way the world has always worked for me. For most women.”

At 18, Joyce Maynard made a decision:

At [J.D.]Salinger’s urging, I left college — left the world, more or less — to be with him. I will state plainly: This was a choice I made, of my own volition, with as much understanding of the world as an 18-year-old may possess.

However, as she detailed in a confessional memoir, that relationship with a celebrity reclusive author 35 years older than her turned abusive:

I name two experiences of damage here — damage, and abuse. Equally painful as what happened when I was 18 is what took place when I was 44 — when, after maintaining silence about my time with Salinger for 25 years, I published a book that told what happened.

As dramatized in Adrienne Rich’s “Rape,” Maynard has experienced the double-abuse of being abused directly by a powerful man and then suffering under the weight of how the world responds to confessing that abuse.

After being vilified for her 1998 memoir, Maynard acknowledges:

Cut to the present. I am 63 years old — the author of 16 books and perhaps a thousand essays. I would like to say things are different now. But 20 years after I published the story of that young experience, my chief identity remains, in the eyes of many, as that of the woman who slept with Salinger 45 years ago.

“But this is the way the world has always worked for me. For most women,” Mary’s matter-of-fact response.

Maynard’s experiences, as well, speak to the opening story:

Many of those same arbiters of culture and political correctness who eviscerated me for telling the story of what happened when I was young, with a man of great power, now express outrage at the years in which Hollywood turned a blind eye to the routine behavior of Harvey Weinstein towards young women in whom he took an interest.

From Maynard’s critics, to Bennett being called a liar by the Las Vegas police department, to Mary losing her babysitting job, to Golic’s bluster about overreacting to the “inmates” comparison—the wider silencing of marginalized and abused people recurs daily at the hands of men, often powerful, often white.

Men who otherwise may appear to be relatively harmless or normal—because, of course, these powerful men have created all the rules about what counts as harm, what is normal, and whose voice matters.

Moment by moment, Arundhati Roy‘s “We know of course there’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard” is played out with men as arbiters.

If race and gender equity are genuinely our goals, men who silence and who refuse to hear must themselves be silent and must begin to listen so that they can take action.

The Texans are not overreacting and Maynard has not overshared—as she details:

Let’s consider that term, and what it implies. In my case, it would appear, “oversharing” refers to telling the truth about what happened to us, refusing adherence to a set of unwritten but longstanding rules suggesting that (for a woman, at least; these charges are seldom leveled at men) there is something not simply unseemly but reprehensible about speaking honestly about one’s sexual history, one’s body, the examination of one’s own imperfect self.

To tell the truth, then, must be afforded women who remain victims to men just as it must be afforded to blacks who remain victims to racial discrimination.

“But our voices matter,” argues Breana Stewart, sharing her own #metoo story that resonates with Mary’s “But this is the way the world has always worked for me. For most women.”

With each #metoo story that seems endless, I am haunted by the “worked for me”—words of survival.


* Name and some details have been changed to honor the privacy of the person, but the story is in essence accurate. The person also gave permission to blog about this and was shown a draft for full consent.

More Delusional, White People or Charter Advocates?

Since I often share satirical articles from McSweeney’s and The Onion, and some regularly respond oblivious to the satire, I try to buffer my own knee-jerk reaction to headlines; and thus, at first, I suspected this to be yet another scathing parody: Majority Of White Americans Say They Believe Whites Face Discrimination.

Alas, however, this is serious journalism from NPR about an apparently credible poll— leaving me to consider how delusional white people truly are in the U.S.

White people’s beliefs about whites being discriminated against disappear like tears in the rain when placed against the enormous evidence that whites, in fact, benefit from tremendous benefits for that whiteness in the U.S.

Let’s just catalogue a few significant contradictions in these white beliefs.

First, whites are likely strongly swayed by the mainstream media’s obsession with black-on-black crime, which sits beside the failure of mainstream media to cover with the same intensity white-on-white crime and this one basic fact: Crime in the U.S. is mostly within race and black-on-black crime rates (94%) are nearly statistically equal to white-on-white crime rates (86%):

Next, whites reap huge economic benefits compared to black and brown people, even when comparing by race and level of education:

Additionally, whites fair much better than blacks in the judicial system, even when comparing among the same behaviors and despite the claimed advantages of more education:

And possibly most damning of all, the positive impact of affirmative action—the bane of whites—has mostly fallen to white women:

While people of color, individually and as groups, have been helped by affirmative action in the subsequent years, data and studies suggest women — white women in particular — have benefited disproportionately. According to one study, in 1995, 6 million women, the majority of whom were white, had jobs they wouldn’t have otherwise held but for affirmative action.

Another study shows that women made greater gains in employment at companies that do business with the federal government, which are therefore subject to federal affirmative-action requirements, than in other companies — with female employment rising 15.2% at federal contractors but only 2.2% elsewhere. And the women working for federal-contractor companies also held higher positions and were paid better.

Even in the private sector, the advancements of white women eclipse those of people of color. After IBM established its own affirmative-action program, the numbers of women in management positions more than tripled in less than 10 years. Data from subsequent years show that the number of executives of color at IBM also grew, but not nearly at the same rate.

Racism, willful ignorance, delusion—these are our only explanations for whites holding beliefs dramatically contradicted by an abundance of evidence that in the U.S. white privilege is powerful and the oppression of blacks is pervasive even when blacks attain more education.

One case that rivals white delusion is charter school delusion.

When I published an Op-Ed countering two local news stories on SAT scores—both of which misled readers by ranking schools and suggesting charter schools are somehow superior to traditional public schools—the predictable response appeared, from the state’s superintendent of charter schools no less:

Three levels of delusion in one Tweet.

First, my university is test-optional

We believe that your potential for success cannot be determined solely by standardized test scores. As a result, our admission process is test optional, meaning you are not required to submit SAT or ACT scores.

—as are a growing number of colleges and universities. And thus, the “gotcha” aspect of this Tweet falls flat due to a complete failure to look for the evidence.

Next, high-stakes testing—which remains biased by race, social class, and gender—does in fact cause inequity since these tests often are gatekeepers for scholarships and admissions.

And finally, the greatest delusion of all among charter advocates is pure ideology: “Our expectations of kids cause inequity.”

Simply examine the SAT scores along with the Poverty Index (PI) in the chart below (traditional schools, no highlight, and charter schools, highlighted):

SAT comp w charter HL

Both traditional and charter schools fall along a predictable pattern of SAT scores correlating strongly to PI, and thus, charter advocates have a real evidence problem with claims that SAT scores are the result, mostly or only, of expectations.

If there is an expectations problem in the charter school movement, it is that we must have higher expectations for honesty and awareness of evidence among charter school advocates, administrators, and teachers.

Delusion that denies white privilege or misrepresents educational policy is harmful on many levels since it detracts from real problems—such as the cancers that are racism and inequity as well as the tremendous failures of universal public education in the U.S.

In my first-year writing seminar, my constant refrain is urging young people to step back from what they believe is true, to be skeptical of those quick and easy beliefs, and to seek credible and compelling evidence that either confirms or corrects those beliefs.

Just saying something, I warn, doesn’t make it true.

White people and charter advocates, it seems, could use a refresher course in the foundations of composition.

 

black & white

My parents were 1950s plain-white-people pretty throughout my childhood in the 60s.

My dad wore a crewcut and Buddy Holly glasses. My mom with Mary Tyler Moore hair like they were always playing dress-up for a Weezer song.

I remember them and then in black and white.

The only 1960s hippies for me were my mother’s much younger sisters and brother. All of them animated in my mind on faded 8 mm color film, and they were always a little dirty.

And they all smoked—although my aunts and uncle probably indulged also in something illegal, pot—but old black and white photographs and the shaky 8 mm films my parents took allowed all that offensive smoke to look cool, harmless, romantic.

It has been five decades since then.

A few days ago, I bought my mother a new pair of shoes. She has two pairs in assisted living—one too small and the other too narrow.

And then just yesterday, I took her the new shoes before I drove her to a doctor’s appointment.

After her stroke, my mother is no longer her full self, having lost most of her language abilities and sounding more like my 3-year-old granddaughter than the very bright woman my mother was before.

She fretted to tears on the drive about needing to go by her house—I had no idea why—and about how to pay for the doctor’s visit—I explained as I have hundreds of time since the stroke that I have money. The trip was not unlike “Are we there yet?” round trips that most parents must suffer through, except in this case I was the parent to my mother as child.

My mother has seen the same doctors for many years, Indians who served my small rural hometown before moving their practice to the larger town hear-by. The nurses and staff have also known my parents for many years.

After a nurse conducted an ultrasound on my mother to check on the clots found in her leg after the stroke, they appeared out of the examination room. The nurse asked what happened to my father.

I hesitated as I often do now when people appear eager to discuss my father’s death with my infirm mother right there. I know she knows, but the act of discussing my father’s death, my father dead with her listening makes me want to say, “You do know my mother is right here?”

In the gap of my pause, the nurse added, “Rosie said he was killed?”

And I realized the nurse and my mom had already had a conversation, and my mother’s much reduced communication had likely caused more confusion for the nurse.

“No, he passed away,” I uttered euphemistically. “His heart.”

The nurse offered a cavalier “Oh” signaling that his death made perfect sense—more so than his being killed.

Although the visit with the nurse practitioner went well, my mother refused adamantly any further medication, even though it could help with her regaining the ability to talk. She has had a lifelong struggle with worrying about her health but refusing prescription medications.

I did run by her home on the way back to assisted living, but that simply sparked even more crying and incoherent ramblings, building on her struggling all day with simply going to the doctor.

Once in the house, she was unable to look through a closet because my nephews had been cleaning out and packing away much of my parents’ belongings. Eventually, exhausted and frantic, she gave up and demanded a couple pillows off a bed in that room, finally urging that we leave.

After my mother was once again in her recliner at assisted living, near tears and rambling further, I suggested she sit back and rest before dinner—and I left nearly as wrenched to exhaustion as she was.

For more than forty years, interacting with my parents had been mostly tension, a moral, intellectual, and emotional battle between my obligations as a son and my true self. Nothing was as simple as black and white.

Later that evening, my nephew texted that my mother was complaining to him about her neck hurting. I replied that we had just sat at the doctor’s office, and when the nurse practitioner asked my mother if she had any pain, my mother had responded with an assertive “no.”

I felt myself responding beyond the limits of patience or love.

Like many people enamored with image-based social media such as Instagram, I often choose to post pictures in black and white, usually of my granddaughter, alone and with me.

I also have an affinity for black and white movies made intentionally in black and white well into the era of color film.

As I psychoanalyze myself, I wonder if this romanticizing of black and white—few images move me more now that black and white versions of my granddaughter—is nested in pictures of my parents, 1950s plain-white-people pretty.

My dad with a crewcut and Buddy Holly glasses. My mom with Mary Tyler Moore hair like they were always playing dress-up for a Weezer song.

Some times with cigarettes gently between two fingers and the smoke static and odorless.

They often look happy and harmless, especially in staged family portraits.

Them there in black and white—I can pretend nothing existed in either of them or our future lives that would make their being alive, dead, or infirm almost unbearable.

Nothing is as simple as black and white.

Not being parent or child, not being in some important way fully human.

The Lingering, and Powerful, Legacy of “Scientific Racism” in America

Writing about the class of 2017’s performance on the newly redesigned SAT, Catherine Gewertz notes, “The number of students taking the SAT has hit an all-time high,” and adds cautiously:

What appear to be big scoring increases should be understood not as sudden jumps in achievement, but as reflections of the differences in the test and the score scale, psychometricians said.

More test takers and higher scores, albeit misleading ones, are the opening discussion about one of the most enduring fixtures of U.S. education—standardized testing as gatekeeping for college entrance, scholarships, and scholastic eligibility.

However, buried about in the middle of Gewertz’s article, we discover another enduring reality:

The 2017 SAT scores show inequities similar to those of earlier years. Asian (1181), white (1118), and multiracial (1103) students score far above the average composite score of 1060, while Hispanic (990) and African-American (941) students score significantly below it.

Throughout its long history, the SAT, like all standardized testing, has reflected tremendous gaps along race, social class, and gender lines; notable, for example, is the powerful correlation between SAT scores and takers’ parental income and level of education as well as the fact that males have had higher average scores than females for the math and verbal sections every year of SAT testing (the only glitch in that being the years the SAT included a writing section).

The SAT is but one example of the lingering and powerful legacy of “scientific racism” in the U.S. Tom Buchanan, in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, punctuates his racist outbursts with “‘It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved.'”

Buchanan represents the ugly and rarely confronted relationship between “scientific” and “objective” with race, social class, and gender bigotry. In short, science has often been and continues to be tainted by bias that serves the dominant white and wealthy patriarchy.

Experimental and quasi-experimental research along with so-called standardized testing tends to avoid being implicated in not only identifying racism, classism, and sexism, but also perpetuating social inequity.

As I noted recently, since Carol Dweck and Angela Duckworth have produced mainstream scientific studies and published in reputable peer-reviewed journals, their inherently biased work has been nearly universally embraced—among the exact elites who tend to ignore or outright reject the realities of inequity and injustice.

As just one example, Duckworth grounded her work in and continues to cite a Eugenicist, Francis Galton, with little or no consequences.

Racism, classism, and sexism are themselves built on identifying deficits within identifiable populations. Science allows these corrupt ideologies to appear factual, instead of simple bigotry.

“Scientific” and “objective” are convenient Teflon for bias and bigotry; they provide cover for elites who want evidence they have earned their success, despite incredible evidence that success and failure are more strongly correlated with the coincidences of birth—race, social class, gender.

It takes little effort to imagine a contemporary Tom pointing to the 2017 SAT data and arguing, “‘It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved.'”

Such ham-fisted scientism, however, mutes the deeper message that SAT data is a marker for all sorts of inequity in the U.S. And then when that data have the power to determine college entrance and scholarships, the SAT also perpetuates the exact inequities it measures.

The SAT sits in a long tradition including IQ testing that speaks to a jumbled faith in the U.S. for certain kinds of numbers and so-called science; when the data and the science reinforce our basest beliefs, we embrace, but when data and science go against out sacred gods, we refute (think climate change and evolution).

Science that is skeptical and critical, questioning and interrogating, has much to offer humanity. But science continues to be plagued by human frailties such as bias.

Science, like history, is too often written by the winners, the oppressors. As a result, Foucault details, “[I]t is the individual as he[/she] may be described, judged, measured, compared with others, in his[/her] very individuality; and it is also the individual who has to be trained or corrected, classified, normalized, excluded, etc.” [1]

“Scientific racism,” as a subset of science that normalizes bigotry, allows the accusatory white gaze to remain on groups that are proclaimed inherently flawed, deficient, in need of correction. “Scientific racism” distracts us from realizing that the tests and science themselves are the problem.

And thus, we must abandon seeking ever-new tests, such as revising the SAT, and begin the hard work of addressing why the gaps reflected in the tests exist—a “why” that is not nested in any group but our society and its powerful elite.


[1] Foucault, M. (1984). The Foucault reader. Ed. P. Rabinow. New York: Pantheon Books, p. 203.

See this thread:

 

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.

Nationalism in Black and White

Chimamanda Adichie confronts the dangers of a single story by describing her journey from childhood to celebrated Nigerian writer. Like Adichie, Haitian-American writer Roxane Gay deconstructs overly simplistic explanations for privilege by confronting her lived experiences as a black woman raised in an affluent home.

Interrogating race, social class, and gender, both Adichie and Gay speak to the inherent flaws with how these statuses historically and currently shape inequity and injustice in the U.S. Recently that has manifested itself in a renewed concern for nationalism, as demonstrated in the violence witnessed in Charlottesville, VA.

However, there is no single story about nationalism in the U.S.—especially if we consider the reasons behind nationalism movements in their historical contexts.

While political and media narratives try now to frame white nationalism and those who resist it as equal forces, let’s recall that Marcus Garvey’s back-to-Africa movement and black nationalism as espoused by the Nation of Islam (NOI)—through Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X—prompted much different responses from mainstream white America.

Garvey’s efforts drew support from white racists, in fact, but the NOI and especially Malcolm X were strongly rejected as violent and a national threat—unlike the more welcomed and carefully orchestrated embracing of Martin Luther King Jr. as a passive radical.

Regardless of valid or baseless criticisms of either Garvey or Malcolm X, the story of black nationalism throughout the early and mid-twentieth century is incomplete without understanding why blacks have supported separating from white America.

Those reasons are grounded in a recognition among blacks that democracy, capitalism, Christianity, and the American Dream had failed them in profound ways that simply could not be reformed since these elements of the U.S. are inherently prone to inequity and injustice.

Malcolm X’s “History proves that the white man is a devil” represents a provocative but concise justification for black skepticism about white intentions. And James Baldwin confronted in 1979 the fact of white consciousness about race and racism in the U.S.:

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.

Black nationalism, then, has been grounded in the evidence of history and contemporary inequity and injustice. And these lessons remain to this day when blacks are disproportionately killed by police, officers who then go unpunished, and blacks with some college often have the same employment opportunities and pay as whites who dropped out of high school.

This is 2017, as Edward E. Baptist explains:

In a review of my book about slavery and capitalism published the other day, the Economist treated it the same way that the tourist enslavers treated the testimony of Frederick Douglass on that slave-era ship long ago. In doing so, the Economist revealed just how many white people remain reluctant to believe black people about the experience of being black.

Only the single story viewed through white consciousness in the U.S. is allowed.

The paradox of the single story through white eyes only is that is allows a nuance for white behavior while continuing to demonize black lives for any claimed flaw, no matter how singular (consider Colin Kaepernick).

The result is claiming “some good people” are among white nationalist protests and rallies—a claim that fails to investigate why white nationalists exist.

Unlike black nationalist movements, white nationalism is grounded solely in corrupt ideologies well refuted by evidence—beliefs in white superiority (often coded as “European”) and mythologies built on white heroes and white actions that are partial stories as best.

White nationalism as refuge for racists, fascists, and Nazis survives because of the single story codes of the exact sort of white tyranny black nationalists have been confronting for a century.

This is a failed story, a horror story in fact.

Black nationalism, however, has offered a powerful and true story that the U.S. refuses to confront: democracy, capitalism, Christianity, and the American Dream have failed blacks, and thus, failed us all, but they likely cannot be reformed since they are inherently drawn to inequity and injustice.

The single white story of the U.S. suffers from a fatal lack of imagination to construct a new story because white America will not let go of its lies.