Saturday, January 29, 2011
January 29, 2011 [Guest Post 2]: White Growing Pains
[Mike Parker has been many things over the 10 years that this AmericanStudier has known him: a graduate student in creative writing; an educator-in-training; an editorial assistant at a major university press; a student of and researcher into psychological science; a graduate student in social work; and, at present, part of an emergency response unit for mental health crises in Portland, Oregon. He’s also recently the proud father of a beautiful mixed-race little fella who, yes, rivals the two boys above in cuteness. But throughout he’s been deeply invested in America’s identity (past, present, and future) and in writing about the world as he sees and imagines it.]
The funny thing about democracy is that it tends to provide folks in the majority group with most of the power. America is no exception where much of the power that Whites have enjoyed has resulted from simply having a numbers advantage in a democratic system. By power, I don’t mean to suggest that all Whites have grown up “privileged” or “rich.” But, as a professor of mine once defined it, “power is the ability to avoid discomfort.” And Whites, despite their own socioeconomic and political differences, have collectively enjoyed the “comfort” of knowing that they could lay claim over this country’s past, its present, and its future. But times they are a-changing. In an age when the first Black president needed only 42% of the White vote to win election, and when Whites are predicted to become outnumbered by minority groups by 2050, the power that Whites have so long enjoyed in this country has clearly become diminished. Add to this the increasingly frightening terrorist tactics that have emerged from extremist groups in some marginalized communities, and Whites have suddenly found themselves in a new world that is testing the limits of their belief in America’s rich history of tolerance, democracy, liberalism, and freedom (note: while, of course, I also believe in the country’s rich tradition of conservatism, I would argue that current climate is, rather than testing this specific tradition, actually encouraging a rather extreme version of it). And yet, while all signs point to a new America where non-Whites will wield real political power, Whites for the moment still largely control this country’s direction. So the question becomes: ‘How will Whites deal with having to share their power, as this becomes more and more the case?’ ‘Will they handle it like adults, or children?’ The evidence thus far has been less than encouraging.
For me, the most concerning (and most-self destructive as I will argue) manifestation of modern American White anxiety has been the sudden but certain rise of anti-government sentiment in the White mainstream since the election of Barrack Obama. For the past two years we have seen it on the picket signs of Tea Party protestors and in the messages of Right-wing commentators. Just around the time of January 20, 2009, something changed in the tone of the relationship between Whites and the nation’s government. An angry and somewhat disturbing message began to gain steam: that the government had somehow changed on the day that Obama took office. It was on that day that the new President began his socialist agenda that would overwhelm the populous with taxes, take away their right to bear arms, and, of course, push that Healthcare Bill right through Congress. And, this new anti-government rage has not stopped its critique with the policies of the Obama administration. It has widened, and White folks are now openly talking about dismantling Social Security, the Department of Education, and the IRS. And the “crazy” thing here is that we are no longer talking about the paranoid and delusional ramblings of some guy on a street corner. We are talking about elected officials from the Tea Party and the highest rated news programs on cable in Fox News.
All of this critique of government under the Obama administration could be viewed outside of a racial paradigm if it at least resembled the political discourse under Bush and Clinton. That is to say that all policies will always have their critics. And there are valid and compelling counterpoints to the current spending approach to our recession, and some very genuine disagreement with the country’s bailout of banks and General Motors. But the reality is that if so many people were upset about the stimulus plan, why didn’t they take notice when Bush introduced it? If the national debt is a major issue for Americans, why were they not upset when it rose during the presidencies of Reagan, Bush Sr., and Bush Jr., and not celebratory when it was reduced under the Clinton administration. If people are so strongly against Social Security, the Department of Education, the IRS, Welfare, Medicaid, and all of the government-funded programs that help vulnerable and minority groups in this increasingly impersonal culture, why were they not picketing in the streets during ever single presidency of recent memory?
The truth, I would argue, is that White Americans are not so much upset about “Government” as they are upset about Democracy when it does not provide them with control over the country’s direction. Take Healthcare, for example. The Law was developed by a Senate committee, not the President, and it received the majority of votes in Congress that, like any other bill, it needed to become law. And yet, the message from its White critics has been that “Obamacare” was somehow “pushed through” Congress. It just wouldn’t sound good to say “I don’t like democracy when Barrack Obama, instead of George Bush or John McCain is signing the legislation” now would it? But of course Whites have flocked to their polling stations for the mid-terms and they’ve succeeded in electing a bunch of conservative, White congressman to go to Washington and repeal that “government takeover of healthcare.” The only problem is that Obama actually signed into law a pretty conservative bill that is based on a competitive, open-market approach to healthcare, and one that has been championed by conservatives in the past. Whether or not all of these new, White, conservative congressman will come to realize that the healthcare law is a pretty ideal approach to healthcare according to their own supposed principles, or whether or not they will even care in the face of their White anxiety, remains to be seen.
The irony of all of this White drama is that, instead of spending all of their energy trying to repeal the new healthcare law, White folks should instead be working to uphold those American policies that protect racial, economic, and religious minorities, and all other vulnerable groups: Social Security, Affirmative Action, Medicaid, and yes, now the Healthcare Reform Law. Because the reality stands, Good old fashioned White, straight, Christians, no matter how much of a fuss they make, will become a minority group in this country. Despite all of the attempts from Whites to narrow the definition of America, the fabric of our country will continue to diversify. Whites will continue to see more unfamiliar cultural events, and to hear more different languages being spoken in their home towns. They will notice more religious buildings that do not have crosses, and more same-sex couples. And they will see more Americans of varying shades of black, brown, red and yellow. They will notice these folks on their streets, in elected positions, and sitting behind desks when they go in for interviews. And as long as Whites themselves work to ensure it, this will still be America. It will still be a free democracy. It will still be a place of upward mobility and healthy competition. Heterosexual Christians will still be allowed to marry the opposite sex in a church. And all Americans will continue to strive to master English as the language that connects us with one another. And, hopefully for Whites, there will still be a well-funded government that ensures their safety, their well-being, and their rights as a racial minority. That is, if Whites don’t destroy it themselves.
PS. Four links to start with:
1) The stats: http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSN1110177520080212
2) Signs of the times: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/04/16/tea-party-signs-the-most_n_539770.html#s81635&title=undefined
3) This one speaks for itself: http://politicalhumor.about.com/od/stupidquotes/a/glenn-beck-quotes.htm
4) OPEN: Any thoughts, takes, or responses?