America’s Dirty Little Secret

Kathleen Vohs of the Washington Post writes about the “cognitive dissonance” that plagues Trump supporters. Kelly Weill of the Daily Beast wonders whether his “hard-core fans can be deradicalized.” And former Republican congressman Joe Walsh laments the fate of his once beloved Party of Lincoln, as if somehow Lincoln had occupied the White House only twelve years ago.

While all three pieces have their points to make, they fail to address the 800 pound gorilla in the room. Trump is engaging in racial politics because he believes it’s the only way he can get reelected. And so far, from all the evidence we’ve seen, he appears to be half right. The country is splitting in two quite literally in front of our eyes.

But don’t think for a moment that Trump caused these fissures. All he did was apply the right amount of pressure. They’ve always been there. The truth is racism is America’s original sin, and the dirty little secret that a good percentage of the white population would prefer not to admit – at least not in public – is that the systemic racism that has intertwined itself into the economic fabric of the society has greatly benefited them. They would no more want to divest themselves of that advantage than the New York Yankees would want to part with half their World Series titles.

The latest attacks by this president on the city of Baltimore and its congressman Elijah Cummings is a case study in how to divide a nation along racial lines. Never mind that one of the poorest counties in the country – McCreary County, KY – has a poverty rate of 41 percent, almost 20 points higher than Baltimore, or that 91 percent of its residents rely on some form of federal assistance. Trump hasn’t said shit about it. Know why? Because McCreary County is 97 percent white; that’s why.

Calling Mexicans “rapists,” referring to third-world nations as “shit-hole countries,” telling four congresswomen of color to “go back to where they came from,” using a term like “rat-infested” to describe a major metropolitan city, none of this is by chance. It’s all part of a well-calculated, coordinated and despicable pattern of racism that, sadly, will resonate with many within the white community. At least that’s what Trump is banking on.

My wife and I have been to Baltimore several times, though to be honest, we’ve stayed in the Inner Harbor and Fells Point areas. I am not blind to the fact that there are parts of the city that have high crime rates and are impoverished. The city has had a checkered past, to put it mildly. But demonizing it only serves to reinforce the stereotypes that African Americans are inferior, more violent and less deserving than their fellow white citizens.

I have struggled long and hard to try and wrap my head around this issue. As a white male who grew up in one of the most segregated parts of the country – Long Island – I didn’t see a person of color until I was in the 11th grade. And the only thing I can come up with that even begins to make any sense is something I heard David Brooks say when he described the makeup of a Trump rally. It was about 95 percent white. Social scientists who have studied American culture often use terms like pack or herd mentality to describe what’s going on here. In short, people tend to adopt the beliefs and values of those who look, sound and act like them. Behaviors are reinforced rather than challenged. And anything or anyone that is perceived as different or who poses a threat to the status quo is met with contempt and must be rooted out.

Like many people I naively believed that the election of Barack Obama would usher in a new chapter in American history. Finally, I thought, the nation would have that long, overdue conversation about race. Instead, what happened was that Obama’s election triggered in millions of white people a fear that their world – a world of privilege and hegemony – was coming to an end. Of course, the fact that that wasn’t even remotely true didn’t change their perception.

In the movie Mississippi Burning, there’s this scene in which Gene Hackman’s character, an FBI agent, walks into a barber shop to talk to the local sheriff and mayor. A Cardinals’ game is heard playing on a radio in the background. Hackman inquires of the barber what the score is and the mayor, who had just gotten a shave, asks him if he likes baseball. “Yeah, I do,” replies Hackman’s character. “It’s the only time when a black man can wave a stick at a white man and not start a riot.”

It didn’t occur to me at the time, but that one scene encapsulated brilliantly the problem of racism in America. It’s never been just about burning crosses or white hoods; it goes much deeper than that. A black man playing a white man’s game, that was one thing; but a black man giving orders to white America, now that’s quite another.

What was it about Obama that set off so many white people? One incident stands out. It was about a year after he took office and I was having breakfast at a deli in my hometown. Sitting across from me at another table were three older white people who were expressing their sentiments on the new president. One of them was particularly loud and pointed. “Who does that n***er think he is disrespecting the Oval Office desk like that?”

If you recall, that was the infamous “feet up on the Oval Office Desk” incident that caused quite a stir. Of course, other presidents had done it before, but the fact that Obama did it apparently wasn’t sitting well with this particular individual and his two cohorts. I should point out that it wasn’t sitting well with many in white America either. I don’t know what annoyed me more: the fact that he used the “N” word to refer to the leader of the free world or that he just assumed that since we were the same color I’d naturally agree with him. I wish I could say I had the courage speak out, but sadly I didn’t. I finished my eggs and bacon and got the hell out of there, never to return.

But trust me when I say that there are a lot of delis just like that one and plenty of people out there in suburban America who are just as racist as that asshole, only now they’ve been given permission by this president to say in public what they only dared say in private. The herd is now in full stampede mode and before Trump is done, a lot of innocent people are going to get trampled.

I’m sick and tired of some white people saying, “Don’t call me a racist.” Fine, then stop supporting a racist. Nobody is asking you to apologize for the wonderful things you have in your life, but stop insisting you got them simply by the sweat on your brow or by pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps. Many an African American has busted his or her ass and come away with nothing to show for it except bitterness and resentment. Only in their case the bitterness and resentment is a by-product of four-hundred years of oppression; yours is based on a fairy tale Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh concocted.

Stop saying asinine things like all the breaks go to black people and that the only racism in America is reverse racism, when the facts don’t begin to remotely support such assertions. I get it, once in a while that promotion you thought you deserved goes to a minority. It sucks, I realize, but that’s not the rule, it’s the exception. Nine out of ten times, the white guy gets that promotion. You know it and I know it.

Face it, for the most part your homes are worth more, your paychecks are bigger on average, you have the capacity to save more of your money, your kids attend schools that are typically better funded and located in safer neighborhoods and you’ve never once had to worry about the possibility that you could be shot and killed by a cop driving home at night. The truth is there’s not a single one of you who’d trade places with a black person, so stop embarrassing yourselves by saying otherwise. Give it a rest. Turn off Fox News and the AM radio dial. If you need to know the traffic and weather, ask Alexa.

If you are truly NOT a racist, prove it by refusing to be manipulated by a con man whose only goal in life, apart from enriching himself, is to stoke your inner-most fears and anxieties. He’s not your friend and he doesn’t have your back. He’s trying to drive a wedge between you and your fellow man. Don’t give him the satisfaction. The fact is that black coworker sitting across from you in your office is no different than you. He has hopes and aspirations just like everybody else. And he’s entitled to his own slice of the same American Dream you and I were taught as kids was ours to have and hold. Go out to lunch with him and get to know him a bit. He won’t bite, trust me. The best cure for ignorance is a good dose of education. The opposite of darkness is light.

And for those of us who are properly outraged at what’s happening to our country, my advice is simple: do not stay silent. We cannot and must not let this become the new normal. Complacency is no different than complicity. When you hear a family member or friend talking shit, you have an obligation to speak out and set them straight. Do not do as I did in that deli nine years ago and swallow your feelings for expediency sake. If you truly love America, then fight for it. It’s soul is at stake.

The words of Martin Luther King, Jr. should serve as our inspiration. “There’re times when you must take a stand that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but you must do it because it is right.”

Author: Peter Fegan

Progressive but pragmatic. Lover of music, die-hard Giants' fan and reluctant Mets' fan. My favorite motto? I'd rather be ruled by a smart Turk than a dumb Christian.