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During Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign I can remember very clearly an extended family member saying, “There is no way America elects a Black man to that office, but I’m proud he’s trying.”
Then, once Obama won, the sentiments of “never” from one family member grew to a chorus of Black people holding their breath that he wouldn’t be assassinated and/or harmed following his history-making election.
While many during those first few years wanted to tout America’s new status as “post-racial,” Black and brown America knew the truth. While his election wins in both 2008 and 2012 were indeed historic, the whitelash that had been brewing since the advent of birtherism and the Tea Party would soon manifest itself in an upending of all that “post-racial” hope. That’s when Republicans nominated the anti-Obama—a man who ramped up racial anxieties rather than speaking to them with compassion and nuance—Donald J. Trump.
Trump is (and always has been) a caricature of white privilege and white resentment. A silver spoon heir to a multimillionaire, whose failures in business were repeatedly bailed out by Daddy, he somehow conned people into buying his image as the savior of poor white America. He rebuffed political norms and embraced the “good old days” of unapologetic racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and Islamophobia—all while embracing white nationalism and fetishizing the American flag.
While the Obama era made us believe in our better angels and our better selves—Trumpism had a substantial portion of white America believing that their rejection of equity and inclusivity is some perverse form of patriotism. While Obamaism was about multiculturalism and the abundance of this country’s offerings, Trumpism emphasized scarcity—the idea that America’s bounties are zero sum, and that white Americans needed to stake their claim to what is theirs alone, what they are owed, and who they should hate and fear encroaching on “their America.”
But this didn’t start with Trump.
Many white Americans have been fed a very purposeful lie that began in kindergarten, one that instilled a belief in their excellence and benevolence.
They learned from the time that they could read and write that white people discovered this country and turned it into something the world bowed to and held up as a beacon.
From art to music to innovation, they were fed a steady diet of their heroes. Even former slave owners were given the benefit of the doubt to the “thinking of their time,” but were otherwise characterized as good people—glossing over the enslavement and torture of other human beings they deemed as chattel to build “their nation” from scratch. They were told wonderful stories of Thanksgiving, instead of the massacres and genocide of an entire Indigenous population at the hands of their ancestors. They were fed stories of love affairs between slave owners like Thomas Jefferson and his enslaved captive, Sally Hemings, but not the reality of rape, abuse, and human property. They were taught about the innovators of government, like Robert Moses, but not his rampant racism that was the basis for their urban planning—the creation of highways that purposefully drove a stake through the heart of Black communities.
These lies are just the tips of the melting iceberg of white exceptionalism. And it’s the desperate need for white dominance and power—the “we must fight like hell to take our country back” mentality—that is steadily becoming a violent reality.
On Fox News and other right-wing media, the lies of the “Great Replacement Theory,” nefarious Jewish power, rampant Black criminals, undocumented “invaders,” the grooming of children, and stolen elections are driving white anxiety, stoking the flames of which have inspired the rise of white domestic terrorism. In less than two years, we’ve witnessed an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, a conspiracy to kidnap a Democratic governor, and a likely assassination attempt on the Speaker of the House and her family.
“If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you,” said President Lyndon B. Johnson, 60 years ago.
It’s a prescient quote, but it’s missing the specifics of how this strategy is deployed—using fear and dehumanization.
If you can convince white people that the opposition is a group of crazed “groomers” looking to make their children into “deviants,” and that they’re stealing “your America”—then the violent actions they take against these “invaders” and “pedophiles” isn’t violence at all, it’s patriotism in defense of their America.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best in Where Do We Go From Here: “Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn.”
What white Americans still in thrall of the myth of Great White America must reckon with is the truth—their America has been a lie designed not for their comfort, but for their continued control. And they need to recognize that there are things worth loving about America—like diversity, true freedom, and democracy. But what they need to realize most of all is that these things are not a threat to them; rather, the myth of white greatness is a threat to us all.