White Americans have an inflated opinion of their own decency. And Black people know it.
Remember the SNL sketch right after Trump’s election? Where the White people confidently, then nervously, then horrified, watch the returns come in while Dave Chapelle and Chris Rock calmly watch from the back of the room. Here are some highlights: (W=White person; B=Black person)
W: Of course he won Kentucky, I mean that’s where all the racists are.
W: Oh my god, I think America is racist. B: You know, I remember my great-grandfather told me something like that. But he was like, a slave or something.
W: This is the most shameful thing America has ever done.
It was sloppy, as their mostly timely sketches inevitably are, but it was a biting commentary on racism in the US. One that we still haven’t accepted, four years later. One, in fact, that many of us have moved further away from acknowledging, as blatant White Supremacists have given us a pass on our own, nicer racism (#politewhitesupremacy), as the Kentucky comment does in the sketch. And the slavery references, both the spoken and unspoken (worst thing America has ever done), are foundational to understanding the White citizens of this country. America is not only racist, it is unique in being literally built on Black slavery and Indian genocide, with racism as the primary justification for both of those policies. America is what it is not despite, but because of, racism.
Why am I dragging out a 4-year-old SNL sketch? Because I’ve been seeing more examples of White willful blindness and Black insight in the past week-ish. There was a lot of buzz about “low-information” voters after Super Tuesday. DeBlasio got hammered for it, but I knew a lot of people making similar assumptions, or at least asking similar questions. While low-information voters definitely sounds racist to my ears, I have to remind myself that people have said the same thing about poor White voters, so maybe just this once it really is a class issue. Maybe
We, the educated, liberal elite, talk about those people not voting for their own interests, which is pretty feckin insulting (I’ve replaced the u in honor of the approaching St Patrick’s day). And it’s bullshit. People always vote for their own interests; they may just define those interests differently than we do. If keeping fetuses alive is a moral red line to you and you vote for someone who will increase the cost of your healthcare and freeze your wages in order to save those fetuses, you’re voting for your interests. If you are a 1%er who votes for a wealth tax because you think it’s immoral that full-time workers can’t afford to feed their kids, you are voting for your interests. And when older Southern Black voters vote for Biden, they are voting for their own interests. I won’t pretend people aren’t manipulated by political & media lies and tricks, but that’s true for all of us. ALL of us. Don’t rely on your brain: it is not under your conscious control.
I’m sure there are plenty of Biden diehards who can defend the Black vote for their guy, but I’m frankly not interested in that. I was enlightened by the Black journalists and commentators who support Bernie, but can explain why he’s not winning the “black vote.” (Elie Mystal of the Nation is my current explicator of choice.) And the salient point is the same as it was in that 2016 SNL sketch. As a 39-year old North Carolina Black voter put it:
Black people know White voters better than they know themselves…. So yeah, we’ll back Biden, because we know who white America will vote for in the general election in a way they may not tell a pollster or the media.
Just like White people misled pollsters about Trump, leading to the most shocking Presidential victory in modern history.
The difference this time is that the deception isn’t racially motivated so much as financially motivated. Or rather, the racism is more indirect. As The Root’s Dr. Jason Johnson argued (quoted in the same article),
Voting for Bernie Sanders requires that black people believe that white people will do something they’ve never done: willingly and openly share the economic bounty of the United States.
Elie Mystal backs this up with evidence of Black people supporting progressive candidates Jesse Jackson in 1988 and John Edwards in 2004 (his primary message was about changing “the two Americas” – the haves and have-nots). Both lost the primary, and both eventual Democratic nominees (Dukakis and Kerry) lost the general election. Most non-Trumpers agree that losing to the Republican this time around would be far worse. Many are unwilling to take a risk that they believe would let that happen.
Maybe if we actually admitted that everything we have in the US is sticky with the blood of slavery and genocide, we’d be more willing to give it up. But as long as we pretend that everything we have was honestly, diligently earned, it looks like we’ll keep shoveling food from the blistered hands of the poor to the thin-lipped mouths of the wealthy until either a violent uprising or environmental destruction brings it all crashing down.
Maybe both! Live it up and start spending that retirement savings!