Magazine | May 19, 2014, Issue

Bigots by Birth

If you’re like me — a hominid American with external gonads and a melanin ratio that gives your epidermis a pinkish hue — then I’ve got some bad news for you: You’re wrong about nearly everything and almost certainly a bigot.

Don’t worry, white guys, things are still pretty good for you. You were born into the greatest empire the world has ever known at roughly the height of her power, and despite a recession here and a war there, you are likely to do quite well in it — at least compared with every other demographic group in history.

Even though you didn’t ask for it, even though you can’t dexterously wield it, and even though you may never even achieve conscious awareness of it, “white privilege” is, at least as a statistical phenomenon, a real thing. But have you noticed that the terms “white supremacy” and “white supremacists” are being brandished a little more wantonly these days, by both “we put the ‘id’ in ‘ideology’” rags like Salon and more “respectable” center-left publications like The New Republic and The Atlantic? And in reference not just to the violent, ignorant fantasies of dime-store Nazis in Idaho, but also to seemingly innocent public debates that only tangentially abut issues of race?

Perhaps you’ve read the masterpiece of the genre, from the talented writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, who responded to media critic Dylan Byers’s dissent from Coates’s claim that MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry was “America’s most foremost public intellectual” thus:

Here is the machinery of racism — the privilege of being oblivious to questions, of never having to grapple with the everywhere; the right of false naming; the right to claim that the lakes, trees, and mountains of our world do not exist; the right to insult our intelligence with your ignorance. The machinery of racism requires no bigotry from Dylan Byers. It merely requires that Dylan Byers sit still.

Hear that, white dudes? Your racism — a fortiori, your white supremacy — depends, according to an authoritative voice of right-thinking progressivism, on your merely existing. Fifty years ago the term “white supremacist” was reserved for bloody-minded sociopaths who tortured black boys and strung them up from nooses for holding eye contact with white debutantes. Today, the term is deployed against reconstructed celebrators of Martin Luther King Jr. Day who hold different opinions about part-time political scientists.

Coates, who, in a highly public contretemps also straddled the line of calling longtime Democratic apologist Jon Chait a white supremacist for holding views on race that are essentially the Democratic consensus, is spearheading the campaign to normalize the idea of white supremacy as a genetic condition. But he is far from alone.

It could be that this is part of what Jonah Goldberg calls a social “auto-immune disease,” in which a society freed from the worst forms of institutionalized racism seizes on minor irritations as if by allergic reaction. But the diagnosis shouldn’t make you white guys feel any better about the prognosis. Because the deregulation of “white supremacy” talk isn’t just about giving frustrated minorities a vocabulary for working through their angst — like the “brown” Salon blogger who used not one but two columns to heap hate upon white women for “appropriating” belly dancing. It’s about delegitimizing entire lines of thought by rendering the concept of white supremacy so vague and amorphous that any dissent can be construed as falling under it.

And so in the case of Cliven Bundy, the semi-sympathetic coot waging a standoff with the feds over where his steers chew their cud, your choice is clear: Either assent, chapter and verse, to the current administrative policies of the Bureau of Land Management, or count yourselves among the benighted yokels of yore who considered African bondage a gift of mercy.

And on the Supreme Court’s recent decision to uphold a Michigan referendum banning affirmative action in college admissions, you are not safe with the views of the Court’s plurality, who have the strange idea that that Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment requires equal protection. Nor does believing that the country’s history of anti-black discrimination makes “race sensitive” admission policies merely permissible save you. Because the effect of Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s dissent — widely praised on the left — is that affirmative action is mandatory in states like Michigan. Outlawing racial discrimination amounts to racial discrimination, and if you disagree, you’d better check your privilege.

Perhaps the most alienating aspect of this line of reasoning, to my fellow white guys, is that it indulges in the very racial essentialism and stereotyping it elsewhere decries. That in naming us as collaborators in white supremacy it denies us our agency and our individuality.

Yes, your unique lived experience is probably not reducible to broad demographic facts about your similarly hued cohort. And yes, it’s probably true that your connection to slave-drivers and Jim Crow administrators the world over is no less mediated than gurgling Prince George Windsor’s is to William the Conqueror. And sure, your alleged enjoyment of “white privilege” doesn’t take into account the fact that you might be an orphan extruded from the social-services grinder, or an Appalachian from a methtown doomed to slinging chicken fingers for subsistence, or a community-college striver trying to put an associate degree to work in an era of stagnant wages and credential inflation, or a three-limbed veteran of Fallujah who can’t sleep nights when the room gets too quiet, or any old member of Club Caucasian whom the Fates have squared up in their crosshairs and pelted with loss and calamity.

To the peddlers of ersatz “white supremacy,” your actual, real life is so much noise in the aggregation of white privilege. And I can’t help but notice that you keep sitting still.

– Mr. Foster is a political consultant and a former news editor of National Review Online.

Daniel Foster — Daniel Foster is a former news editor of National Review Online.

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