THE BIG WHITE LIE: America's Racial Paradigm
No wonder white supremacists are anxious and vitriolic. The story they’ve perpetrated for centuries about their superiority over women, “people of color,” and gays is unraveling right before their eyes. Not only have we had an African American President of the United States, but in 2014 there was only one “straight” white male in the top ten of the Forbes list of highest-earning celebrities. And fully half of the entire list are people from the groups traditionally marginalized by white supremacists. It’s enough to make them quake in their boots.
What I've written here is based on my exposure to America’s racial paradigm for more than three-quarters of a century, plus what I’ve learned from reading history in works other than official classroom texts. As the PBS documentary Race: The Power of an Illusion explains, “Race has no genetic basis.” Instead, it “is a powerful social idea that gives people different access to opportunities and resources.” Scientific data, however, mean nothing in the presence of this powerful social imperative.
It was dismaying, although not surprising, to see racism’s ugly head spinning wildly after Barack Obama was elected President of the United States. Having our first black president seems to have unhinged a sizable number of Americans, but thankfully they are not the majority. These white supremacists were outraged at having a black family in the White House and, in addition to insulting the president in every way possible, they began passing and pushing for laws to take us back to their “glory” days. Apparently they’re longing for the time when people with “a drop of African blood” couldn’t vote, let alone run for congress or the presidency. To achieve that end, with the support of the current U.S. Supreme Court, they are erecting new barriers to the right to vote, especially for black and brown folk. This is perhaps the first step back to the days they long for when only propertied white males had power, including the right to vote.
For these disturbed Americans, President Obama’s election concretized the warning that Patrick Buchanan has been issuing for years, most specifically in his book, State of Emergency: The Third World Invasion and Conquest of America. “Third world” is his euphemism for people who are not of European descent. That title, and the mythology of a white America that they want back, represent the Big White Lie.
THIS HAS NEVER BEEN A WHITE COUNTRY
The only “invasion” of America has been by whites--people who looked like Buchanan. There were no whites (i.e., Europeans) here when the first immigrants made contact with the people already living on this land. These Europeans utilized cruelty and their more efficient weaponry to invade and occupy the land, systematically murdering or displacing the indigenous people. The invaders succeeded in taking control, but some of the original inhabitants they dubbed “Indians” survived and continue to have a presence, however marginal, in their ancestral homeland.
Europeans had been engaged in the capture and sale of Africans for more than a century when they “discovered” the New World. So it was a no-brainer in 1619 to bring Africans across the Atlantic to do the back-breaking work of developing the stolen land and making the most of its resources. Europeans held the reins of power, but the country was not “white” because the surviving original inhabitants were still present, and the number of Africans was increasing rapidly, especially in the South, where much of the slave labor was concentrated. In what was to become the United States, those in power gradually encouraged immigrants from various parts of Europe to mute their regional and national prejudices and become “white.” This was accomplished by creating propaganda that established white skin as superior to the “nonwhites” in their midst. By sowing distrust based on skin color, political leaders were assured that the poor, but "superior" whites, whom they privately referred to as "white trash," would never believe they had anything in common with those "beneath" them.
The population of “colored” people continued to expand as powerful white males took advantage of their position to rape the “inferior” women. The offspring of these legitimate rapes increased the numbers of nonwhites.
In 1848 the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo placed a significant portion of Mexico (including what are now the states of California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and parts of Colorado and Texas) and Mexicans within the United States, increasing the number of “colored” citizens in America yet again. The suffusion continued with the importation of Chinese laborers to build the Transcontinental Railroad completed in 1869. The U.S. acquired Puerto Rico (there are more Puerto Ricans in this country than in Puerto Rico), the Philippines, and Guam after defeating Spain in the 1898 Spanish-American War. American imperialism added other territories like Samoa, the Virgin Islands, Alaska and Hawaii, the latter two admitted as the 49th and 50th states in 1959. The "colored" people living in these territories are all Americans, although white supremacist policies have deprived many of them, and the residents of Washington, DC, of their full citizenship rights. U. S. military incursions in Vietnam, Cambodia and Korea, and this country's ongoing meddling in the Middle East have spurred refugees and immigrants from these non-European areas to settle here as well. The term “nonwhite” is itself the perfect indicator of the assumed supremacy of whiteness.
Now that the national stew is nicely spiced and these people of color are exercising their power, a number of European descendants are hysterically digging in their heels in a desire to “take their country back.” Fear of becoming a “minority” in “their” country has built a fence on the Mexican border, toughened immigration restrictions, and increased deportations. The rage for more prisons has long been fueled by a desire to re-enslave blacks—African-Americans and Hispanics make up approximately 25 percent of the nation’s population, yet they constitute more than half of those incarcerated in the country’s prisons. Now, however, the hungry and rapacious privatized prison industry is gobbling up poor whites as well. (In 1998 an Atlantic article stated, “The United States now imprisons more people than any other country in the world—perhaps half a million more than Communist China.” Since 2016, expenditures on incarceration in the U.S. have increased three times more than spending on education.)
What these frightened folk don’t realize is that their hysteria is much too late. Dragging their heels over the changes now taking place will only leave them in a deep rut. It’s inevitable, people of color will be the majority in the United States, as we are in the world. And soon. Not because of any “invasion” as Trump, Buchanan and others want us to believe. Rather, this demographic shift is a result of long-standing official U.S. policies and imperialist practices that created a racial paradigm in the United States dating back to the first European invaders.
With the media’s constant barrage of statistics, African Americans are not allowed to forget that we are regarded as not measuring up to the white standard. That makes it easier for officials and others to see African Americans as disposable. For many years we were the defective ethnic group, but as their numbers have increased, Hispanic Americans have been added to the mix. Since 2001, people from the Middle East, or those who "look like" they could be from that area, have been added to the list of suspects. On occasion it is mentioned, in passing, that even whites are outpaced in achievement by Asian Americans. All measurements are taken by race/ethnic group, not by levels of wealth, achievement or education, but by ethnic group. Why? Because America operates in a hierarchical racial paradigm.
What is never mentioned, or barely even alluded to, is that despite their status as the standard by which everyone else is measured, some whites feel the full weight of their inadequacies until reminded that at least they are not black/Hispanic/foreign, at which time they can swell with pride. Apparently, being a member of the "superior" group is not as satisfying as one might think, otherwise there would be no need for them to nurture such violent hatred for those "others."
Racism is integral to being American. Having been written into the Constitution, racism is the foundation upon which the U. S. was built and remains an integral part of the country's institutions to this day. Yet we refuse to face it honestly and continue to tell the Big White Lie.
This essay has been modified from the original first published in 2015
in the essay collection, Not All Poor People Are Black.