Why I keep writing about the centrality of race and politics from a historical perspective is best summed up by James Baldwin: “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it has been faced. History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.”
On Tuesday, November 6, we will face an election of historic importance and, no matter the outcome, the aftershocks will resonate through society and define the stakes for November 2020. And, no matter the outcome, the events of the last week – attempted pipe bomb political assassinations and mass murders in houses of worship – will continue unabated. We’ve been here before.
In 1858 Abraham Lincoln, accepting the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate, arguably gave his first great speech. “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” he said. “I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. It will either be all one thing or all the other.”
The United States is facing a similar and very related existential dilemma 160 years later. The Civil War resolved the question of slavery’s expansion and its legal status, but it didn’t resolve the issue of race. Race was merely deferred to the structural racism that had created and sustained slavery.
It was this deferral, the unwillingness or inability to deal with race in an anti-racist manner, that has brought us to this moment. Today Americans are confronted with similar dilemmas that also superficially appear to be about race but really are about identity – who is an American? And just like in the 1850s, there is no middle ground.
Conservatives are forever whining about identity politics, especially when people of color or other marginalized communities use their identities to politically mobilize against conservative white privilege. This would be ironic if it were not so hypocritical. The real creators of identity politics in America are rich privileged white men, who have conned working class white men and women into supporting their status and privilege by getting them to believe they too are part of America's ruling elite.
What tale has to be told to make someone believe something so absurdly untrue? The answer lies in 19th century pre-Civil War America. U.S. Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, who was also vice president from 1825-32, is considered the architect for the intellectual rationalization for slavery and the plantation system.
“With us the two great divisions of society are not the rich and the poor, but white and black, and all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals,” Calhoun wrote, “and hence have a position and pride of character of which neither poverty nor misfortune can deprive them.”
Average white people have internalized this theory of whiteness articulated by Calhoun, and that explains why low-income, working-class white men routinely vote against their obvious economic interests. It explains why the majority of white women, despite the misogyny inherent in the Trump presidency, see their interests aligned with white men rather than their sisters of color. Not only did 52 percent of white women vote for Donald Trump, the majority of white women in Alabama voted for Roy Moore.
James Baldwin posed a question that speaks directly to this notion of America’s whiteness. It’s as jarring, relevant, and impossible to understate today as it was 50 years ago. “What white people have to do is try to find out in their own hearts why it’s necessary to have a nigger,” Baldwin wrote. “I’m a man, but if you think I’m a nigger, you need it.”
The short answer is the “other” is required to maintain an army of average white people to protect the power and status of the privileged white few. So whether it’s us as the N-word, Mexicans as rapists, Muslims as terrorists, or the stereotypical Jewish Shylock, we are all necessary as the shiny object that keeps average white people from focusing on their alienation and oppression.
Just as Lincoln could not win the Civil War without black soldiers, anti-racist white Americans won’t prevail on Election Day without the 2018 electoral equivalent of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry in all its glory showing up on November 6 to make the difference. So once again, my brothers and sisters, we ride to the rescue of an undeserving America in order to save ourselves.
Mike Jones is a former senior staffer in St. Louis city and county government and current member of the Missouri State Board of Education and The St. Louis American editorial board. In 2016 and 2017, he was awarded Best Serious Columnist for all of the state’s large weeklies by the Missouri Press Association.