America the Oppressed

CNN: Are whites racially oppressed?

My immediate response to seeing this front page article on Friday was disgust, incredulity, anger — mostly toward CNN for allowing this message a shred of legitimacy, or implying that there’s enough of an argument here to merit prominent coverage from a major news network. The article itself is weak sauce: a mishmash of bullet points detailing alleged “signs of racial anxiety” among whites, miscellaneous quotes from academics and right-wing pundits, a conclusion filled with comment-baiting rhetorical questions about our country’s future, and ultimately an unhelpful shrug: “When you take the long view of human history, change is slow, but change happens.” OK then! That answers that.

Still, it’s been hard for me to dismiss the article altogether, or at least its existence. As of today it’s been recommended on Facebook by 39,830 people. There are over 8,000 comments on the article itself, which I can’t bring myself to read (the one on top declares, “Bush created DHS and used unwarranted wire tapping to find terrorists now Obama uses DHS to track down Americans that do not agree with him. Gradualism and lies is the way of the Marxist”). Yes, it’s a blatant grab for traffic on a Friday afternoon, posing controversial questions that the writer, John Blake, has no intent of actually attempting to answer. But the fact that the questions are being asked at all — and that people are interested in them — has to deserve a closer look.

Blake quotes one striking poll from the Public Religion Institute: “44% of Americans surveyed identify discrimination against whites as being just as big as bigotry aimed at blacks and other minorities. The poll found 61% of those identifying with the Tea Party held that view, as did 56% of Republicans and 57% of white evangelicals.”

The article also references a story that was making the rounds earlier in the week, about an Iraq War veteran and Texas State University student named Colby Bohannan who has started a group to award college scholarships to white males. Bohannan told The Austin American-Statesman: “I felt excluded. If everyone else can find scholarships, why are we left out?” The name of his group: “Former Majority Association for Equality.”

Blake spends a good chunk of his article talking about Glenn Beck’s DC rally and the caucasian throngs who flocked from across the country to attend. Blake gives the last word on the topic to conservative talk show host Chris Plante: “The Beck crowd was no more white than the Jon Stewart rally, but nobody in the news media described the Stewart crowd as overwhelmingly white.”

These are fascinating pieces of a story that deserves more thought than just, “whites have fallen on hard economic times, they’re anxious about the booming hispanic population, and they’ll probably all get over it eventually.” The answer isn’t as simple as embedded racism: Oh, half the white people out there just hate blacks and there’s nothing to be done about it. It isn’t as simple as hardship from the recession: White people were hit especially hard, you know, so where do these folks turn but to point fingers at all the minorities that are doing so well? And it’s certainly not as simple as the power of Fox News: Whites are told they’re a minority every day by Glenn Beck and his ilk, what choice do they have but to listen?

There’s a huge point being missed here: this is a country whose entire identity, whose entire cultural motivation for even existing, is grounded in being an oppressed people. The land was colonized by separatists, those who had divided themselves from a ruling church several times over. The republic was built by those who declared themselves free from the tyranny of an overseas institution in whose rule they had no say.

Election after election has been won by the candidate who most successfully casts himself as the voters see themselves: oppressed by the elitists, the ones who claim power by birthright but have not earned it. Andrew Jackson’s Democratic Party was entirely built on this feeling, and the party has outlived so many others because that feeling is so central to the American psyche.

In recent decades it has been the Republican Party that most successfully takes advantage of the oppressed America ideal. For most of his political career, every time Richard Nixon was mocked by the media elites, those who thought they knew best, the public backed him more (a strategy successfully imitated today by Sarah Palin). Ronald Reagan became the icon of modern conservatism by framing government regulators as the evil oppressors and equating free market principles with individual liberty. In two national elections, George W. Bush was the “guy you’d like to have a beer with” candidate. Why would his wealth or surname matter when his opponents reeked so thoroughly of elitism?

Mona Charen, a National Review columnist quoted in the CNN piece, asks: “Did [white Americans] become racist after electing the first black president?” Despite the fact that there remains a wealth of true racism in this country, she has a point. If you are looking at the numbers showing whites believe they are discriminated against and the huge margin by which Obama won the presidency, and you see a contradiction, you’re looking at it wrong. When Colby Bohannan says his Former Majority Association for Equality isn’t about race, I believe he means it.

Being oppressed is America’s reason to get up in the morning. Its people are fundamentally unable to see themselves as oppressors. Being the underdog, defeating the tyrants and elitists, battling the minority groups who are given things without earning them — whether they be royal monarchs or poor black women looking for scholarships — this is the entire motivation for the country to exist and for its people to be here.

Are whites racially oppressed? This is the wrong question. The right question is the one so many Americans ask themselves every morning: who is oppressing me today, and what can I do to fight back?

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