Is White the New Black?

Kelefa Sanneh has an interesting article in the New Yorker titled “Beyond the Pale: Is white the new black?” He first notes some of the famous racist commentaries like that of Glenn Beck, who said this about President Obama:

“This President, I think, has exposed himself as a guy, over and over and over again, who has a deep-seated hatred for white people, or the white culture. I don’t know what it is.” … Beck sat for an interview with Katie Couric, and she asked him a deceptively simple question . . . posed by a Twitter user named adrianinflorida: “what did u mean white culture?” Whatever adventurous thoughts this query inspired, Beck did not seem eager to share them. “Um, I, I don’t know,” he said. Finally, [he said] “What is the white culture? I don’t know how to answer that that’s not a trap, you know what I mean?”

After discussing this extremist commentary, Sanneh then discusses the odd blog/website, “Stuff White People Like,” which was set up by the white Canadian, Christian Lander. Sanneh makes the insightful point that

… Lander isn’t really talking about white people, or, at any rate, not most of them. In fact, he sometimes defines “white people” in opposition to “the wrong kind of white people,” because his true target is a small subset of white people, a white cultural élite. Most white people don’t “hate” Republicans—they have voted Republican in every Presidential election since 1968.

Then he discusses the interesting and informative new book by Rich Benjamin “Searching for Whitopia, which we have discussed here before. Benjamin highlights the movement of whites into certain types of residential enclaves, an important study whose deeper implications Sanneh does not puruse. After pointing out how few black voters went for Republicans in 2008 (but omitting a discussion of how few other voters of color also did not vote Republican, a revealing omission? See Yes We Canour full book length discussion of this here), he then ends on a somewhat puzzling, punch-pulling note:

But what of it? Why is it that, from Christian Lander to Jon Stewart, a diagnosis of whiteness is often delivered, and received, as a kind of accusation? The answer is that the diagnosis is often accompanied by an implicit or explicit charge of racism. It’s become customary to suppose that a measure of discrimination is built into whiteness itself, a racial category that has often functioned as a purely negative designation: to be white in America is to be not nonwhite….

After noting that labor historian David Roediger

published an incendiary volume, “Towards the Abolition of Whiteness.” … “It is not merely that whiteness is oppressive and false; it is that whiteness is nothing but oppressive and false,” he wrote. In his view, fighting racism wasn’t enough; white people who wanted to oppose oppression would have to do battle with whiteness itself. Nearly two decades later, amid a rancorous debate over our first black President, the idea of abolishing whiteness seems no less tantalizing—and no less remote.

Actually, Roediger’s book is accurate and well-documented, and only “incendiary” to whites and others who do not like to hear the truth about US society. Sanneh waffles throughout this piece, and it is confusing. He does not dig deeply enough into the foundational reality underlying these matters, or else does not understand that self-defined “whites” invented most of the racial and racist terminology that we have used in North America, and often across the globe. Whites invented “whites” and “blacks” as racialized terms and as key parts of the white racial frame, just as they did most aspects of that racial framing of society, and its other language (including almost all major racist epithets.) In his phrases like measure of “discrimination is built into whiteness itself, a racial category that has often functioned as a purely negative designation,” he fails to see that the historical data demonstrate quite clearly that whites invented the whiteness reality as past of a centuries-old white racial frame that rationalized whites’ extensive racial oppression, so of course racial discrimination and other racial oppression is built into whiteness itself. In addition, the last part of this phrase seems to miss the point that for whites, whiteness is almost always a positive thing (his few examples to the contrary notwithstanding) and has “often functioned” in negative way only for those who have been oppressed by white domination and racial oppression.

And the last line, about abolishing whiteness, also seems to miss the critical point. The only way to abolish whiteness is to abolish the system of racial oppression, with its still-dominant racial hierarchy, and thus the dominant white racial frame. There is much more here than abolishing the term whiteness or some notion of whiteness. This is about a system and foundation of racial oppression, not just about terms and dialogue–or some notion that whites are now fully problematized, and thus that “white is the new black.” What a strange notion!