Denying Our Racist Realities: An Old White Sport

Slave Quarters
Creative Commons License photo credit: Corey Ann
Denying this country’s racist foundation and continuing racist reality pays some of the salaries for many in the mainstream media, as well as in academia. This election has given them new energy in what might be called “racism denial” propaganda. For example, the leading corporate newspaper, the Republican-oriented Wall Street Journal, has asserted that Obama’s election is a tribute to how open and democratic the United States now is:

A man of mixed race has now reached the pinnacle of U.S. power only two generations since the end of Jim Crow. This is a tribute to American opportunity, and it is something that has never happened in another Western democracy — notwithstanding European condescension about “racist” America.

After this crowing about U.S. moral superiority over European countries, the editorial added this:

While Mr. Obama lost among white voters, as most modern Democrats do, his success is due in part to the fact that he also muted any politics of racial grievance. We have had in recent years two black Secretaries of State, black CEOs of our largest corporations, black Governors and Generals — and now we will have a President. One promise of his victory is that perhaps we can put to rest the myth of racism as a barrier to achievement in this splendid country. Mr. Obama has a special obligation to help do so.

Note that this conservative editorial writer is explicitly recognizing that Obama ran a successful campaign because he did not engage in the “politics of racial grievance.” That is, Obama ran to fit within a colorblind do-not-talk-about-race version of the dominant white racial frame, and this writer praises and values that effort. Numerous others are claiming we are now in a “post-racial” era.

In addition, this writer emphasizes that a few African Americans have recently served as tokens in highly visible political positions (only one elective), and this token reality can be viewed as an indication that white racism is no longer a barrier to high achievement. More than that, the writer calls aggressively on President-elect Obama to lead the effort to kill the “myth of racism.” This is an old effort that white leaders have engaged in for centuries, of ferreting out a few blacks to serve white interests and whitewash the reality of systemic racism.

The intensity of this denial of white racism’s continuing impact suggests that something racially significant is going on beneath the surface of this argument, in the white minds that run the Wall Street Journal. Is there a concern here that under Obama there might be a renewed discussion of U.S. racism and an aggressive enforcement of our weakly enforced civil rights laws? The irony of the argument about the “myth of racism” is lost on this writer, who earlier admitted that most whites did not vote for the first “mixed race” (not “black”!?) presidential candidate.

About the same time that I was reading this Journal article, I ran across an article in the South Florida Times (published in mid-October 2008) on Senator McCain’s major slaveholding ancestors—one that did not get much media attention at the time. Although he has so far been unwilling to acknowledge it, Senator McCain’s ancestors were major slaveholders, in a rural area community of Carroll County, Mississippi. Indeed, the white and black descendants of the McCain slaveholders now have a biannual Coming Home Reunion. McCain’s brother and other white relatives have attended, but Senator McCain has not attended or even acknowledged invitations to attend. Some of his distant black relatives have suggested strongly that McCain has tried to hide this family history. South Florida Times researchers discovered that McCain has many black relatives.

As the South Florida Times reports:

Sen. John McCain’s great, great grandfather, William Alexander McCain (1812-1863), fought for the Confederacy and owned a 2,000-acre plantation named Waverly in Teoc. The family dealt in the slave trade, and, according to official records, held at least 52 slaves on the family’s plantation. The enslaved Africans were likely used as servants, for labor, and for breeding more slaves. William McCain’s son, and Sen. John McCain’s great grandfather, John Sidney McCain (1851-1934), eventually assumed the duty of running the family’s plantation.

The paper also notes some of Senator McCain’s own racist history:

In addition to distancing himself from his black family members, John McCain has taken several positions on issues that have put him at odds with members of the larger black community. While running for the Republican Party nomination in 2000, he sided with protesters who were calling for the rebel battle flag to be removed from the South Carolina statehouse, only to alter that position later. “Some view it as a symbol of slavery. Others view it as a symbol of heritage,” John McCain said of the flag. “Personally, I see the battle flag as a symbol of heritage. I have ancestors who have fought for the Confederacy, none of whom owned slaves. I believe they fought honorably.’’

Well, actually his family did enslave lots of African Americans. The intimate connections of the US present to our highly racialized past must be constantly denied and ignored in order to maintain the post-racial ideology, a new spin on the old white racial frame that helps whites like the editors/writers in newspapers like the Wall Street Journal continue in their racism denial mode.