About 12:01 on the afternoon of January 20, 2009, the white American mind began to unravel.
It had been a pretty good run up to that point. The brains of white folks had been humming along cogently for near on 400 years on this continent, with little sign that any serious trouble was brewing. White people, after all, had managed to invent a spiffy new form of self-government so that all white men (and, eventually, women) could have a say in how white people were taxed and governed. White minds had also nearly universally occupied just about every branch of that government and, for more than two centuries, had kept sole possession of the leadership of its executive branch (whose parsonage, after all, is called the White House).
But when that streak was broken—and, for the first time, a non-white president accepted the oath of office—white America rapidly began to lose its grip.
As with other forms of dementia, the signs weren’t obvious at first. After the 2008 election, when former House majority leader Tom DeLay suggested that instead of a formal inauguration, Barack Obama should “have a nice little chicken dinner, and we’ll save the $125 million,” black folks didn’t miss the implication. References to chicken, particularly of the fried variety, have long served as a kind of code when white folks referred to black people and their gustatory preferences—and weren’t many of us already accustomed to older white politicians making such gaffes? But who among us sensed that it was a harbinger that an entire nation was plunging into madness?
Who didn’t chuckle, after all, the first time they heard that white people had doubts that Barack Obama had even been born in the United States and was therefore ineligible to be president? It sounded like one of those Internet stories in which some (usually white) writer does his best to prove something everyone knows to be true is actually the exact opposite. And you go along with it for a few paragraphs to see how long the writer can convince you that what you know is right is actually wrong.
Seemed like that, didn’t it? After all, what was the beef? Obama’s father was Kenyan, and the kid was born in Hawaii—which is barely a part of the United States to begin with (only a state in 1959!). His mother was white, and after the Kenyan guy left, she married an Indonesian guy, so little Barack lived in Jakarta for a while before coming back to Hawaii to be brought up largely by his white grandparents. . . . And that’s it? Come on, this was after-school-special material, the kind of thing that brings a tear to your eye because little half-Kenyan/half-white Barry made good, not the stuff of conspiracy novels.
But the more you shook your head at it, the more it seemed to have taken root deep in the lizard part of the white nervous system. Obama is not an American. He says he’s Christian, but he has a Muslim-sounding name. He’s not black, he’s not white. . . . Is . . . is he even human?
Today, Newsweek has found, nearly a quarter of Americans believe that Obama is a Muslim, with barely 42 percent of the nation accepting his claim that he’s a Christian. CNN finds that a quarter of Americans also believe that Obama was “probably or definitely” born in another country.
Harris found in an online poll that 14 percent of Americans believe in their hearts that President Barack Obama is the antichrist, with nearly a quarter of Republicans saying so.
At least in this form, however, Satan (sometimes) wears a flag pin.
What was going on? Had decades of sucking down so much high-fructose corn syrup not only made Americans incredibly obese, but also messed with white brain chemistry to the point that some sort of tipping point had occurred?
Not a bad theory, but no, there’s a simpler explanation, with two parts: For the first time in their lives, baby boomers are hard up against it economically, and white boy is becoming outnumbered and it’s got his bowels chilled with fear.
“In an age of diminished resources, the United States may be heading for an intensifying confrontation between the gray and the brown,” writes Ronald Brownstein in his July National Journal article, “The Gray and the Brown: The Generational Mismatch.” That’s a polite and understated way of saying that older white folks are losing their shit as they’re being replaced by young brown and black kids while the economy is in the crapper.
Brownstein notes that 40 percent of the nation’s population under 18 is already non-white, with that number significantly higher in the Southwest (read: Mexicans!). By 2023, that number of young non-whites will be an outright national majority.
At the same time, the baby boomers are getting older. At 80 percent white, boomers have gotten pretty used to dominating nearly every field of endeavor in this country since they came of age—politics, business, education, the arts—just about everything but MTV programming. Boomers set the national agenda in so many ways that we can forget how much the national economy and national media cater to them. Bewildered by the number of Cialis ads you see on television showing those flabby couples sitting in bathtubs? Or the way that older women are suddenly “cougars” and “MILFs” and . . . oh, yeah, you remember, boomers are getting old, but still want to think they can get the sheets sweaty. See? Boomers and their fixations and fears explain nearly everything. . . .
Anyway, as boomers age, they get more politically active. That’s just human nature, and their 40-million-strong AARP is the nation’s biggest lobbyist. But as they try to wield that power, they’re running into the growing, and less white, younger generations.
“Like tectonic plates, these slow-moving but irreversible forces may generate enormous turbulence as they grind against each other in the years ahead,” writes Brownstein.
At some point, when tectonic plates build up enough tension, that destructive energy gets unleashed in a major earthquake, which is a pretty good metaphor for what happened on November 4, 2008. A black man got elected president, and suddenly every aging white boomer in this country turned into Carole King—they sure as hell felt the earth moving under their feet.
Meanwhile, the brother moving into the White House inherited the kind of mortgage that even Wall Street executives might hesitate to call “subprime.”
A devastated economy. Two wars, neither being fought with clear goals. Housing markets that resembled war zones. A health system crippled with costs. An auto industry cratering.
But surely, in a time of crisis, the country could pull together to fix this mess, right?
Can you help a brother on health care? No.
The economy? No.
Financial regulatory reform? No.
National security? No.
Now, some black folks can be forgiven for thinking, as they watched the political drama in Washington unfold over the past two years, that this was just another form of the same old thing they’d put up with in one way or another in this conflicted multiracial country.
But there is another explanation.
White people have simply gone sheer fucking insane.
Let’s look at some examples to nail down that theory.
The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now was a nonprofit that organized voter drives and worked for improved wages and housing for poor, mostly non-white Americans. And because of who they organized, they became public enemy No. 1 in the eyes of certain people not so thrilled with black folks registering to vote in large numbers.
Obama had once defended ACORN in a voting-rights case (as co-counsel alongside the Justice Department and the League of Women Voters). An ACORN offshoot was one of many Get-Out-the-Vote enterprises employed by his primary (but not general) campaign. The group’s members did the same kind of community organizing that Obama had done as a young man. But throughout the 2008 election season, there was a concerted campaign to whip up hysteria about ACORN, and by November 2009, Public Policy Polling found that more than a quarter of Americans (and an outright majority of Republican voters) believed that ACORN had stolen the election for Obama.
This was, of course, after the classic bit of Nixonian “rat-fucking” pulled off by a prankster named James O’Keefe.
O’Keefe, a veteran at creating videos to make blacks look greedy and stupid (look for “Taxpayers Clearing House” on YouTube), spent the summer driving around the country with his accomplice, Hannah Giles, making videos in ACORN offices asking for advice about avoiding tax troubles with prostitution money. You’ve no doubt seen the images of O’Keefe dressed as a ’70s pimp. But O’Keefe had carefully edited his tapes and left out, for example, that he was decked out in college preppie clothes, not pimp-wear. At least one ACORN office threw him out, and at least two knowingly played along with his ruse. (The San Diego office called the cops after he left, and the Philadelphia office filed a police report.) The upshot was that after his edited tapes became public, Congress quickly voted to strip ACORN of all federal funds. The organization effectively went out of business before the bill could take effect or be thrown out in court.
O’Keefe has maintained he was “absolutely independent” in his project. But in September 2009, the Voice reported that he’d been funded by billionaire conservative Peter Thiel and the Leadership Institute, the same outfit that funded young Grover Norquist and Karl Rove. That revelation fell on deaf ears, however, and to this day, media outlets perpetuate O’Keefe’s claim that he was operating without backing.
O’Keefe got further help when his tapes were pushed by BigGovernment.com, which is run by an underhanded blowhard named Andrew Breitbart.
Months later, O’Keefe was arrested by the FBI in a bizarre prank at Senator Mary Landrieu’s office, in which he was either attempting to plant a wiretap or, in his explanation on Breitbart’s website, just trying to find out whether her phone system worked to help her constituents reach her. (Yeah, that was a good one.)
This summer, Breitbart picked out another black target with another selectively edited video, this one of a USDA employee named Shirley Sherrod. His editing so mischaracterized Sherrod’s words and intent that the fallout, in the words of Frank Rich, “could not only smear an innocent woman but make every national institution that touched the story look bad. . . . The White House, the NAACP and the news media were all soiled by this episode.”
But, hey, politics is hardball, right? We’ve had rat-fuckers like Breitbart and O’Keefe around forever (the founding fathers were certainly not immune to dirty tricks in their day). What’s different this time, however, is just how easily the lies and distortions of the rat-fuckers are being soaked up by the damaged crania of this country’s drooling white masses. What sort of senility is softening up the frontal lobes of America’s palefaces that they can’t see through the black-hatred of a wanker like Breitbart?
Out West, meanwhile, as home prices dropped faster than a burst piñata, an easy scapegoat was found: Mexicans. Long the scourge of aging white folks, who don’t seem to understand the economics behind their cheap groceries, immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala, and other sweltering southern destinations became enemies of the American Dream.
Suddenly, it was open season on brown-skinned fruit pickers and seamstresses. Arizona passed S.B.1070—a law that would force its residents to carry identity papers with them at all times. Jurisdictions around the nation are salivating to copy suit.
Back East, meanwhile, we have our own brown-skinned devil: the Muslim. When an imam who had done diplomatic work for the Bush administration put together plans to build the Muslim version of a Jewish Community Center a few blocks from Ground Zero (but farther away than an off-track betting joint, a strip club, and the very financial institutions that had detonated the economy), white people freaked out.
At Landmarks Preservation Commission meetings, white housewives from Staten Island suddenly took a great interest in preserving mid-19th-century cast-iron façades and the architecture of Daniel Badger—all to try to keep New Yorkers from taking swimming lessons in the same building where Muslims would have a place to pray. They argued that Muslims could never understand the impact of 9/11 (even though more than 20 Muslims were killed that day) and could never understand the concept of Ground Zero being holy ground (as if a building that would contain prayer services was somehow less holy than an outlet for betting on horses or stuffing dollar bills into G-strings).
But by now, those sorts of distinctions are nearly impossible to make for a white mind so cluttered by decay. Race was always a tough one for white people to deal with, but now the backflips some people are doing over it requires a scorecard.
There may be no better example than Laura Schlessinger and the great white outpouring of support following the bizarre flameout of her radio show.
It all started with the most incomprehensible of happenings: that a black woman would, out of all reason, call the Dr. Laura show seeking advice.
The sister called Schlessinger to ask how to handle her white husband’s white friends, who sometimes say racist things that she’s uncomfortable with, including using “the N-word.”
Schlessinger almost immediately went to, “A lot of blacks voted for Obama simply ’cause he was half-black.”
She told the caller not to “NAACP” her by taking her out of context.
She said “nigger” is fine to say because “black guys use it all the time.”
She then wrote the caller off as having a “chip on [her] shoulder” and declared, “We’ve got a black man as president, and we have more complaining about racism than ever.”
She told the caller that if “you’re that hypersensitive about color and don’t have a sense of humor” (i.e., you even question that your husband’s white friends say “nigger” to you in your house), “don’t marry out of your race.”
The caller, Schlessinger thought, was suffering from “hypersensitivity—which is being bred by black activists.” Her discomfort with the word “nigger,” Schlessinger said, was just another “attempt to demonize whites hating blacks.”
The reaction from white America, who clearly had not remembered to take their thorazine that morning, was overwhelming: Who, if not Laura Schlessinger, should say “nigger” with impunity?
Schlessinger announced on Larry King Live, however, that in order to “regain” her First Amendment rights of free speech, she would be canceling her show.
Constitutional experts are still trying to parse that one.
Sarah Palin then rushed to Schlessinger’s, side, Tweeting in her inimitable style, “Don’t retreat . . . reload!” Palin, we can only assume, wanted Schlessinger to utter “nigger” as often as she wanted.
Perhaps the two of them, having both quit their jobs, can get together and put on a road show, opening with “Zip Coon” and finishing with a rousing rendition of “Carry Me Back to Ole Virginny”?
On February 19, 2009, not a month into Obama’s presidency, Rick Santelli—a former hedge-fund manager—had a meltdown on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange while broadcasting for CNBC. Santelli was incensed not that the government was bailing out the multimillionaires who had run giant financial institutions, but that assistance would also be going to help out ordinary people who found themselves defaulting on their home mortgages. Calling such folks “losers,” he said, “How many of you want to pay for your neighbor’s mortgage that has an extra bathroom and can’t pay their bills?”
He then added that he was not only mad as hell, but wanted to do something about it: “We’re thinking of having a Chicago Tea Party in July. All you capitalists that want to show up to Lake Michigan, I’m gonna start organizing.”
Suddenly, other angry (and obviously very confused) white people began organizing their own “tea parties” and, from the start, had to defend themselves from charges that there was more than a little racial component to their movement.
Few were really surprised, for example, when Tea Party Express President Mark Williams turned out to have penned a letter that could have been written in the worst decades of Jim Crow: “We Coloreds have taken a vote and decided that we don’t cotton to that whole emancipation thing. Freedom means having to work for real, think for ourselves, and take consequences along with the rewards. That is just far too much to ask of us Colored People and we demand that it stop!”
And it turns out that the “grassroots” modern tea party effort has been largely funded by the Koch brothers, reactionaries whose combined oil wealth places them just behind Bill Gates and Warren Buffet as America’s wealthiest men. The brothers have given some $100 million toward the Tea Party’s astroturf call to arms.
“This right-wing, redneck stuff works for them,” a former Koch associate told The New Yorker. “They see this as a way to get things done without getting dirty themselves.” And in primaries across America this year, the Kochs have gotten one hell of a return on their investment. After decades of pouring money into think-tanks, the billionaire brothers now have an ally no institute fellow could ever match: a scared, angry white mob that votes.
And what a mob. White folks used to shy away from candidates who e-mailed pictures of a woman being fucked by a horse, didn’t they? Can you just see the scene down at the Republican Party headquarters: “Well, except for sending out those e-mails of horse-fucking, other e-mails of nigger jokes, and also fathering a love child, this guy Carl Paladino is just our kind of guy!”
Finding Rick Lazio not crazy enough, white New Yorkers nominated Paladino for governor by a margin of almost two to one.
Sure, Lazio had made an effort. He’d gone after the “Ground Zero Mosque” like a good race-baiter, but he just isn’t in Paladino’s mouth-frothing league. “Crazy Carl” is threatening to take a baseball bat to Albany (and our Tom Robbins explained last week how Carl’s looney ravings are an empty act).
Now, try, if your cortex is not too far gone, to reel things back a couple of years. Imagine, if you can, Barack Obama surging in polls in 2008 if it were known he’d sent out e-mails of a white woman getting it from a horse, revealed that he had a 10-year-old love child, and was threatening to take a baseball bat to federal employees. It’s really impossible to conjure up, isn’t it?
That—right there, more than anything—demonstrates just how much the white brain has become Swiss cheese in the last couple of trips around the sun.
A close second place: the really crazy white shit happening down in Delaware, a state that never really caused much trouble (except for unleashing Joe Biden on us) until it nominated one-time witch Christine O’Donnell, who is so batshit crazy she makes Sarah Palin sound perfectly reasonable.
By now, just about everyone has seen the precious moment in MTV’s 1996 Sex in the ’90s when O’Donnell made this monumental discovery about masturbation: “If he already knows what pleases him and he can please himself, then why am I in the picture?” Fourteen years later, it doesn’t really seem to be dawning on the still-unmarried O’Donnell that she’s not “in the picture” and might never be. But that, apparently, isn’t going to stop her waging war against the sex lives of everyone else.
Again, only white lunacy explains it: Neither O’Donnell nor Paladino is a fringe candidate. O’Donnell has a difficult, but not impossible, chance to become a U.S. Senator. Paladino may yet become New York’s next governor. (He’s already polling ahead of Andrew Cuomo among likely male voters, who are generally white and clearly stark raving mad.)
Is there any hope? Can the white mind be cured? And what—other than a massive lobotomy—can salvage it? It’s hard to imagine a cure when, at this point, the patient doesn’t seem to realize that he’s sick. Rush Limbaugh, for example, has declared that it’s black Americans who have a problem. The “black frame of mind is terrible” because of unemployment, and, equally important, because of “Tiger Woods’s choice of females,” he has said. What was that about a pot and a kettle?
If there is a cure, it likely won’t come from Barack Obama. There are those who say that this president invited our current derangement by not being commanding enough. They say he should have inveighed Franklin D. Roosevelt, who famously said before ever being re-elected, “I should like to have it said of my first Administration that in it, the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match. I should like to have it said . . . of my second Administration that in it these forces met their master.” But if Obama ever referred to being the “master“ of anything, he’d scare white people more than he already does.
Glenn Beck is one of the downright terrified, and has said that Obama has “a deep-seated hatred of white people or the white culture.” Which makes you wonder, has Beck really not seen Obama in his golf attire?
In the end, it goes beyond Obama, and the current economy, and is really about the inevitable demographic future of America, those coming browns and the grays. They will—one way or another—have to learn to get along.
It is true, as Brownstein says, that the graying boomers will hate to pay for the education, health, and welfare of the coming browns. They’ll be stingy about it. They’ll scream about it. But they’ll have no choice but to do it.
After all, who but the hordes of young browns will be around to work when the grays retire? To pay taxes? To fund their Medicare and Social Security? And how will they earn enough money to finance boomers in their retirement if they’re not well educated and healthy?
To do this dance effectively, the white American mind is going to have to focus and prioritize. Maybe, just maybe, it might be required to act with a little ever-loving sanity every now and again.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 29, 2010