As I watch white people struggling with the idea of racism somehow still existing after Martin Luther King solved it, I’ve seen this belligerent battle the commenters have while discussing racism with baffled people of color.
Because the question people always seem to have lurking beneath all their other questions, the head of the octopus with its seeking tentacles, is this:
If Abraham Lincoln ended slavery, and Martin Luther King ended racism (but maybe he didn’t), then who was the guy who started racism?
You laugh, but this is a country of clean origins. George Washington founded America – that’s what our teachers taught us. Jefferson wrote the Constitution. Even Hamilton, the musical, plays right into this line of thinking by saying, at the end, that Alexander Hamilton created America’s financial policy.
If you want to understand much about America, it’s that all our schools points to primary movers. Particularly in grade school, we are never taught that anything was done by committee, unless it’s a war, and even then it’s probably the general that won the war, not the bodies of the bloodied soldiers who took that ground one heart-shredding step at a time. Our schools are filled with portraits, and we point eagerly to those portraits to tell us Who Started What – Helen Keller was when deaf people started to be important, and Adolf Hitler killed all the Jews, and Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb.
What we are never taught, unless we are very lucky and get teachers who get written up a lot by their superiors, is that all of these Iconoclastic Achievers had lots of other supporters who helped them get the job done, and in fact that Abraham Lincoln’s main strength was in getting disparate sides to work together. What we are taught is that a Legendary Man arises from the mists of history, strides to the fore, grasps his time, and bends history to his will.
What shocked me most about reading a biography of Martin Luther King – and I wish I could remember the name of the book – is that it started in the 1920s, talking about brave black preachers every bit as bold as MLK himself who, because America didn’t have television cameras to broadcast shame out from coast to coast, got lynched. The message was clear: people had been trying to do what MLK did all along, people with similar tactics.
It wasn’t just the man, but the circumstances.
America doesn’t really believe in circumstances. In the 1930s, John Steinbeck said, “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires,” and that’s still true today. A poor person’s circumstances don’t matter, even to the poor person himself, because America has a mythology that tells us that the Movers and Shakers change who we are.
There’s no real society. There’s just these cyclopean men striding forward, forging America like the good iron it is.
And what confuses a lot of white people, even though they’re too confused to understand that this concept is laced through their bodies, is that black writers are claiming that racism exists, and they can’t even point to the rotten bastard who started racism.
Because that’s how America works. Hitler made people hate Jews.
Where’s the black Hitler?
And they can’t point to the KKK, because the KKK came after slavery, and even white people know that racism was there before that, and what they’re questing for even if they don’t understand it is The Guy who started racism so they can look at him and not be like him, because you either have idols or sleazebags….
And when you say “racism is a thing that millions of white bureaucrats and schoolteachers and neighbors quietly accomplished in hundreds of ways, from realtors who quietly refused to sell to black buyers in good neighborhoods to the zoners who didn’t bother to build highways leading to black neighborhoods to fussy neighbors who are more willing to call the cops if they see a black stranger in their neighborhood because black bodies are always coded as a little more threatening to policemen who have also inhaled that stereotype that black kids are older, stronger, readier to do violence, and so shoot a little faster when the face they’re looking at is black,” they’re baffled because there’s no Guy.
There’s just… people.
What white people are all too often unconsciously seeking is The Guy To Blame For Racism, just like we seek out The Guy Who Founded Our Country and The Guy Who Freed Our Slaves and The Guy Who Stopped Racism.
They want A Guy. They need A Guy. They can’t make sense of history without A Guy.
And there’s no guy. There’s just millions of people who have this pervading, subconscious, unexamined opinion about skin tone and how it affects color, and they made – and make! – quiet decisions because of assumptions they’re not even aware they’re making, and how can that possibly make sense when George Washington woke up one morning and knocked down a cherry tree to yell, “I’MMA FOUND A COUNTRY!”?
And I’m always reminded of that Kids in the Hall sketch where they announce they’ve found the Cause of Cancer, and they drag Bruce McCulloch onto stage, and he hems and haws until someone goes, “Tell him, Bruce,” and Bruce sheepishly says, “…I’m sorry I caused all that cancer.”
And we laugh, because we know that one guy didn’t cause all the cancer.
But I think Americans laugh a little harder, because subconsciously they kind of did. Because they’ve been waiting all their life for a guy to cure cancer, just like Jonas Salk cured polio, and in the back of their minds there’s a guy in a white lab coat who’s so much smarter than all the other scientists – like Edison, who absolutely never ever ripped off anyone’s work, he did it all himself – and That Guy will cure cancer, all the cancer, it doesn’t matter that “cancer” is a catchall term that encompasses thousands of diseases with different etiologies, That Guy will hold up one hypodermic needle with The Cure To Cancer and then he’ll step into the ranks of American history as The Guy Who Cured Cancer.
Lots of Americans actually believe that. Hell, I believe it – or want to.
Just like I believed, when I was in fourth grade, that Martin Luther King was The Guy Who Cured Racism.
And I don’t know how you argue against that. Racism is like cancer – it comes from a lot of different angles, not all of it is fatal, some of it is actually more exhausting than deadly, but there’s no single person you can point to and say, “THAT’S THE GUY!” and they want a guy, they want to know who they can yell at like Hitler and go, “YEAH, DON’T BE LIKE THAT GUY,” except The Guy Who Started Racism has to be a guy they don’t like because they need a chewtoy they can rip into, and if they feel even slightly bad about denigrating The Guy then hey, that’s wrong.
Hitler had to kill millions of Jews before he made the canon, man. And people, I think, were grateful. Because you could point at Hitler and go, “DO YOU WANT TO BE LIKE HITTTTLER?!?!?” and feel good about not being Hitler and eventually someone made Godwin’s Law because people felt so good about Not Being Hitler that they made anyone who disagreed with them into Hitler at the slightest provocation.
And yeah. When you’re talking to a lot of white people about racism, you’re stalled because they want A Guy and there’s no Guy, it’s just a messy intertwining set of culture – but paradoxically, our culture is that there is no culture. There’s only Bold Men shaping America to Its Great Destiny.
They want to know which Bold Man led America astray so they can hate that guy and move on, and man. I wish we had him. I wish I could point to someone, just to prove that racism exists and it’s That Guy, but remember That Guy can’t be someone you might like.
What they want is a new Hitler, and I’m terrified we won’t find one until we elect him.
Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.