American media have a collective crush on avowed racists. The New York Times is only the most recent perpetrator with their now maligned profile of an Ohio Nazi . The kid glove approach was too obvious and readers rose up in uproar. The back pedaling and apologizing shouldn’t let them off the hook, nor allow their colleagues at other outlets to escape scrutiny. The alt-right got a significant boost from a puff piece profile of their leader Richard Spencer in the supposedly progressive Mother Jones. Mother Jones referred to the “prom-king good looks” of the “dapper white nationalist.”
The pattern is repeated often enough that a few questions must be posed. Why do northern liberal elites find racists so fascinating? Millions of people choose to be racist and align themselves with likeminded groups. The election of Donald Trump gave them legitimacy. That is all there is to say. But the New York Times and other media insist on conducting fact finding missions to reveal what self-proclaimed white supremacists eat for dinner and where they do their shopping.
The sad fact is that very few white Americans stray far from this country’s racist origins. The same New York Times readers who were rightly offended by the Nazi apologia were also supportive of their black neighbors being stopped and frisked by the NYPD. The people who are still aghast at the Trump victory should not necessarily be given a get out of jail free card.
They may get the vapors because a New York Times reporter didn’t give sufficient pushback to a man who owns Nazi memorabilia. But they aren’t so supportive of black people that they will cease gentrifying in Harlem or Brooklyn or Washington, D.C. They thrive through a variety of arrangements which benefit them because they are white.
They are well aware of and happily make use of all the advantages that come with whiteness yet don’t cross the line into open and overt racism. Doing so would offend their highbrow sensibilities. But beneath the outrage about Trump’s election lies an affinity which could not be kept hidden for very long.
The Ohio Nazi Tony Hovater is portrayed as being somehow mysterious because he does all of the right and “normal” things. The Times reporter reveals that he has a job and is newly married and says please and thank you. The unwritten subtext is that whiteness itself is normative. There will always be an effort to defend the overt racists as long as that pernicious idea goes unexamined.
Yet there should be no confusion among black people. The Ohio Nazi article was problematic because he was given the floor and allowed to say that Hitler was “chill.” But the existence of people like him is not surprising to us. We know that the country was and is deeply racist and that we live in an environment that literally endangers our lives. We are never safe, regardless of who occupies the White House. We also know that white people who would never consider themselves racists are in fact just that, and that we must be on guard against them. Perhaps there should be investigative reporting about their ability to compartmentalize and the pretense that allows them to feel superior despite their own foibles.
The overt white supremacist most certainly poses great dangers. They should be closeted. They should live in fear of being revealed. But they should not be treated as outliers either.
Black people are, as ever, placed in a quandary. Our condition was not a good one before last year’s presidential election. We lag behind in every positive measure and are at the top of every bad one. Our precarious position didn’t occur overnight when Trump and his white nationalists won the day.
If elitist liberals claim to be outraged by racism let us put them on the spot. Will they fight against mass incarceration? Will they stop displacing people of color from their communities? Will they fight against job discrimination and for living wages? Will they campaign for black community control of the police?
The questions are rhetorical of course. They won’t do any of these things and unless black people fight for self-determination we will continue accepting political crumbs. That is what we did before Trump’s election. We had good reason to be outraged about any number of issues but felt compelled to feel relieved if Democrats prevailed instead of Republicans and white nationalists stayed in the closet.
The open white supremacists cannot be the determining factor of how we pursue political action. The same is true of faux outrage from white liberals. It cannot be trusted either. We will live with these contradictions until we rid ourselves of dependence on the duopoly which keeps us trapped in a state of terror or phony comfort.
The truth is that we must depend upon ourselves to change our condition. Self-determination is the key to changing our lot in this country. That task is huge but it isn’t made any easier because white Americans differ only in how they present themselves publicly. It doesn’t matter if liberals or white nationalists feel ascendant. Our struggle continues regardless.
Margaret Kimberley’s Freedom Rider column appears weekly in BAR, and is widely reprinted elsewhere. She maintains a frequently updated blog as well as at freedomrider.blogspot.com. Ms. Kimberley lives in New York City, and can be reached via e-Mail at Margaret.Kimberley(at)BlackAgendaReport.com.