Liveblog: Stepping on the third rail of race w/Steven Thrasher of ‘White America Has Lost Its Mind’
9:35PM: The chat has just ended. You can read the liveblog with Steven Thrasher at the end of this piece.
Zap! It’s the sound of The Village Voice ‘s Steven Thrasher stepping on the third rail of race by taking a tongue-firmly-planted-in-cheek, but deadly spot-on look at how the masks have completely dropped off with the election of Barack Obama — White America Has Lost Its Mind.
This post is a not-so-little primer in advance of tonight’s Blend live chat with Steven, whose piece is one of the most-read Village Voice’s stories of the year and has generated a record number of comments at the Voice. It has been shared on Facebook more than 21,000 times, and tweeted (and re-tweeted) extensively.
In terms of mail, poor Steven’s inbox has exploded — over 1,500 email responses to date. Most are overwhelmingly positive (though he says the negative ones were really negative – more samples of that later).
Why did this article strike a nerve with people, besides being a piece on race? Well…
More below the fold…1) The Title: This is obvious – saying “White America Has Lost Its Mind” is such a sweeping, hilarious generalization right up front – if you’re a person of color, you probably laugh right off of the bat. If you’re not, some white folks will laugh, and some will immediately get defensive, thinking the author is unfairly lumping all white people of all political persuasions in with the Limbaughs, Palins and the Teabaggers.
That’s the point – how often do you hear “the black community” discussed as a political or cultural monolith in the MSM? The fact that I had to explain this to some of my defensive white Facebook friends when I “shared” this article shows you how jumpy and paranoid some white folks are about raising the spectre of being judged as racist even when the finger isn’t pointing directly at them.
2) The truth in the piece. Steven Thrasher takes no prisoners from the very beginning to paint an epic mural of stereotypes that, sadly, are backed by cold hard facts covering very prominent bigot eruptions. How can you not laugh (and want to cry) at this:
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?
I have to disagree with Steven here – having covered the 2008 election year, the nation’s race-based plunge into madness began once it was clear that Barack Obama had a chance to win the Democratic nomination, and escalated into what we referred here on the Blend as the McCain mob incidents. White folks in despair of the thought of Obama being elected POTUS generated these (a small sample):
* South Carolina: black reporter attacked by white family (on camera!)
3) Declaring white folks insane. Satire aside, as you read the piece you have to wonder what is mentally wrong with a too-large slice of the white population.
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.
As I said earlier – if you’ve been reading the Blend, post after post covered absolutely certifiable people who have no compunction about declaring birth theories in public (e.g. Joseph Farah), hoping to be taken seriously.
4. The conclusion drawn in the piece. It’s a provocative and worthwhile discussion-generator — it’s not just race, it’s a generational conflict being stirred by yes, white folks — the elder, vulnerable Boomers.
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.
The demographics of this enormous, Social Security-crushing generation (80 percent white) mean all of us have been subjected to its cultural influences and impact as it matured in its 30s, 40s, 50s…and now a good slice of them are grandparents with retirement dead ahead. It’s also the generation that wants to prove itself immortal, highly potent, and powerful because it’s getting grayer, weaker and insecure as the country grows more black and brown. And this large group of historically self-focused people used to being the center of the universe are about to become dependent on these black and brown young people to pay their entitlement tab.
And yes, in that group of color-aroused people you can count a lot of Tea Party voters, and the right-wing MSM and political figures on the cover of the Voice piece.
And yes, there are also a lot of white progressive, white privilege-aware people in the Boomer Generation, as well as many more who really don’t think about the impact of race at all in their lives, living in mostly-white neighborhoods, sending their kids to majority white schools; they may work with people of color but most don’t have any close social connections with non-white people to discuss race matters with. Steven’s piece is meant to be provocative. And it has been. Take a look at the word cloud his piece generated. Foster Kamer at the Voice, in reaction to the initial response to the article:
Without further ado, we invite you to take a look around this word cloud of the 150 most popular terms in the first day’s comments (excluding otherwise common language):
If you can’t tell, it’d seem like white people love to talk about….White People! Thrasher’s name is invoked quite a bit, as is the word “America,” which, okay, are all in the title and byline of the story. Yet, even more interesting are the smaller words: “racism,” “racist” “think,” “folks,” and so on, but the real story comes in the occurrences:”democrat” and “liberal” are invoked more than “conservative,” none of which are invoked more than “blacks” or “lost.”
And about that hate mail? Well, you can only imagine what came flowing into the inboxes at The Village Voice. It was enough to generate two posts: The Village Voice Institute of Crazy White American Folk (Letters to the Editor), and The Village Voice Institute of Crazy White American Folk, Pt. 2 (Letters to the Editor).
This week’s Village Voice‘s cover story by staff writer Steven Thrasher, an essay entitled White America Has Lost Its Mind, sure has attracted some interesting attention! Whether or not readers agree with what we have to say, we often get letters from them regarding our stories, many of which are exciting, substantial, or, at the very least, rational, nuanced, and psychologically stable. These letters are none of those things.
Not. Kidding. Look at these gems:
Sent: Wednesday, September 29, 2010 7:08 PM
To: Thrasher, Steven
You racist fuck. Like to use the term white boy a lot huh? Well how about this black boy…. go fuck yourself. Regarding your recent article… sounds like you’re the one all gunched up with fear. I could smell it right from the page. Did I tell you to go fuck yourself? Oh yeah I guess I did. Have a great day now you silly little racist black boy.
From: Michael G Smith
Sent: Wednesday, September 29, 2010 6:46 PM
To: Thrasher, Steven
Subject: I can see November from my house!
If you’re this fucked up now, I can’t wait to see how over the top bat-shit looney tunes you’re gonna be after we kick your punk-ass to the curb come November! You and the Jug-eared pant-load deserve what’s coming. I’m giddy with sweet revenge. HA HA. Oh yeah, and nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah. Best buy some new panties. You’re gonna piss all over the ones you’re currently wearing……Girlie man!
From: Jerry Wigutow
Sent: Thursday, September 30, 2010 11:44 AM
To: Thrasher, Steven Subject: white American mind
You are very correct in pointing out the white American mind was in disarray. They white America elected obama and they have come to their senses by virtue of LEARNING that he is unfit and incompetent at the job of President of the USA. The man has a ghetto personality and it is quite obvious since that is where he was educated once he left college.
Sent: Sun 10/3/2010 2:05 PM
To: Thrasher, Steven
Subject: U r a piece of shit
The day your gun toting, drug selling, baby machines, non educated, prison filling race takes over white people won’t care. The US will be fucked…just look at all those African countries ran by all the browns….you poor soul really have no clue do you. You pretend to think you know but you don’t. Do you think white people are just gonna step aside after centuries of building this country…posh posh you poor thing. Think about it…white people may have lost it, but brown people never fuckin had it and will never have this country as successful as the crazy whites. You sir are a prime example of this idiocy, the moment your people deem they have control dumb bloggers like yourself will make articles like this that will inflame the white minority and talk about an uprising of people… The browns would be powerless…I hope when it goes to hell you have at least one white friend who can save you…it won’t be me!!! Hey have a good one, theres not to many left you silly browny!! You are just to funny..I hope your white boss don’t fire you!
Sent from my iPhone
You have to surf over to the Voice site to read how Foster Kamer handles these letters. Hilarious.
We can discuss all of this during tonight’s Blend liveblog with Steven, but I wanted to share a reminder that a post-racial society remains a distant dream, and not just because of the observations Steven Thrasher makes in White America Has Lost Its Mind.
A self-identified 90-year-old woman calls into C-SPAN’s Washington Journal discussion on Wall Street and the administration and tests the legendary professionalism of one of the show’s hosts, Robb Harleston, by saying she was just calling in to ask “a colored man,” why black people aren’t more thankful for everything whites have done for them. When he gently reminds her of the topic at hand, she assures him she’s not a racist.
Ta-Nehisi Coates notes that the host never accused her of being racist – he told her that she was off-topic, but in her mind he went there.
This leads me to separate point–I’m very interested in, precisely, what it means among white people to be considered a racist. I don’t mean under the sanction of black people. I mean in places where there are no black people. It almost feels like, among whites, to be accused of being a racist is a class slur. Like racist is short for “inbred uncultured hick.” It’s fascinating.
It’s an honest question I have as well — when cornered for saying/doing something blatantly racist, calling the person out as racist is always vigorously denied? What in their minds constitutes being racist if they aren’t? Are they thinking cross-burning and Klan night riding?
As you can see there are many facets to the discussion we’ll have tonight, and I hope you’ll come with your civility hats on as well as a willingness to be frank.
I’ll end with a snippet from a post I wrote a while back (“Revisiting the difficult conversations that people don’t want to have“) that’s particularly relevant here.
In my own blogging I have tried to made it safe to discuss race by saying no question is dumb, and that mutual understanding can be gained only be holding discussions, not shouting sessions. What this requires from me, though, is a lot of listening, and self-censorship to a degree — with those who disagree or are coming from a place of anger, resentment or fear, I really have no latitude to become angry or defensive. If I do, it only affirms the belief that the topic cannot be discussed and worse, they can’t trust engaging any black person on the topic. While that seems ridiculous, it has played itself over and over, as an entire race is colored by a single negative interaction with a person — as if class, education, local, family history has no bearing on the individual in question. How ludicrous would it be to say that if I were mugged by a white man that I would then fear all white men?
We’ll never know how to build bridges if people aren’t willing to express their fears and ignorance without getting their heads bitten off. By the same token, no rational discussion about sensitive topics can take place if that expression is not really about engaging tactfully or diplomatically, but unloading frustrations in a way that is hurtful and shuts down conversation. That’s what happens when people leave these discussions buried — they come out in all the wrong ways, resulting flashpoints at the completely wrong time.
On a completely different note, I want to again congratulate Steven for being honored with a 2010 Courage Award by the New York Anti-Violence Project. It’s the oldest organization in the nation that combats violence toward and within the LGBT community. Bil Browning, Joe Jervis, Andy Towle and I received it last year.
Steven’s going to be feted along with other winners of the award on October 18 at the Prince George Ballroom on East 27th Street, and event hosted by the oh-so-fabulous BD Wong (see his touching video for the It Gets Better series).