I lived in Philadelphia for a year, and one weekend a friend, Robert, who is African-American, asked to borrow my truck so that he could move in with his girlfriend, Amy. No problem. Robert came over Saturday morning to pick up the truck, and I watched him inspect every detail– brakes, lights, wipers– carefully and thoroughly. At first I thought he was just being a little compulsive, and then I realized that what he was doing was trying to protect himself.
If I got stopped by the police, it could cost me some money; if Robert did, it might be physically dangerous. It was one of several times in my life that I was able to get it through my thick skull that being White confers certain privileges and safe passages. A traffic stop is just a traffic stop. I was thinking about Robert– about my White privileges– this week as President Obama produced his birth certificate. It’s easy to talk about racism, but the real problem is White supremacy.
Or, rather, with a kind of White nostalgia for supremacy– a fictional day when women, African-Americans, and working people knew their place. You can see it in the fetishistic coverage of the Royal Wedding in the U.S., in the attacks on unions and women’s rights, and you can see it in the headlong rush to bring the military back to their campuses. I say nostalgia because I think that, while frightening and destructive, these efforts are more symbolic than real.
The right cannot stop the technology that will eventually make abortions accessible via the local pharmacy instead of the too-easy-to-target clinic; the attacks on the unions led to a backlash against Republicans; bringing the Navy back to Columbia is not going to reverse the long intellectual tradition of anti-imperialism. President Obama may well have the last laugh, by making himself seem like the only “adult in the room.” Let the Republicans have their circus; history is on our side.