My grandmother never lived to witness Trump’s inauguration. She died of multiple organ failure a few days before, declining so rapidly that she was effectively dead for twenty-four hours before her heart finally quit. She didn’t vote in the final election of her life, either, believing, rightly, that both of the candidates were too repulsive to deserve anyone’s support. Was she lucky to miss out on the psychic shockwave, elusive yet pervasive, that has rocked this nation in the three subsequent years? That, I can’t say, but when the news media is overloaded with grisly absurdities and comic grotesqueries (not an uncommon state of affairs, these days), she is usually the first person to come to my mind: “Holy fucking Christ, I’m glad Grammy isn’t around to see this.”
She was around, though, to see plenty in her nearly-ninety years. She saw a cop in South Carolina shoot Walter Scott three times in the back; it would have been quite the challenge to shoot him in the chest, as he was running away from the cop and towards the street. The cop, now a murderer, informed his masters that Scott tried to steal one of his weapons, but a video recording of the crime, captured without the murderer’s knowledge, exposed both his lie and his attempt to plant evidence of it. Wikipedia alleges that this scandal generated “a widespread controversy”, but I don’t recall anyone discussing it more than once, or for more than one day. In any case, Walter Scott did not become a (white) household name, unlike Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, two murdered men who dwarfed Scott in mass media coverage.
My grandmother had no stomach for violence, nor did she have a fixed view of colored Americans. Commenting on Scott’s demise, she asked my sister: “What do you think of the intelligence of the blacks?” Grimacing in disgusted disbelief, my father answered for her: “There’s plenty of dumbass white people, mom! Oh my God!” This, mind you, was a few years after she scolded my aunt, her daughter, for advising my sister to date white men only. “Oh, stop it!” my grandmother said with a dismissive flap of her hand. “This isn’t thirty or forty years ago. This is a different time!” Indeed, it was a very different time: America’s first black president had just ended a successful re-election campaign, much to the delight of my aunt and uncle on the other side of my family tree. They think Barack Obama was the greatest president in American history, and they will tell anyone who cares to listen—including my cousin, whom they disowned when she married a black man, but whom they welcomed back into their lives after she divorced him.
If her ex-husband still lives in New Hampshire, then he is a minority within a minority. Soon we will have the results of the 2020 census, but ten years ago, the aforementioned “blacks” comprised only one percent of the state’s population, trailing Hispanics and even Asians. Certainly, there are several villages and towns, especially in the state’s northernmost corners, in which there lives not a single person of color. I spent the first few years of my life in one of those monochromatic places. Samuel L. Jackson was probably the first black man I ever saw, watching Jurassic Park at much too young an age . . . which means that Vanessa Lee Chester, who played Jeff Goldblum’s daughter in the sequel, might have been the first black woman.
What is the consequence of such extensive, albeit inadvertent, racial isolation? Racism is possible, but it isn’t guaranteed; sometimes, it leads to the comforting assumption that you, as well as all of your white neighbors, have no problem at all with people of color, and the racial tension elsewhere in the country is perfectly unfathomable to you. Growing up in almost exclusively white suburbia, I never understood why anyone could be so dumb as to succumb to noxious prejudice, and I was grateful to live far away from those who were guilty of such a basic mental failing. It was enough for me to ignore my employer when he talked about “that n— getting raped in Pulp Fiction”. To ensure I knew what he was talking about, he asked again: “That n—. Eh?” That must have been in 2012 or 2013, shortly after he voted for Obama, and probably after he refused to hire an applicant because she was black.
He didn’t tell her that, of course. In fact, he told no one but me. I remember grimacing at him while he explained: “I have nothing against them, but it’s been thirteen years we’ve been here and we’ve never hired one of them and we’re not going to start now.” He wasn’t angry when he said this; he looked almost frightened by the solemn gravity of the situation. I wasn’t angry, either: I was struck by the surreality, unprecedented for me, of a person voicing unambiguously racist conviction. Did I think this weary mentality existed only in historical dramas, or perhaps only in the most noxious swamps of backwater, backwoods Louisiana? Probably. That was the cost—as well, I suppose, as the reward—of living among so few colored people: there were relatively few opportunities for a racist to expose himself.
And yet, I have already listed five. I remember several others, but there may be just as many that I have forgotten. Why, on the day that my employer openly broke the law, did I decline to conclude that New Hampshire is afflicted by a racist culture, or a racist subculture, at the very least? Why, or how, did I fail to connect the dots? Truthfully, I suspect I didn’t spend much time thinking about it, certainly not enough to develop a sociological theory or to reach (what was then . . . and still is) a controversial conclusion. Perhaps I believed, as many a conservative commentator has, that there is no popular bigotry, no widespread racial animus, in the United States. Racism, so we are led to believe, is a restricted, contained, and thoroughly personal problem, but it is not a moral trespass of which very many are guilty. My employer might be a bigoted jerk, but he didn’t speak for the people of New Hampshire. In fact, he didn’t speak for anyone but himself.
Further reassurance, as well as an intriguing complexity, was to be found in this man’s particular status: he was a Greek immigrant who didn’t travel to America until well into adulthood. One of my coworkers, when I informed him that the boss refused to hire a black woman, shrugged as he reasoned: “That’s just the way it is over there [in Greece].” I wasn’t sure what to make of that, but his imperfect grasp of the English language might have explained his indelicate use of the n-word, although, upon further reflection, I remember him speaking contemptuously about gay people, too. As an employer, did he discriminate on grounds of sexuality, too? We will never know, but I will tell you why I never reported him to the Department of Labor: I was scared to lose my job, and, as my Serbian coworker (apparently, that ethnicity was acceptable) told me, “A lot of people work there. They don’t deserve to be out of work if the place is shut down.”
More than losing their paychecks, perhaps they were afraid to give up, or to have taken from them, their carefree conception of American culture. Since 2015, we have been swamped by a relentless and seemingly fruitless debate about America’s elemental dysfunction and flaws, but in previous years, this sociological analysis was of little interest to “the average American”, a bland synonym for “affluent white suburbanites”. Those of us who prospered, to a greater or lesser extent, within the parameters of “the system” were not only reluctant to question the integrity of its structure, but actively hostile towards those who did: say what you will about Colin Kaepernick’s life of comfort and wealth, but his critics’ melodramatic reaction to his protest revealed their insecurity, emotional as well as intellectual. Their outrage, which they could not articulate except in saccharine appeals to a vague patriotism, spoke to the misplaced priorities and contradictory values of the American bourgeoisie.
Even when I was ignorant, willfully or otherwise, of the ubiquitous racism in the United States, I took no issue with Kaepernick’s protest, if only because I have never believed in the virtue of the American military. I have loathed that institution for as long as I can remember, even before I had any understanding of America’s abhorrent imperialism, and the absence of any intellective weight in the arguments against Kaepernick did little to persuade me. When a middle-aged white woman shoved me at a basketball game because I did not remove my hat during a performance of the Star-Spangled Banner, I knew that these hypervigilant patriots—which, in American parlance, is really a sanitized synonym for “aggressive nationalists”—had their hearts as much as their heads in the wrong places. Unfortunately, you could never convince them of their misguidance, if only because of their one prevailing claim: “If we’re racist, then why are we supporting this basketball team or football team? Almost all of the players are black!”
This is true, and my aforementioned employer—my former employer, by the time of Kaepernick’s demonstration—could have said the same thing, as he loved watching basketball and football. My aunt and uncle might have defended themselves similarly, explaining their unambiguous support for Obama and the Democratic Party. And my grandmother, well . . . all I can say is, I very strongly doubt that she would have scowled and spat on the floor if a black person came to visit. That form of rigid, explicit, outward racism, defined by uncontrollable contempt for all of the members of a particular race, is exceptionally rare in the United States—but we have come to recognize this as the only authentic form of racism. In other words, my former employer cannot be racist, even if he refuses to hire black people, because he likes Obama and black athletes. And yes, he will happily take money from a black customer.
Our desire to limit the definition of racism has the ironic effect of complicating it, and our parallel attempt to convince ourselves of racism’s singularity has contributed generously to the pluralistic eruption of racial conflict. It is easy for me to understand this now, but five years ago, it was very difficult to me. I have learned much in the last few years, not just on this specific issue, but on the aforementioned elemental dysfunction of the United States. As the nation writhed in the aftermath of Trump’s victory, I was learning about the persecution of Julian Assange and supplementing my knowledge of the iniquity of the military-industrial complex. I’ve been especially intrigued by our cultural tendency to disregard colored victims of our imperialist slaughter, an undeniably racist tendency that views forty thousand dead Libyans as disposable even as we forever lament the death of three thousand Americans, most of them white, on 9/11.
Criticism of the military remains the American culture’s ultimate taboo. Ostensibly, this follows a sense of reverence for the soldiers’ supposed “sacrifice to keep the rest of us safe”, but it is pushed by the establishment to discourage us from examining the military’s true function as a weapon of American imperialism. To discover this is, at the very least, to cast doubt upon the pacifying myth of America as the eternal vanguard of freedom, justice, and equality—and once this doubt arises, it is difficult to enjoy the conveniences and creature comforts of life in the United States, for these luxuries, we know, come at a tragic price. Our nation is founded on ignorance and sheltered by the same; ergo, it encounters no threat as lethal as historical education, against which it assembles its greatest defenses.
The absence of an intellectually curious population in the United States redounds to the endurance of the empire, but still, the sophisticated scheme produces many victims. Gore Vidal spoke of the “funhouse mirror” of American moral hypocrisy, but the reflection of our deliberate injustice may be clearer than he believed. In fact, it shines through the haunted countenance of black Americans—indistinct from the whites in structure or form, but distinguished, even separated, visually as well as psychologically. The failure of the American dream and the broken American promise of justice find peerless illustration in the image of the colored American, denied admission to the amusement park that is our collective political imagination. How better to satirize the practiced perfidy of the American mythos than to take its protagonist, the relentlessly grateful beneficiary of an impeccable society, and paint his skin?
By preserving the colored American as the archetypal unfortunate, the empire provides an illusory goal to which the citizenry can hopelessly labor—namely, the universalization of the vacuous and hollow American Dream—while simultaneously distracting from the incalculably greater abuses it commits abroad. Ergo, the empire encourages aimless dialogue on this internal, domestic topic, especially when the apocalyptic culmination of its imperialist activity threatens to become all too transparent. The civil rights demonstrations of the 1960s provided a much-needed distraction from the devastation of Vietnam, and the marches in memory of George Floyd underscore the wobbling of the state in the time of COVID-19. This is no moribund decline, but a resurrection—or so we’re told. Unfortunately, no one has explained how the same population that have tolerated these brutal transgressions at home, and maintained a dumbfounding ignorance of the greater evils engendered abroad, will foster a healthier environment, physical as well as mental, once they seize control. How can they build their society on solid ground if they believe in the mystical American Dream?
They can’t, of course. If they could, then we could say the world is safer, wiser, and fairer, now that my grandmother has left it. Her antiquated insensitivity was but one feature of a maladaptive culture, and while her particular contretemps may become rarer in the subsequent generations, still there will be typified stupidity and intellectual anemia—all of it cultivated by a repressive state. Included in this paralyzing program is an unlettered criticism of the dysfunctional state, hence why none of the moral authoritarians who have condemned violent protest seem to understand the basic issues. We are walking into walls, the same walls that barred my grandmother’s view of the ubiquitous failings of the country she loved. Perhaps the protesters, in their attempt to tear down these walls, have only provided space for a window—in which they will install a one-way mirror.