Narratives of white victimhood are the rage these days.
From Abigail Fisher v. the University of Texas to the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, from Paula Deen’s claim of being a victim of the “PC police” to a material witness’s use of the phrase “creepy-ass cracker” in the criminal trial of George Zimmerman—there has been ample effort to imagine white people as the real victims in contemporary America.
David Sirota says, “hysterical white people are all over the media screaming to whomever is listening that white people are under attack.”
Tim Wise notes this is in keeping with history. “The cult of white victimhood has long had its charter members,” he says. “Nowadays the cult has the attention of the media and a white public already anxious about changing demographics, the presence of a black president and economic insecurity.”
I call it WDD—”White Delusional Disorder.”
People suffering from WDD experience intense and wild distortions of and deviations from empirical reality. They believe white people are not benefiting from a racially stratified society. They are, instead, its true victims.
Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on a case weighing the affirmative-action policies of the University of Texas. The court punted by sending the case back to a lower court. But in doing so, it left unaddressed claims of Abigail Fisher’s victimization.
The plaintiff claimed: “There were people in my class with lower grades who weren’t in all the activities I was in, who were being accepted into UT, and the only other difference between us was the color of our skins. I was taught from the time I was a little girl that any kind of discrimination was wrong. And for an institution of higher learning to act this way makes no sense to me. What kind of example does it set for others?”
Yet court documents show that Fisher’s high school grades and SAT scores would not have qualified her for admittance to Texas’s flagship institution in Austin. Even so, she is a victim , she says. Meanwhile, the school admitted five students of color with lower scores as well as 42 white applicants whose scores were equal to or lower than Fisher’s.
Not surprisingly Fisher and her supporters have shown no concern for the 168 students of color who did not receive admission, though their scores were equal to or higher than hers. Nor have they expressed outrage at the number of students denied admittance though they presumably enrolled in costly SAT prep courses. Yet Justice Anthony Kennedy and the court’s conservative bloc failed to account for white privilege.
This was equally evident in the Supreme Court’s gutting of Sections 4 and 5 of the Voting Rights Act. During oral arguments last spring, Justice Antonin Scalia memorably described the VRA as a “perpetuation of racial entitlement.” Thus the Voting Rights Act victimizes white America. Despite claims of racial progress, and despite fantasies that the VRA is punishment for the sins of white grandfathers (it isn’t), the VRA was about protecting every person’s right to vote.
But this is the logic that governs the cult of white victimhood.
Only in America can inequality, voter suppression, and societal condemnation of racial slurs become a moment to lament white victimhood.
While little surprises me about CNN (Cable’s NON News), the sensational efforts to play off the George Zimmerman trial, to link the “N Word” to Cracker, and to situate the discussion within a discourse of “which is worse” is a testament to their failures as a network. As someone on Twitter and my colleague Rich King noted, the mere fact that CNN says Cracker but encodes the “N-word” tells us all we know, yet the conversation continues.
Despite amazing participants, the framing of the discussion, which centers whiteness (can’t have a discussion of “N word” without somehow bringing the debate back to whiteness), on false comparisons is telling! If CNN wanted to have a discussion to add depth to Zimmerman trial as it relates to Cracker but instead they wandered down the problematic road of “everyone is racist” and “everyone has their own slurs.”
Cracker has a long history; a longer history than America. Dating back at least to Shakespeare, the origins and meaning are disparate. Jelani Cobb, on NPR’s Code Switch, offers insight into its more contemporary usage:
“Cracker,” the old standby of Anglo insults was first noted in the mid 18th century, making it older than the United States itself. It was used to refer to poor whites, particularly those inhabiting the frontier regions of Maryland, Virginia and Georgia. It is suspected that it was a shortened version of “whip-cracker,” since the manual labor they did involved driving livestock with a whip (not to mention the other brutal arenas where those skills were employed.) Over the course of time it came to represent a person of lower caste or criminal disposition, (in some instances, was used in reference to bandits and other lawless folk.).
Despite this very specific history, one that locates cracker within history of white supremacy and one that position itself outside this history, some still try to connect Cracker with “N word” as part of its narrative on “white victimhood” and “double standards. Joan Walsh took up this line of argumentation in a recent post:
From Glenn Beck’s the Blaze to the Breitbots to smaller right-wing shriekers to Twitter trolls everywhere, white grievance-mongers seemed less bothered by the fact that Martin allegedly used the term, than by Jeantel saying it wasn’t a slur…. My God, don’t these people get tired of themselves? So much of the trumped-up racial upset on the right, generally, is about language: If black people can use the N-word, why can’t we? (Even Paula Deen tried to use that as self-defense at first.) Now we’re moving on to: If the N-word is racist and forbidden, words like “cracker” should be, too. But “cracker” has never had the same power to demean, or to exile, or to sting. No social order has ever been devised whereby African-Americans oppress people they deride as “crackers.”
Conservative columnist Kathleen Parker too articulated the absurdity of the comparison:
For those needing a refresher course, here are just a few reasons why cracker doesn’t compare to the N-word. Cracker has never been used routinely to:
Deny a white person a seat at a lunch counter.
Systematically deny whites the right to vote.
Deny a white person a seat near the front of a bus.
Crack the skulls of peaceful white protesters marching for equality.
Blow up a church and kill four little white girls.
Need more? Didn’t think so.
Cracker may be a pejorative in some circles. It may even be used to insult a white person. But it clearly lacks the grievous, historical freight of the other.
The efforts to push back at this attempt to imagine white victimhood, to reduce racism discussions to individual prejudices or slurs, to deny white privilege through noting double standards and the assault on whiteness, is nothing new. It’s central to a post civil rights discourse, which has sought to deny the structural advantages that continue to benefit white America. Tim Wise makes this clear in his piece “Revisiting a Past Essay — Honky Wanna Cracker? Examining the Myth of Reverse Racism:”
Simply put, what separates white racism from any other form and makes anti-black and brown humor more dangerous than its anti-white equivalent is the ability of the former to become lodged in the minds and perceptions of the citizenry. White perceptions are what end up counting in a white-dominated society. If whites say Indians are savages, be they “noble” or vicious, they’ll be seen in that light. If Indians say whites are mayonnaise-eating Amway salespeople, who the hell’s going to care? If anything, whites will simply turn it into a marketing opportunity. When you have the power, you can afford to be self-deprecating.
The day that someone produces a newspaper ad that reads: “Twenty honkies for sale today: good condition, best offer accepted,” or “Cracker to be lynched tonight: whistled at black woman,” then perhaps I’ll see the equivalence of these slurs with the more common type to which we’ve grown accustomed. When white churches start getting burned down by militant blacks who spray paint “Kill the honkies” on the sidewalks outside, then maybe I’ll take seriously these concerns over “reverse racism.”
So to be clear, comparing the “N-Word” to Cracker is like comparing ice cream to cardboard. Yet, both very much pivot on white supremacy. Yes, white supremacy grounds both the N-Word and Cracker. The history and origins of Cracker points to the way it seeks to normalize whiteness as middle-class, civility, and civilization. It, like White Trash (see here for great discussion), seeks to differentiate between those who are southern, those who are lower-classes, and those who don’t embody the desired inscription of whiteness. Cracker seeks to humanize white normativity. Matt Wray (cited here), writing about discourse surrounding white trash, argues:
Current stereotypes of white trash can be traced to a series of studies produced around the turn of the century by the US Eugenics Records Office… wherein the researchers sought to demonstrate scientifically, that large numbers of rural poor whites were “genetic defectives.” Typically, researchers conducted their studies by locating relatives who were either incarcerated or institutionalized and then racing their genealogies back to a “defective” source (often, but not always, a person of mixed blood) (2)
Given this history, Cracker must be understood not as anti-White per se but serving in the maintenance of white supremacy and the white power structure. It establishes a qualifier to those who are “white” who don’t embody the hegemonic vision of whiteness. It not only Others the “white poor,” furthering narratives that demonize and blame the poor across the color line, but humanizes whiteness as a category. The history of Cracker and the word itself is very much one of race, class, and caste, in which WHITES judged, policed, and categorized OTHER WHITES to determine who was truly WHITE and who was not quite WHITE. Rather than recycling the tried and trusted story of white victimization (notice how the debate about “N Word,” Cracker, Affirmative Action, the Voting Rights Act, Paula Deen, etc. always in some way comes back to a delusional sense of white victimhood), we must begin to think about the structural context, one where “whites continue to swim in preference.” Cracker isn’t simply a word or a slur but a window into America’s racial history, into white supremacy.
Just Say No to Blackface: Neo-Minstrelsy and the Power to Dehumanize
In recent weeks, social media was set ablaze with news that an assistant district attorney in Brooklyn donned blackface and simulated prison rape in pictures taken while he was a college student. Troubling and offensive on some many levels, these photos are particularly disturbing given that as a DA in Brooklyn – as part of the criminal justice system that puts black and brown youth behind bars in disproportionate numbers – Mr. Justin Marrus has tremendous power in his community. Further undermining confidence in a criminal justice system that has proven itself to be hostile to communities of color, the sight of Mr. Marrus mocking and disparaging leaves me wondering how these past practices shape his present role as a prosecutor.
Jorge Rivas at Colorlines describes the photos of Justin Marrus as follows:
In one picture — from an album called “Halloween” — Marrus sports blackface, a wig made of what appears to be dreadlocks and a tie-dyed T-shirt. “What part of Jamaica you from mon? da beach mon,” the caption reads. A second photo — from an album called “Courthouse for 4th of July” — shows Marrus and another man simulating sex in what looks to be a cell with white bars.
The sight of his finding pleasure in the simulation of prison rape, his posing with his friends with a fake confederate flag tattoo, and his engaging in the time-honored tradition of blackface, should give us all pause for thought.
Ignoring the fact that the pictures remained on Facebook for six years – evidence that Marrus saw little wrong with them – a DA spokesman defended his colleague: “This is something he did about six years ago while he was in college. He apologized. He admits it was childish and inappropriate.” Others, such as Sharon Toomer, have rightly criticized Mr. Marrus. Toomer describes Marrus’s actions as a sign of his sense of “entitlement and privilege” and she calls upon all of us to take this matter seriously:
Through my lens as a Black and Latino woman, a taxpayer and a human being, I view these images as dehumanizing, degrading, arrogant, racist and problematic for a public institution. My lens is not that of White men or women, or even Black men and women who are so jaded by the work they do as prosecutors, that they fail to see or connect the dots on how ADA Marrus’ past thought and actions may influence his current and future decision-making. A ‘let’s give him a break and see what happens’ is too great a risk for my community.
Although some may dismiss the photos and Mr. Marrus’ behavior as youthful indiscretion, as something of the past, and as harmless, these photos point to a larger history, one that whites have yet to reconcile within contemporary culture.
The practice of white students donning blackface is not an isolated incident but reflects a larger trend at North America’s college’s and universities. Although these spectacles usually take place outside the view of the public at large, the minstrel tradition is alive and well at North American universities. Tim Wise, in “Majoring in Minstrelsy: White Students, Blackface and the Failure of Mainstream Multiculturalism,” notes that during the 2006-2007 school year there were 15 publicly known instances of racial mockery. He describes this practice:
In 2010, scholar Tim Wise and rapper-activist Jasiri X called upon their readers and listeners to imagine “If the Tea Party was Black”—how might their perception, reach and behavior be received if the race of the people involved changed?
Two years later, I think we should play this game again, but with NASCAR. Like the Tea Party, NASCAR is overwhelmingly White (there have been 5 Black drivers in its 64 year history), male, and tied to a particular set of reactionary politics. Can you imagine if NASCAR was Black?
Can you imagine the reaction to fans in “Black Power” shirts lining racetracks, as red, black and green flags and Black Panther Party imagery blanked NASCAR events? Whereas the Confederate flag—a symbol of secession and White supremacy—are commonplace at NASCAR events, symbols of Black pride would surely bring about major criticism and attacks.
What if it was an African-American driver who purposely crashed into another driver’s car, sending him airborne as Carl Edwards did to Brad Keselowski in 2010? Can you imagine if Barry Bonds, Metta World Peace, or Terrell Owens was a race car driver and how the public might respond at the sight of intentional crashes, trash talking, fist fights, and helmet throwing? Would it be “boys will be boys” or “that’s just NASCAR”? Or would the talk to turn to criminality, thugs, and “gangstas?” One has to wonder if hip-hop would take the blame, even though nobody blames country music for this type of behavior from White NASCAR drivers.
Take a recent incident involving Kyle Busch and Ron Hornaday during a Camping World Truck Series race. After bumping each other, Busch proceeded to rear-end Hornaday’s truck into the wall, ostensibly wrecking his car. While Busch received a 1-race suspension and a 50,000 fine, can you imagine the outrage, moral posturing and punishments had the driver not been White?
Although a recent study highlighted the connection between NASCAR viewing and “aggressive driving,” with no such study on the impact of watching hard fouls, one has to wonder what people are actually scared about. If an elbow from Metta World Peace and a hard foul from Udonis Haslem prompts national outrage that focus on how the foul could have killed someone or that if someone did on the street would have been in jail, a Black NASCAR driver would lead to similar statements about “cars being weapons” and “out-of-control” drivers who are obviously crazy and therefore unsafe and off the track.
If the U.S. military gave $136 Million to a Black NASCAR driver as it did to Dale Earnhardt Jr., would people see it as advertisement or maybe a handout, welfare, or affirmative action?
Can you imagine if NASCAR fans that were overwhelmingly (if not entirely) Black booed the First Lady of the United States, what might the reaction be? Whereas White fans can boo Michelle Obama and Jill Biden during an appearance at Homestead-Miami Speedway, which it is hard to imagine Laura Bush and Lynne Cheney receiving similar treatment at a Black NASCAR event; certainly such disrespect would elicit national outrage and condemnation. Can you imagine the reaction from Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh, who actually thought the incident to be justifiable given the Obamas’ “uppity-ism?”
That sort of disrespect wouldn’t fly if NASCAR were Black, nor would a group of drivers refusing to meet with the president. Just this year, several White NASCAR drivers passed on an invitation to the White House, citing scheduling conflicts. We don’t have to guess what might happen given the experiences of Craig Hodges, who in 1992 while visiting the Bush White House not only wore a dashiki, but also “handed the President a letter that asked him to do more to end injustice toward the African-American community.” He was soundly denounced in the media and shortly thereafter he was out of the league.