Amer­ica’s racial blind spots

The Buffalo News - - OPINION - Mi­ami Her­ald

With pre-emp­tive apolo­gies to gram­mar­i­ans ev­ery­where, to­day we pon­der the fol­low­ing ques­tion: Who is “we?” That syn­tac­tic atroc­ity is prompted by a re­cent col­lo­quy be­tween Laura Ingraham of Fox “News” and for­mer GOP op­er­a­tive Pa­trick Buchanan. They were talk­ing on Ingraham’s pod­cast about what they see as the im­pos­si­bil­ity of Amer­ica ab­sorb­ing more new­com­ers from what Buchanan called “the sec­ond or the third world.” Then he dropped this gem:

“African-Amer­i­cans have been here since 1619. They’ve helped build and cre­ate the na­tion. They’re part of its cul­ture and his­tory, and yet we haven’t fully as­sim­i­lated African-Amer­i­can ci­ti­zens.”

“We?”

Pre­sum­ably, he means the coun­try, which raises an ob­vi­ous point. What does it say about Amer­ica that black peo­ple have been here 400 years, “helped build and cre­ate it,” are in­te­gral to “its cul­ture and his­tory,” yet are still con­sid­ered out­siders?

Here’s some­thing equally ob­vi­ous. When Buchanan says “we,” he does mean Amer­ica. But when he says “Amer­ica,” he means white peo­ple. Not that he’s the only one to rhetor­i­cally os­tra­cize peo­ple of color.

Jour­nal­ists do it all the time when they use terms like “evan­gel­i­cals” to re­fer to re­li­gious white peo­ple, “south­ern­ers,” to de­note white peo­ple in Dixie or “work­ing class” to des­ig­nate white peo­ple with blue-col­lar jobs – as if peo­ple of color did not go to church, live be­low the Ma­son-Dixon Line or punch time clocks.

Pres­i­dent Trump did it when he re­cently tweeted that politi­cians in storm-torn Puerto Rico “only take from USA.” As if Puerto Ri­cans, who gained cit­i­zen­ship in 1917, were some­how sep­a­rate from “USA.”

Too of­ten, then, peo­ple of color live in other peo­ple’s blind spots, un­seen in the shadow of their as­sump­tions. Some of us have a de­fault im­age of what con­sti­tutes “Amer­i­can” and it rules out Span­ish sur­names, dark skin and prayers to Al­lah.

Which stands in stark con­trast to the val­ues Amer­ica claims to hold dear. For 243 years, the coun­try has bal­anced in the ten­sion be­tween what we claim and what we are. In 2019, though, that ten­sion is ramped up by a sense of the de­mo­graphic clock tick­ing down on white pri­macy. It’s not too much to say that in some quar­ters, a kind of panic has set in over the no­tion that some­day soon, white peo­ple will no longer hold nu­mer­i­cal su­pe­ri­or­ity.

It’s that panic that made a woman cry, “I want my coun­try back,” that sent peo­ple hunt­ing for Barack Obama’s “real” birth cer­tifi­cate, that in­spired pon­der­ous think pieces on the demise of the WASP es­tab­lish­ment, that elected Trump pres­i­dent, that made white evan­gel­i­cals be­tray their stated con­vic­tions. It’s that panic that has Buchanan and Ingraham fear­ing the fu­ture.

He sees the coun­try be­com­ing “a gi­ant Mall of Amer­ica.” She thinks the English lan­guage might dis­ap­pear.

The irony is that if the coun­try is, in­deed, doomed, it is not be­cause im­mi­grants flock here, drawn by its ideals. When have they not done that?

No, if Amer­ica fails, it will be be­cause peo­ple like Buchanan and Ingraham lacked the courage to live up to those ideals. It will be be­cause it was still pos­si­ble, as late as 2019, for a white man to re­gard African-Amer­i­cans, pro­gen­i­tors of Amer­ica’s mu­sic, fight­ers of its wars, tillers of its fields and re­deemers of its sa­cred val­ues, as some­how alien to Amer­ica. And it will be be­cause he and peo­ple like him still ar­ro­gantly ar­ro­gate unto them­selves the right to de­ter­mine who “we” is.

And, more im­por­tantly, who “we” is not.

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