confederate monument
A Confederate monument in Baltimore. Credit: Ryan Patterson/Flickr

For a long time now I’ve been saying that one of the reasons that racism has become so intractable in this country is that white and black people have very different definitions for what the word “racism” means. I see that in what Kevin Drum recently wrote about a twitter conversation he had with Amanda Marcotte.

Without diving into the weeds of their specific disagreement, Drum’s point is that “every bit of opposition to all things Obama” is not fueled by racism. As I read what he wrote, I was trying to figure out how he would define the word. There is a sense that we can neatly sort white people into those who are racist and those who aren’t. For example:

Pretty much every Republican in Congress opposed everything Obama did, and that’s not because every Republican in Congress is a racist.

In an article that should be a must-read for every white American, Ta-Nehisi Coates turns this kind of discussion on its head and talks about “whiteness” instead of racism.

To Trump, whiteness is neither notional nor symbolic but is the very core of his power. In this, Trump is not singular. But whereas his forebears carried whiteness like an ancestral talisman, Trump cracked the glowing amulet open, releasing its eldritch energies…

Replacing Obama is not enough—Trump has made the negation of Obama’s legacy the foundation of his own. And this too is whiteness. “Race is an idea, not a fact,” the historian Nell Irvin Painter has written, and essential to the construct of a “white race” is the idea of not being a nigger. Before Barack Obama, niggers could be manufactured out of Sister Souljahs, Willie Hortons, and Dusky Sallys. But Donald Trump arrived in the wake of something more potent—an entire nigger presidency with nigger health care, nigger climate accords, and nigger justice reform, all of which could be targeted for destruction or redemption, thus reifying the idea of being white. Trump truly is something new—the first president whose entire political existence hinges on the fact of a black president. And so it will not suffice to say that Trump is a white man like all the others who rose to become president. He must be called by his rightful honorific—America’s first white president.

Coates goes on to tackle the idea among some liberals who equivocate on this centrality of whiteness by preferring to talk about class.

The focus on one subsector of Trump voters—the white working class—is puzzling, given the breadth of his white coalition. Indeed, there is a kind of theater at work in which Trump’s presidency is pawned off as a product of the white working class as opposed to a product of an entire whiteness that includes the very authors doing the pawning. The motive is clear: escapism. To accept that the bloody heirloom remains potent even now, some five decades after Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down on a Memphis balcony—even after a black president; indeed, strengthened by the fact of that black president—is to accept that racism remains, as it has since 1776, at the heart of this country’s political life. The idea of acceptance frustrates the left. The left would much rather have a discussion about class struggles, which might entice the white working masses, instead of about the racist struggles that those same masses have historically been the agents and beneficiaries of. Moreover, to accept that whiteness brought us Donald Trump is to accept whiteness as an existential danger to the country and the world. But if the broad and remarkable white support for Donald Trump can be reduced to the righteous anger of a noble class of smallville firefighters and evangelicals, mocked by Brooklyn hipsters and womanist professors into voting against their interests, then the threat of racism and whiteness, the threat of the heirloom, can be dismissed. Consciences can be eased; no deeper existential reckoning is required.

That word “reckoning” jumped out at me. That’s because it is exactly what Joy Reid said recently when she was on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah.

On the race issue, here’s the problem. For Black people in this country, what they generally want is a reckoning. They want to acknowledge the past and reckon with it. But in general, Americans don’t want to do that. This isn’t a country that wants to do that. The country wants a pass. And so when Barack Obama gives a speech and says, “I love my racist grandma,” he’s healing the country. When he gets up and says, “Please don’t shoot Black people,” he’s dividing the country. And so you have a fundamental split in what people are willing to tolerate in the racial discussion. So I don’t see how you bridge that.

That is pretty similar to what Coates said in reference to an “existential reckoning.” It is interesting to put the whole question about confederate statues in that context. As I’ve written before, the importance of all that is the symbolism they carry about the kind of history with which we need to reckon. It is the role that whiteness has played in our country—not blackness—that is at the heart of all that.

The good news is that a reckoning like that doesn’t involve sorting white people into racists and non-racists. The bad news is that it requires us to listen, re-examine our own history, and be open to self-reflection. Neither Coates nor Reid are very optimistic about that happening. But then, it’s not up to them.

Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.