White panic, white denial: The racial prehistory of the McKinney pool party that white America can't let go

Hey white people: If we can get over our twisted relationship with the past, the future might actually be better

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published June 13, 2015 4:00PM (EDT)

Bertha Gilbert, 22, is led away by police after she tried to enter a segregated lunch counter in Nashville, Tenn., on May 6, 1964.     (AP)
Bertha Gilbert, 22, is led away by police after she tried to enter a segregated lunch counter in Nashville, Tenn., on May 6, 1964. (AP)

There is a central trope of racial discourse within America’s white majority – or let’s say within a particular subset of that majority – that African-Americans are overly obsessed with the past. If you are white and claim you have never heard anyone in your extended family or your circle of acquaintances express this view, you have deliberately chosen not to pay attention. This is a fundamental premise of the Fox News worldview, often addressed directly by Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, which lies behind their insistence that Barack Obama is a stealth black nationalist and ‘60s radical who will one day reveal his true agenda. It undergirds coverage of every racially coded news event, from the “pool party” in McKinney, Texas, that transfixed the nation last week to the lengthening sequence of unarmed black men and boys killed by police or panicked white civilians.

Like so many aspects of American popular ideology, this contention contains and conceals a powerful element of truth -- but not the truth its proponents perceive. When turned upside down and uncloaked, this anxious insistence that history has no long-term consequences and no connection to present-tense events reveals itself as a distorted mirror image of reality. It is whites far more than blacks who cannot break free of the poisonous attitudes of the past, and facing that truth can help us understand the peculiar state of American race relations in the 21st century, so painfully distilled in that video clip of a white police officer and a bikini-clad African-American teenager.

We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the confrontation between those people was a real event in a real place, which unmistakably evoked America’s history of racial violence and civil disobedience. I also saw it, almost literally, as a collision between the past and the future. Whether or not that young lady behaved with perfect decorum on the afternoon in question, she is unmistakably an American of the future – not a future in which cultural or racial identities don’t matter (we won’t see that in any living person’s lifetime), but a future of increased fluidity and intersection and overlap. Her crime, so to speak, lay in being a black girl who went to a pool party in a largely white suburban neighborhood and acted as if she belonged there, without assuming she was to be held to some special standard of good behavior. That police officer, on the other hand, seemed to have absorbed a contact high from the long and brutal history of police violence against people of color. Fortunately for all of us, his obvious zeal for the role was rendered ludicrous rather than tragic by its context.

Yet it is African-Americans who are constantly accused of fixating on ancient history, a charge presented in various ways, many of them subtler than the white-centric paranoia delivered by Fox. Stated most directly and without hyperbole, this boils down to the idea that black people need to get over all that stuff that happened in the history books or in black-and-white video clips, like slavery and lynching and segregated lunch counters and generations of systematic economic and residential discrimination. It isn’t helpful; it’s only holding them back. Anyway, white people living today aren’t responsible for any of it and America simply isn’t racist anymore: Check out Obama and Jay-Z and LeBron. If anybody’s a racist, it’s all the black people calling everybody else racist.

OK, I said I would avoid hyperbole and I lied. Not everyone who expresses this view follows the chain of association all the way through that last sentence, or the one before it. (Although the "I'm not a racist, but ..." mode is distressingly common.) But the important ideological thread, even in the most polite and neutral formulation, is the desire to decouple distressing individual events from the even more distressing current of history. The deaths of Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown and Eric Garner and all the rest are disconnected cases of perceived threat and police authority and possible wrongdoing, each to be weighed on its own merits. They do not belong to any larger historical pattern, and those who insist on perceiving such a pattern are dwelling in the past or playing the race card or nursing old grudges or otherwise denying and undermining the greatness of America.

Except of course for the confusing fact that many white observers do perceive a larger pattern linking the thorniest issues in the African-American community, which is the point where this ideological construction begins to reveal itself. Since it is urgently important to resist the obvious pattern -- the one that would be discerned immediately by any outside observer -- an alternative must be found. So the pattern we get instead of history is a murky and shapeless monstrosity spawned from the bad conscience of the social sciences: The “culture of dependency” or the “collapse of the black family” or, if we’re really reaching for the dog whistle, the “thug subculture” of baggy pants and Purple Drank and incomprehensible rap lyrics and, most damning of all, a disrespectful attitude towards authority. (Thank God young white folks have never expressed anything like that.)

Simply put, all of this represents a classic case of projection. Who is paralyzed by the past and unable to break free of toxic associations, outmoded stereotypes and ingrained fears and prejudices? Here’s a hint: It isn’t black folks. What we see at work in so many of these cases, and especially in the McKinney pool-party fracas, is a tangled web of half-conscious assumptions inherited from previous white generations, assumptions that were poisoned at the roots by fear and shame and have now become psychotically dissociated from social reality. (Please notice, my hypersensitive fellow European-Americans, that for the moment I am steering away from the term “racist,” which has become an impediment to communication amid all the nutsack-clutching about how it's the cruelest thing you could ever say to any white person.)

Those assumptions are so familiar to Americans of all races and colors that I hardly need to spell them out. To their core believers, of course, they are not flawed assumptions but profound truths that must be spoken out loud in the face of P.C. liberalism and its pieties. Black people, as a category, are understood to be a uniquely dangerous and disruptive force that must be contained, and whose individual members are virtually interchangeable. African-American men (and boys, all too often) are such threatening figures in themselves that they can be considered armed and dangerous simply because they are black and male. Black people in suburbia, as we saw in McKinney, are instinctively understood by many white residents and police as invaders, bringing the imagined chaos and lawlessness of the “inner city” to the ordered land of weed-free bluegrass rectangles and endless identical cul-de-sacs.

While the terminology and rhetoric have been massaged for contemporary usage, at their ideological core these seemingly deranged views go back a long way. All the pseudo-concern about African-American culture and the troubled state of the black family serves to conceal the deep historical roots of these ingrained attitudes – history is bunk, as we noted earlier, and there are no lessons in the past. Since early in the history of the slave trade, the people brought here in chains from Africa have been depicted as a special sub-caste of humanity, with certain gifts (playing music, and picking cotton in the sun) and certain deficits, such as a tendency to violence and an inability to handle personal liberty.

Whether those prejudices and many related modes of bigotry emerged organically among the white population as a way of justifying the existence of slavery in a nation that claimed to be based on principles of liberty and equality, or were the fruits of a concerted ruling-class strategy to divide exploited workers along the color line, is an exceedingly complicated historical question. I am tempted to suggest that the perception that blacks were dangerous was less destructive to the white psyche in the long run than the perception that blacks were pretty much all the same. (It was not inherently irrational for those who owned slaves or benefited from the slave economy to live in fear of slave rebellion.) But there’s really no separating the two, and those are the intertwined ideas that continue to bedevil and enslave white people, and that prevent so many of them from taking a full part in the vibrant cultural landscape of America.

I claim no special expertise in African-American culture, but I’ve lived in several different racially mixed contexts at different times of my life, and there’s one thing I can say with a high degree of confidence: The immense diversity and heterogeneity of black America, which always existed but was perhaps constrained by a perceived need for group solidarity, has become unmistakable to anyone paying even the slightest attention. Any possible stereotype about how black people behave or talk can be undermined with a million counter-examples. Here's a news flash: Black people have been moving to suburbia for 50 years or so, and plenty of them can host their own damn pool parties. If we want to be invited, we'd better be polite.

African-American communities remain disproportionately affected by economic inequality, poverty and crime, but this is also a golden age of black self-definition, of black computer nerds, black stoners, black preppies, black hipsters, black intellectuals, black “Lord of the Rings” buffs and a vibrant African-American LGBT community. Chris Rock's gag about how he hadn't realized that black people could be snotty specifically referred to my neighborhood in Brooklyn. The African-American teenagers who live next door to me aren't snotty; they're skateboarders who listen to both rap and metal and play role-playing games. I don’t think it would occur to anyone they know to suggest that they are “acting white," or to care.

But there are a great many white people who would vigorously resist the R-word I mentioned earlier but who can’t see or appreciate any of that, and don’t want to. Their self-image is apparently defined in opposition to the classic stereotype of African-Americans as a hostile and undifferentiated Other, an amoral criminal class driven by anger and resentment. There’s a strong element of projection going on there too, I'm afraid. I felt an infinitesimal twinge of compassion for Karen Fitzgibbons, the infamous elementary-school teacher in McKinney who used her Facebook page to express her belief that “the blacks are the ones causing the problems and this ‘racial tension,’” and then to suggest that segregation wasn’t such a bad idea: If you ship all the black people to the other side of town, she wrote, “they can hurt each other and leave the innocent people alone. Maybe the 50s and 60s were really on to something.” There’s no question Fitzgibbons had to be fired, if only because no one ignorant enough to conflate “the 50s and 60s” like that should be teaching children anything, including needlepoint or tetherball. (And because she actually used the hashtag #imnotracist.)

But Fitzgibbons’ real offense was to say, in an indelicate and overly public fashion, what millions of other white Americans say in code or in private. I’d rather we were honest about it than sweep it under the carpet. If she’s the comic-relief version of non-racist racism, then Michael Dunn, the man who shot and killed 17-year-old Jordan Davis at a Florida gas station after a dispute over loud music, is the tragic and hair-raising version. In the riveting new documentary about that case, “3 ½ Minutes, Ten Bullets,” we hear Dunn tell his fiancée “I’m not racist; they’re racist,” during a jailhouse telephone call. There’s no need to ask who “they” are; he launches into a rant about the dysfunctional “subculture” of baggy pants and gangsta rap and fatherless families, against which he has struck such a courageous blow.

As it happens, Jordan Davis grew up in a middle-class Christian household in the Jacksonville suburbs. He had a close and loving relationship with both his parents, although they were separated. He went to that gas station that night with a couple of friends to buy chewing gum. He could hardly have been a more clean-cut young American, except for the semiotics of his skin color and the music he liked, which were the only things about him that Dunn could perceive. Dunn had been drinking heavily, and was on his way home from the wedding of an adult son he hadn’t seen in many years. He had a loaded gun in the glove compartment and was itching to use it. Yet in Dunn's understanding of the world, an understanding handed down from the deep past when racism required no apology, no denial and no disguise, he could not possibly be the one who belonged to a diseased and dysfunctional subculture.

A certain presidential candidate once promised us a “national conversation” on race, what seems like a lifetime ago, and the phrase sounded noble for five minutes before becoming a national joke. But it might be time for white people to talk to each other openly and without censorship about the dead weight of the past that we pretend does not exist or does not matter. Black people have their own problems to deal with, but they do not suffer from the crippling delusion that America’s past was so sacred and glorious we can never let it go. They aren’t the ones dragging around an inherited burden of hatred and fear and unhappiness that keeps on killing black and brown people and poisoning white minds and doing absolutely no good for anyone. It’s time, brothers and sisters, to set that burden down.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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