I grew up for the first 5-6 years of my life in Utah, in the early 1970's. When my family moved out of the state to neighboring Colorado, I had an experience that I now believe to be rather unique: I was old enough to form a clear memory of seeing a black person for the very first time. It's only been recently that my memory has re-surfaced. I recall a strange fascination with how this kid's palms were pink like mine, and how it almost looked like his pigment had been airbrushed on him.
I relate this story because Utah is of course the home of Mitt Romney's religion, and one of the poorest states in the nation, which receives a far-outsized share of public assistance. Racism is as far as anyone can tell actually part of Mormon scripture, and since Utah was never a slave state, their population of minorities was historically very small, allowing an illusion of ethnic superiority to grow in a harsh vacuum removed from reality. I'm sometimes immensely relieved to realize that I escaped that vacuum for my life has been far richer for it.
As I grew up I intellectually started to comprehend the terrible wrongness of racism. I read the non-fiction book Black Like Me in elementary school. In college my understanding of race in America was further expanded by reading Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man and the incomparable biography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley. In Malcolm X's biography I found a terrible anecdote about a numbers runner in the ghetto who probably should have been at MIT, but who instead used his enormous mathematical talents to foment illegal gambling amidst terrible suffering, poverty, and squalor. A completely wasted life, in other words, whose path in a just society might have led him to great discoveries and invaluable contributions.
The corollary to wasted potential in a divided society, in a corrupt social order, is unearned privilege. George W. Bush, incurious, incompetent, marble-mouthed child of wealth, is an example of what is wrong with this kind of thing. Vaulted into power by his father's political connections, by a stagnant and corrupt political class clinging to power, he represented the absolute best the GOP could do in 2000. That's not a ringing endorsement of his quality. His mishandling of almost every major crisis and issue of his time is epic and we are still cleaning up after him a full Presidential term after he left office. Another picture-perfect example of this is Michael Brown, his choice to head FEMA, who knew nothing about natural disasters, or how to run an organization at all. He was just a buddy who needed a job, and Bush picked him because he had no idea how to match a task to a person who could actually do it. Because he sucked utter balls at leadership, as I have said.
Ethnic privilege (in the case of the USA, white privilege) can be said to have two elements, then, which cause serious damage to the capability of the host society in that it diminishes the naturally talented and capable due to their incorrect identity, and it overcompensates incompetence and stupidity. It's like a yin-yang picture where the two competing forces are balanced by each other and at the same time contain a little bit of each other. In order to promote incompetent people up and keep up the facade of privilege, competent people are denied participation and the fulfillment of their true potential.
The Frog Metaphor
Most political junkies have probably encountered the frog-boiling metaphor. How you boil a frog is you put it in the pan with the burner off, and gradually raise the temperature. Keep the frog comfortable. By the time the frog starts to feel what is happening to it, the water is so hot that it is too late.
Unearned privilege seems to have a similar effect on a corrupt social order. Even without an actual minority to kick around and blame its problems on, an ethnic population drunk on its own self-entitlement suffers from all of the most damaging effects of racism. This brings us back to Utah, whose residents enjoy a standard of living comparable to Southern states. An oft-repeated shibboleth of right-wing racists is that those poor people in those poor states are just not good enough, don't have a work ethic, blah, blah, blah, blah. The massive imbalance of federal aid to federal taxes that Utah displays is on par with most Southern states, and disproves the notion that it's the minorities that are dragging these red states down.
So unearned privilege not only damages opportunities for otherwise brilliant and talented citizens, it promotes stupid and incompetent ones who cause problems. That whole yin-yang thing again.
The other thing that we are now learning it does is ensconce the privileged majority in a bubble of self-delusion. A study many years ago, widely posted across the Intertubes, discovered that one of the interesting things about institutional incompetence is that people who are incompetent don't ever seem to be able to admit it. Very likely because incompetence is partly a result of not understanding one's job in the first place. Lacking the judgment to tell good work from bad precludes one from the self-critical examination required to learn from mistakes and fix problems.
The same self myopia is evident in racists. Another Viner observed today that racists rarely seem willing (or more likely able) to admit to their racism. It exists inside a self-delusional bubble of imagined superiority. Racism derives from poor judgment and critical thinking, and there's that notion again. "Critical." Intellectual growth, problem-solving and even leadership all require critical thinking, and the willingness to admit error.
The Road Changed
I was just talking to my wife and I said one of my impressions of election night was that it was like when you're driving on the freeway, and suddenly you pass over a state line, or into a new district, and the material of the road surface is different. There's always this "ka-dunk" sound and then the roar of the road against your tires is noticeably different. That was Tuesday night.
It was also the boiling point for white privilege.
The demographics of the USA have been inexorably changing. At first, our immigrants were mostly other white Europeans, and once a generation of the Irish, or the Italians, or whoever had assimilated they became "white" people and all was well. But the seed of our civil division was ironically also the seed of its undoing: the desire for cheap or free labor by privileged whites who wanted inferior people to work for free. I think it is interesting to note the snake eating its own tail that is the Southern race issue: without slavery, there would have not been a Civil War or a Civil Rights movement, and without that movement there would have never been the dogged persistence of a fired-up minority population to take "their" country away from them.
And without the business class' double-dealing on hispanic immigrants, demonizing them in one sphere and cynically utilizing them for cheap illegal labor in the other sphere, there would never have been a pissed-off Latino population to vault that minority candidate over the top of the priviledged white man.
This demographic bear-trap did not need to be so painful, by the way. Nixon chose this path in the 1970's, calling it the "Southern Strategy." In the wake of historic gains in civil rights and the social safety net, Nixon and his cronies and his movement ultimately believed the only way to fight back against what they perceived as a political party buying itself votes (which is funny enough is Democracy working exactly as designed), was to divide the electorate with an irrelevant issue. They also chose to demonize the beneficiaries of those historic political and social victories and tar them with an indelible brush of lazy, worthless freeloader.
But those demographics, as I've outlined, were only ever going to grow and change, and in fact the primary driver of this demographic time-bomb has been immigration, both legal, and illegal, the kind that Reagan in the 1980's granted widespread amnesty for, to service the desires of his plutocratic buddies who wanted cheap labor that could be recklessly abused. While they called Latinos lazy parasites from their balcony overlooking the public square, they conspired behind the facades and curtains to keep those cheap workers a'comin. But the inexorable illogic of this tactic never seems to have occurred to them: an increasing minority population, who eventually like every minority population before them would demand and rightfully gain equal citizenship, were neither blind nor deaf to the slurs and insults being hurled at them. As the purveyors of white privilege became louder and more arrogant, they clearly projected their anti-sympathies to the ears of the very people they were using so roughly, who all the while were becoming citizens, and gaining civil rights.
Tuesday night, the frog died.
Based on an illegitimate evaluation of racial superiority, the scions of white privilege went about their business ever more arrogantly asserting their betterness, ever more breathtakingly gullible and blind to their own weaknesses and failures. The right's insolent myopia about George W. Bush should have informed us that in the frying pan the right was cooking itself in, there is simply no such thing as a Republican who makes a mistake, who is wrong, who breaks the law, or who is incompetent. Unable to explain away eight solid years of clearly-demonstrated failure and ineptitude, the Right simply forgot Bush ever existed. The frog just ignored the heat. It was comfortable.
Straddling An Historic Confluence of Numbers
One of the great philosophical eurekas of human history has been the discovery that almost any phenomenon in nature or science can be broken down to a numerical equation or algorithm. Living things in particular seem to follow a pattern first described by Fibonacci. Given two starting numbers, every number following is the sum of the first two. This is how populations of mammals grow, this is how shells and corals grow . . . mapping the Fibonacci sequence to geometry gives you shapes that conform to the Golden Mean. Mathematicians spend their lives in awe of these beautiful, revealing structures.
So, in 2008 the first minority President was elected in the United States. This was made possible by a coalition of younger voters who do not even care about their elders' racism, and a rising minority population. Of course, the younger voters aren't as bitterly racist as their elders because (thinking back to the start of this long-ass essay) they have been raised in the presence of and are comfortable with minorities, and do not think of themselves as separate from them. It is not a shock to their system to vote for a black President, or a Latino Congressman, or a female Senator.
This year, the majority of newborn Americans were not white. And this year, the nation re-affirmed her choice of a minority for President, not only because he was the better candidate, but because a fading demographic of white privilege thought it was a good idea to loudly and arrogantly thumb minorities in the eye for having the gall to participate in our society. I think over time the re-election of Obama will be seen as an affirmation of the American dream that any of us can rise to our highest offices and greatest potential in this country, but also as a decisive push-back against a social order that would deny them equal status.
The frog, it boiled itself. Every move of the political right over the last several decades, as I've watched them, has been to isolate and cocoon itself to somewhere free of examination or criticism, and to alienate and belittle those outside the cocoon. I keep thinking back and reminding people that I might be a Republican today, had George Bush the Elder not arrogantly taken the time to single out my belief system and deride it as incapable of patriotism. I keep thinking back to the gay rights struggles in the 2000's, which had nothing to do with any problem our country needed solved at the time (it was not an economic issue, it was not a foreign policy issue). The assaults on LGBT status (and individual people) during the 1990's and 2000's led to an energized gay rights movement that has definitively flipped the population's opinion and demanded, and received, equal status and acceptance. And the non-stop assault on voting rights, the insinuation of freeloading and the almost nazi-esque demonization of Latinos has led to the second term of the first minority President in US history. And already, Latino candidates are lining up to run in 2016. With Obama cutting a path, the US may finally live up to her promise as a nation where anyone can grow up to be President.
In the mean time, the shock and awe the right experienced on Tuesday night is nothing short of epic. Fully invested in their own fairytale of inevitability, fully drunk on their unearned sense of entitlement, the white privilege, right-wing establishment completely lost their minds this week and have yet to come back to reality. The afterlife of the frog will be filled with much angry recrimination. In supernatural stories, ghosts are usually angry about unfinished business, and the ghost of white privilege is no different.
It is kind of sad that one of the United States' political parties has to die with this frog. It didn't have to be this way. But I would like to dream that future politicians will read and study the history of the GOP, and in post-mortem conclude that it is never a good idea to divide your electorate by identity, and never a good idea to put party above country. Voters love to say "I don't vote for the party, I vote for the candidate," but the reality is, human beings are mostly ruled by our hind-brains, and many of us are simply wired to identify with a tribe and stick with it regardless. That doesn't cause too much damage until someone takes over the identity of one of the "tribes" and twists it out of recognition. But the long game of history has shown that short-term gains in power and influence made by division and hatred are, long-term always doomed to fail.