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Charlottesville, Bacon’s Rebellion and the Miasma of Whiteness

If anyone still buys the idea that we are “post-race,” Charlottesville showed us that white Americans are still willing to kill over white pride. While this most recent tragedy was triggered by a plan to move a statue of Robert E. Lee, its roots are rooted much more deeply into the soil of our national psyche. If we are ever going to pull ourselves out of our centuries-old cycle of racial violence and recrimination, we need to find a way to do more than just condemn white supremacism and figure out how to keep its violence from returning to kill innocent people and deny us all of a country where we might live together in peace.

The ancient Greeks believed that when a person commits a truly horrific act their descendants are marked with a kind of curse called a miasma that can fester for generations until atonement is made. Perhaps we could make better sense of our racial history by thinking of the United States as bearing the miasma of white supremacist racism. This miasma lives in the hearts and minds of all white Americans, the author included, and not just the Nazi cosplayers marching with upside down fascist symbols, tiki torches and white polo shirts. The miasma we’ve inherited and transmitted for generations makes us poor, sometimes lethal, neighbors to Americans of color and it deprives us all of the potential to live in peace as a pluralistic society. Like a modern super-bacterium, this miasma will continue to adapt and resurface if we continue to only clean up its most obvious stains but lack the resolve to expunge it entirely from our hearts, our minds and our deeds.

It is especially telling that this most recent manifestation of  white supremacist violence erupted in Virginia since our miasma was codified into law by the Virginia House of Burgess in 1691 when it passed the first law that used “white” to designate a category of privileged people. Of course racism predates 1691, but that date marks the genesis of the particular idea of whiteness that spawned the particular kind of racism that exists in the United States. The Virginia Burgess first wrote whiteness into law as part of an evolving response to Bacon’s Rebellion of 1675-1676, when Nathaniel Bacon led an uprising against the colonial authorities over a number of issues, the most important of which was land use and the colony’s relationship with the Doeg peoples. Bacon was by no means a moral hero, as his primary intent was to allow colonists to push beyond the boundary of the colony to occupy more Native land through violence. He and the rebels who joined him wanted colonists to be free to farm their own plots of land rather than continue to live under the grueling conditions of the colonial tobacco plantations. What particularly troubled the Burgess was the fact that a great number of indentured servants and slaves laboring in the colony were willing to stand against colonial forces for a chance at freedom. What is particularly significant for our history is the fact that his forces were made up of European indentured servants and African slaves who were willing to cooperate with each other to find better living and working conditions.

Bacon’s Rebellion is crucial story for us to remember today since it reminds us the fact that there was a time before whiteness. There was a time when laborers who were forcibly removed from their homes in Europe and forced to work in plantations in Virginia found common cause with African slaves who, from 1619 to about 1690’s, worked the same ground under similar conditions. This solidarity posed a mortal threat to the enormously profitable colonial chartered drug operation that was filling coffers across the Atlantic. In order to pit these groups against each other, the Burgess started using the term “white” in 1691 to designate a group of European and solely European descended workers who were protected by law from being denied certain rights, such as the right to do things like enter pubs, marry, or own property or firearms, unless they had committed a crime. At the same time, they began to strip these rights from anyone who was not counted as “white,” including people who fell inside the categories “Indian, negro, and mulatto.” The terrible cunning of this legal slight-of-hand is that they won over the newly minted “white” workers without giving them a single thing they didn’t already have. By increasing the relative status of European workers – who could still be flogged, who still had to work off the debt they incurred during their involuntary voyage across the sea, who still died from illness and starvation in great numbers—they effectively disrupted any future solidarity between white and black laborers by paying poor whites what W.E.B. DuBois called a “sort of public and psychological wage.” Ever since then, European Americans, no matter how poor or cut out from power and dignity, were taught to be proud of the simple fact that at least I am not one of them.

This brings us the idea of white pride, the idea the marchers in Charlottesville were there to support. One very important feature of whiteness in our history—an idea we must be mindful off to ever get out of this insane cycle of violence—is that whiteness is not like other racial or ethnic categories. Whiteness, from the start, was not defined through positive content or description. It was not, as it is now, a synonym for “from Europe.” It couldn’t be, since the Virginia colonial leaders of the 17th Century were even more afraid of the Spanish and Irish papists than they were of their own rebellious workers, so they sure as hell were not going to give them rights. The early laws did not define what whiteness was, so much as define what it was not: a white person was a proper Christian (that is to say not a Jew, Pagan, Catholic or Muslim) who did not have any discernable African or Native ancestors. As a consequence, whiteness at its heart is an identity based on hierarchical exclusion: it says a white person is better than a non-white person simply because they aren’t non-white. The myth of whiteness led white laborers to see themselves as better than other Americans and to use violence to protect their status against any perceived threat from people outside the category of whiteness.

The colonial records from the 17th century before the advent of whiteness are rife with stories of African and European laborers escaping together, stealing food together and cavorting with each other. Hundreds of them died together at West Point, Virginia in 1676. Less than twenty years later, whiteness turned every white colonist into a defacto militiaman who was constantly on the lookout to make sure that the African slaves were not going where they didn’t belong or were taking liberties reserved for whites. The colonial leaders who duped European laborers into fearing and patrolling the bodies of African laborers would doubtlessly smile at the fact that so many white folks still bought their conn three centuries later: as the Charlottesville marchers themselves chanted, “we will not be replaced.”

So how do we wash away the miasma of white racism that still makes white people fear and kill people of color and their allies and denies us all healthy and thriving communities? One response is to mourn the dead, pick the low-hanging rhetorical fruit of condemning Nazism and the KKK and then get back to our lives. This is the response white folk have taken by and large to these travesties which is why we still have not progressed. It is not enough to decry Neo-Nazis and the KKK. Of course, their ideas are abhorrent and their actions are immoral and vile. However, the problem does not start and end with them, and if we wash our hands after condemning them, we are just using them as scapegoats for our own faults. In order to actually progress past this problem we need to recognize that the visible and ugly racism we saw from the marchers in Charlottesville is but a more concentrated and visible form of a kind of moral and psychological illness that infects every white American, this author included.

We have been stuck in an endless cycle regarding white racism where we have brief moments of relative improvement (like Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement) where we stamp down the illness, which are followed by a period of relative remission that inevitably end when the contagion violently resurfaces. Our partial attempts at eradicating whiteness fail because white Americans are failing in their moral and civic duty to address the entire problem. I say white Americans because while whiteness is a problem for people of color, but it is a problem with and of white people. Therefore, white people need to stop thinking of race as a problem that only comes into play when we are interacting with people of color and realize that whiteness and race are always there, even though we don’t feel the need to talk about it when we are in the company of other white folks. The great moral call to Americans who live as white is to realize that we morally have to address this problem with ourselves even though our status makes it such that we could shirk our moral duty if we want.

My suggestion is that if we are ever to be free of the miasma of racism, white Americans need to move in two directions at once. In one direction, we need to break the habit of hiding from the realities of white supremacist racism behind easy liberal platitudes in favor of diversity or evasive claims of racial colorblindness to come to terms with the fact that white people would not have what we have without whiteness and that whiteness continues to function in our society. This starts with recognizing the basic facts of our history of white supremacism as well as the facts about how it continues to degrade and threaten the lives of people of color. It includes a refusal to pretend it’s not happening, or that pulling down a statue that honors a man (yes, a man who by all accounts was brave, smart, dashing and very polite to other white folks) who fought to preserve one of the most violent and degrading practices of white supremacism is in no was comparable to racial oppression or reverse discrimination. It includes the very uncomfortable acceptance of the fact that while white folk face all the same sorts of pain and difficulties in life as other folks and that most of us are not having an easy go of it, we are facing these challenges in a way that is like playing a video game on a difficulty setting much lower than a comparable person of color. It ends with white people standing on the side of justice by speaking out against it and taking concrete steps including supporting laws that seek to correct and redress our legacy of white supremacism.

The fact that a significant portion of white America rallied around a candidate who argued the exact opposite of everything I’ve just said shows that we have not moved enough in this direction. What I am suggesting as this first movement, a movement towards recognizing white supremacism and white privilege, is still essential to removing the miasma of whiteness. However, it is also not at all a novel suggestion as many wiser people have called for this for decades. Centuries in fact. However, while getting white folk woke to whiteness is necessary, it is not sufficient. What is almost entirely absent from our discussion about whiteness and race is the need to balance the movement towards recognizing, owning and changing white supremacism with another movement in nearly the opposite direction. White folks need to know that it simply doesn’t work to be proud of being white. What we haven’t talked about is what white folks should be proud of instead.

The philosopher Richard Rorty wrote a book called “Achieving our Country” the title of which is a reference to the great American writer James Baldwin when he said that if we are ever to achieve our country—actually achieve a country defined by love and respect instead of white racial violence—we need to know what to be ashamed of and what to be proud of. Now the source of our shame is obvious and painful. It is so obviously painful that many white folks ignore it or deny it and pretend like we are the offended party. One of the reasons I think that these efforts to get white people to see white supremacist racism is that we don’t see what to put in its place. Rorty makes the point that we all, as human beings with psychologies and cultures, need to have some source of pride that we can express publicly. However, we as a society have utterly failed to establish a healthy and humane source of pride for people who fit within the category of whiteness. I am not saying this to get you to feel bad for white folks. I am saying this as an attempt at a kind of cultural diagnosis: by all means try to get white people to see how messed up it is to be proud of being white, but if you don’t put something in its place, you are just going to keep coming back to the same place in 20 years.

This failure to articulate a source of pride that could replace whiteness that works in a pluralistic society leads white people to be at best passive observers and consumers of diversity. We clap politely and watch others express cultural pride. We begin to think that diversity means “them” and that our job it to just be quiet. This in turn makes some white people resent pluralism. This is especially true of young white people who do not see their own privilege and feel as if they’ve lived before institutionalized racism. When they ask, “Well what is my culture? What should I be proud of?” and they hear silence, the miasma of whiteness – the idea that they should be proud of just not being them—fills the void. We hear as much from the young white people who participated in the march, like Mr. James Allsup who traveled from Washington State to march in Virginia. “For young whites specifically, we feel like ‘I’m not responsible.’ We’re tired of being attacked for white privilege.”[1]  Of course, no one is actually attacking him for being white and he is mistaking responsibility with oppression. I have little sympathy for a 20-something Mr. Allsup who is an adult, went to a good college and is old enough to know right from wrong. He should be able to distinguish real oppression like slavery and targeted voter suppression from the silly claim that removing a statue of someone who fought to preserve slavery somehow constitutes an attack on white people. However, I feel great compassion for the 12 year old version of him a decade or so ago who as an adolescent was in need to a clear direction from his society about who he was and where he fit it, but was not afforded a clear, positive cultural identity that could help him understand how to come to terms with being born into a society where one’s ancestors did terrible things and you still benefit from unearned privilege while also feeling like a decent person.

Our recurring failure to achieve our country shows that it is simply not tenable for any people to either be denied positive ways of expressing pride in who they are or to have their only cultural identity be one of guilt. Finding a way for white people to express cultural pride without sliding back into white identity is a complex affair, but I think it is a necessary one. It is like breaking a bad habit. You don’t just get rid of the bad habit: you have to replace it with a better one. White folks absolutely need to recognize that we are in the unconscious habit of treating people of color not as individual human beings but as members of groups that fit the stereotypes that have been woven into our culture for centuries. We absolutely need to change our actions and our laws to address historical and continued racism. However we also need to develop new habits of thought and behavior that offer white Americans, especially young white Americans, ways of expressing pride in who they are without having to denigrate others.  If we don’t find a humane and sustaining way for white folks to express pride in who they are, white supremacism will simply continue to fill the void. It is not surprising that so many of the white supremacist marchers are relatively young as they have only known a world where to talk about whiteness in the context of race is to talk about our shameful history of violence.

The source of pride for white Americans can’t be in whiteness itself since there simply isn’t anything there to be proud of. There is no such thing as a white culture in the literal sense of something that cultures us, helps us to grow. Whiteness was invented as a negative category that derived its value solely from the oppression of people outside the category. While there is no positive way of being proud of whiteness, white people are not just white, and we need to find or create new sources of pride that can replace whiteness. I find that history – real history that looks at a full account of the past and not the gauzy nostalgia of happy slaves and an uninhabited continent – offers us both sobering accounts of the brutality of whiteness as well as hopeful clues about how to overcome it. White people could recover the far more specific and nuanced histories of our ancestors who were not white when they left their homes for America, but were Irish, Italian or Austrian. These histories give needed context and recollection of how we got here. In my own research I started to wonder when did we stop being Irish Catholics who faced bigotry and become white Americans who forgot the fact that our ancestors would sooner eat glass than see us march alongside a Klansman? Why am I marching in favor of a wall to keep out Mexicans when the Know-Nothing Party advocated expelling my Irish ancestors from America with exactly the same, trumped-up malarkey about job stealing and violence? How could I reasonably or humanely be against a Honduran family coming here to escape violence in their homeland when my grandparents were brought here from Northern Ireland for the exact same reason? An honest history gives white people access to stories they should be proud of, like Daniel O’Connell, known as “The Liberator” and “The Irish Abolitionist” who linked the cause of Irish freedom from British colonialism to the abolition of slavery everywhere. He castigated the Irish in America who were becoming seduced by the lie of whiteness for forgetting that Black slaves were fighting the same fight for freedom as were the Irish. He was admired by none other than Frederick Douglass who praised him “for his voice has made American slavery shake to its center.”[2]

Another source of pride for white Americans is in the stories of regular white people who worked to overcome white privilege and threw their lot in with other Americans when they could have just stayed home. People like Heather Heyer, the white woman who lost her life while protesting white supremacism. I mourn her death and I hope that if I am called to, I could live up to her example. If I meet a young white person troubled and confused by what to do in the face of racism who wants to feel proud of who they are feels their only choice is Adolf Hitler or Robert E. Lee, I will tell them about a woman who could have done nothing to help others, but who instead stood up and lent her voice to the side of peace, justice and a better America. I will tell them that they should be proud of Heather and do their best to be like her.

Terrance MacMullan is a Professor of Philosophy at Eastern Washington University.

Notes.

[1] Nathan Massey, “Lawmakers, activists show rage, sorrow at Charlottesville violence,” The Spokesman Review, Sunday, August 13, 2017, A3.

[2] Christine Kinealy, “The Irish Abolitionist: Daniel O’Connell,” Irish America, September 2011. Accessed August 14, 2017.

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