Recently, I was reminded of a high-school friend of mine who during group discussions would calmly lean forward and slowly, deliberately roll up the cuffs of his trousers whenever someone spouted a brazen lie. When I asked him why he did this, he said it was to protect himself from the flood of bullshit being spewed.
I imagine that right now, in the wake of the painful contortions that racists have twisted themselves into in order to rationalize their racism, that my friend’s pant-cuffs would today stand somewhere mid-thigh. Case in point: Roseanne Barr’s infamous tweet comparing Valerie Jarrett to an ape. Barr, who previously had also compared Susan Rice to an ape, maintains that her tweet was simply a misunderstood joke. Incredulously, following escalating criticism, Barr now claims that she thought Jarrett was white – and judging from the twits on twitter, so did many of her online defenders. Since Jarrett was born in Iran, they say they simply assumed she was Iranian. (Did they assume Senator John McCain is Panamanian because he was born in Panama? Not likely.) More incredulous still, some go so far as to say that they thought Susan Rice was white, too. (A modest proposal: Want to make America white again, the Norway of North America, without banning the entry of immigrants from “shithole countries”? Call a black person an ape, wait for the public outcry, and then say you thought he or she was white so that technically it doesn’t qualify as racism. Then go to Starbucks and have a conversation about it, but make sure they don’t ask to use the bathroom).
Matters of birth present a major problem to some Americans when it comes to people of color in America. Former President Obama was infamously asked to produce his birth certificate despite being born in Hawaii, but then these are the same people who want to stop illegal immigration from Puerto Rico and think that hurricane recovery aid there is foreign assistance). In fact, the current occupant of the White House sent investigators to the state who he said had provided him with certain facts which, like his tax records, he has failed to make public – though it’s not as if Americans are demanding it or there have been any consequences for not having done so.
This fact did not prevent an alarmingly large number of his white fellow citizens from failing to recognize Obama American citizenship and accusing him, like Jarrett, of being Muslim. And while Barr now pleads her innocence, she no doubt feels vindicated that many a meme on the internet depict Obama (and any blacks) as apes. But get ready to roll up those pant cuffs in preparation for the fetid defense: “What, Obama’s black? But isn’t his mother white?”
How ironic that the twittering classes who believed Jarrett was white aim their invectives at fellow erstwhile “whites,” though of course their error of convenience absolves them of any racist intent, their only indiscretion being just simple, tolerable, and apparently incurable ignorance. These folks can tweet up a storm but can’t seem to find their way to Wikipedia or to any news source not owned by Rupert Murdock or hosted by Alex Jones. Now they exert the ultimate perk of white privilege: defining who is and who is not black, which is ironic considering these are the same people who claim they “don’t see color.” Still, there is nothing new here. White folk have been exercising this privilege ever since they became white folk (and continue to desperately cling to it in order to stay white folk), in the end determining not only who is black but what degree of blood quantum that defines it, how much black people count as human beings, and how much their lives are worth (apparently in Florida the going price is 4 cents).
Barr goes on to say that she was simply comparing Jarrett to a “CHARACTER in the movie who controls human beings, prevents their uprising.” However, anyone familiar with the Planet of the Apes films knows that Dr. Zira, the “ape” to whom Jarrett was compared, did no such thing. That ape was Dr. Zaius, a pompous, grandstanding orangutan who swore to protect ape society from the scourge of feral, lawless, destructive humans who trespassed upon simian lebensraum and who, had he been human, would probably have earned Barr’s fervid support.
Barr’s critics have suggested that Trump is to blame for what appears to be an uptick in racial invective, arguing that he has normalized racism. This view, however, conveniently and blissfully ignores the long and entrenched legacy of American racism. What Trump, social media and body cams have done is to expose the once hidden normalcy of American racism as lays ruin to national myths of our nation’s past, a past built on genocide, slavery, and other deplorable acts, that can no longer be concealed. The question before us is, in the end, does it matter?
John G. Russell is a cultural anthropologist based in Japan.