(This post represents my second attempt to shed a light on whiteness. To read about the background and inspiration for this project, click here and read the sections entitled, “Look, a Negro” and “Look, a white.”)
This past weekend, author and intellectual Ta-Nehisi Coates appeared on The Chris Hayes show to discuss his recently-published essay, “Fear of a Black President.” (By the way, I cannot recommend this essay highly enough–even if it’s the only thing you are able to read this month. It’s worth it.) Coates was asked to comment on this birther joke Mitt Romney recently delivered while speaking at a rally in his home state of Michigan.
(HINT: The reason nobody doubts you were born in the United States, Mitt, even though like President Obama your father was foreign-born, is because you’re white. I’m not really sure why that double-standard is so funny to you…)
Coates’ response, transcribed below, brilliantly exposes the inner-workings of the way white people typically deny their indebtedness to white supremacy:
“When I see him make that comment, particularly in Michigan, it’s really interesting to me. The subtext of birtherism is a skepticism of citizenship. There’s a long tradition of skepticism of African-American citizenship. I would go so far as to say cynicism towards African-American citizenship that stretches back, literally, to the birth of this country.
Mitt Romney…is from Michigan…I happened to be doing some reporting out in Michigan about a year or two ago…frankly in a neighborhood where Romney was born, Palmer Woods, on the outskirts of Detroit. He later moved to Bloomfield Hills. Romney was born in 1947 at a time where broad swaths of Detroit were essentially white set-asides, housing wise…
Everyone wants to see the President’s grades, everyone is skeptical of what affirmative action did for him, [asking,] how did he get here, we don’t believe him, is he a citizen. No one is skeptical of Mitt Romney given the fact of his origins. No one thinks about how he was born, how that housing helped him, how job discrimination [helped him], [how] the whole time in which he comes from may have aided his rise. And I’m not saying anybody should, but the skepticism that you see towards Obama is not what is reflected across the stream. It’s a very specific, particular skepticism.”
The Romney campaign has gone out of its way to cooperate with this type of thinking that considers Mitt Romney, a white man, to be an authentic American who deserves his place at the top but casts Obama, a black man with an African-born father, as some sort of undeserving imposter.
In the Romney campaign’s grand narrative, Barack Obama “isn’t working,” and he is planning on gutting the welfare work requirements while slashing Medicare spending. As a recent Romney campaign ad cautions: “under Obama’s plan, you wouldn’t have to work and you wouldn’t have to train for a job. They just send you your welfare check.” In other words, as the always excellent Chauncey DeVega summarizes, Barack Obama is a lazy black man who “is taking good white people’s money and giving it to lazy black and other undeserving, lazy, poor people.” In addition to being untrue, these claims to attempt to profit from white supremacy, validating and inflaming racist mythologies of the African-American work ethic.
For Mitt Romney, like so many other whites, it seems as though white supremacy, both as structural fact and campaign tactic, is fair play–not just the way things are, but the way things should be. Just as baseball fans don’t debate there being three outs in a half inning or football fans no longer debate the legality of the forward pass, most whites take white supremacy completely for granted. Why even talk about something that works so well? As the fair rules which govern a fair country, one does not confess, lament or even acknowledge the rules of white supremacy. As former governor Romney shows us, one simply abides by them.