3 Tropes of White VictimhoodRoundup
tags: racism, culture war, Whiteness
Lawrence B. Glickman is a history professor at Cornell University. He is the author, most recently, of Free Enterprise: An American History.
In the conservative world, the idea that white people in the United States are under siege has become doctrine. In recent weeks, three prominent figures have each offered their own versions of this tenet.
In June, Brian Kilmeade, one of the hosts of Fox & Friends, claimed that activists were “trying to take down white culture.”
Also in June, Tucker Carlson, speaking on his nightly show with an anti-white mania graphic in the background, implied that racial strife was imminent and asked: “How do we save this country before we become Rwanda?”
The same month, Pat Robertson, a former Republican presidential candidate and the host of the Christian Broadcasting Network’s flagship show, The 700 Club, said that militants are telling “people of color … to rise up and overtake their oppressors.” He worried that, “having gotten the whip handle—if I can use the term,” people of color were now in a position “to instruct their white neighbors how to behave.” Robertson warned that if this trend continues, “America is over. It is just that simple.”
Kilmeade, Carlson, and Robertson all blamed critical race theory, a school of legal thought developed in the 1980s that has become the latest fixation of the conservative outrage machine. But the panic they expressed has a much longer history, with roots going back to white-supremacist rhetoric from before the Civil War—and particularly apparent during the attack on Reconstruction, America’s experiment in interracial democracy that lasted from 1865 until 1877.
Indeed, each of the three pundits expressed a key strand of the rhetoric of racial reaction that was pervasive among critics of Reconstruction: Carlson deployed inversion, by which white people declare reverse racism or anti-whiteness to be the crucial problem of prejudice and white people to be uniquely oppressed as a result of excessive power granted to Black Americans; Robertson deployed projection, in which white people assert that they will be treated the way they treated Black people during the Jim Crow era; and Kilmeade deployed victimization, as when a white southerner in 1875 described his region as “stripped of her honors, her glory, her pride … trampled into dust” by recently enacted laws.
These tropes of inversion, projection, and victimization overlap. During the Reconstruction era, and long afterward, white reactionaries in both the South and the North projected that the movement for racial equality was animated by what the Confederate-nostalgic newspaper The Watchman and Southron called a “hatred of the white people of the South and a determination to humiliate them as much as possible.” Using the language of inversion and victimization in 1875, the Louisville Courier-Journal—which was associated with the anti-Reconstruction Democratic Party—described Reconstruction as a “scheme of upturning society and placing the bottom on top: an effort to legislate the African into an Anglo-Saxon.”
Here it is worth pausing to state the obvious: Nothing akin to what the Mississippi politician John D. Freeman called in 1868 “negro superiority and supremacy” ever happened—or was ever even close to happening. Although many white people like Freeman maintained that Reconstruction would inevitably culminate with their being “enslaved and crushed out of civil and political existence,” the goal of Reconstruction was not oppression. It was racial equality.
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