People who are usually comfortable ignoring, downplaying, or just plain denying the existence of racial oppression are now co-opting the history of the oppressed to defend their own bigotry. It’s a sick hypocrisy that has reared its disingenuous head in the midst of one of the most inhumane actions taken by the US government in recent memory—the detainment of immigrant children after forced separation from their parents.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders represents an administration that has implemented policies that specifically target people based on their race, national origin, sexual orientation, or faith. Sanders herself has stood at the podium in the White House Briefing Room doubling down on the administration’s defense of a baker who refused to serve a customer on the basis of his immutable identity—his sexuality. The President she serves has classed black men as sons of bitches, and many of his supporters take pleasure in reveling in their supposed racial superiority while alternately claiming racism is a figment of people’s imaginations. Republican policymakers have waxed nostalgic about the days of the confederacy while diminishing the horrors of chattel slavery—incredibly, even suggesting that the enslaved were happy with their lot. And the white moderate, who is more committed to “order” than to justice, has derided, stayed silent on, or been offended by the life and death urgency of the Black Lives Matter movement.
But a restaurant owner politely asks Sanders’ to leave their establishment due to the concerns raised by her LGBT staff, then comps the Press Secretary’s meal up to that point, and White political pundits begin evoking the most devastating experiences visited upon Black Americans in an aggrieved outcry. Arne Duncan, Education Secretary under the Obama Administration, had the gall to reference ‘the too raw, too real’ history of African Americans being denied use of public water fountains and bathrooms to decry Sanders’ apparently traumatizing experience. Jim Crow laws are now being weighed the same as marginalized people not wanting to serve a visible representative of state-sponsored bigotry. It’s not only absurd, it’s disgusting and offensive.
Old white men, those erstwhile defenders of black people, have been falling over themselves to now identify with the struggle of African Americans in order to support Sanders. The fervency of this newfound ally ship is especially perplexing when it comes from old white Republican men. The self-righteousness of their outrage would lead you to believe they are also gravely concerned with the violence that agents of the state routinely visit upon black bodies. But that’s not the case. For too many, black pain and suffering is only worth mentioning when it can be used to protect against white people’s discomfort.
Martin Luther King Jr., who the prevailing narrative would wrongly suggest was the darling of white America when he was alive and disturbing the peace, has become a such crutch for people advocating for the tolerance of hatred that the practice could be its own meme. Last week a commentator on Fox News, the station that traffics in narratives about black people’s lack of gratitude for what this country has given them, suddenly cared about the quality of housing projects. Not due to a personal crusade to make the projects better for the human beings who reside in them, but because she was justifying the caging of brown children.
Let’s be clear: the very real and present systemic discrimination that takes place against people of color is not a file cabinet White America gets to rifle through when people of power are faced with the negligible consequences of their actions. The trauma of marginalized people is not your convenient cautionary tale when you’ve never been those people’s advocates or will never live their experiences. Equating the very civil treatment the White House Press Secretary received with the brutal water hosing, beating, and firebombing of black people is audacious in the way only whiteness can be. What it also confirms is the gulf of empathy that still exists between those with racial privilege and those without. To some, there are slight inconveniences people of privilege are expected to be above experiencing, and there is brutal treatment that people of color are implicitly expected to endure.