The astonishing spectacle of a nation veering into cultural madness, in which ignorance is virtue, blindness is vision, and words of hatred are venerated as a courageous honesty, is new to those of us who are living through it, no matter whether or not it reminds us of other such moments in history. To call our present political cycle a renewed age of ignorance, while helpful to those of us who respect education, is to miss the point of what is going on in the people who support extreme political candidates and policies of xenophobia.
Ignorance does not explain the current candidates for political office; ignorance can be cured by information and education. Willful ignorance is not ignorance at all; it is evidence of a deeper problem. To say that people are angry with their government, while true and troublesome to a marvelous degree, is still an understatement. People are angry with their world.
Angry people do not want to see the truth, refuse to comprehend arguments that undermine their anger, and turn any fact within reach to their own advantage.
Many white people in particular are angry at a world that threatens them with information about themselves that they don’t want to be true, that they refuse to consider, no matter how logical. This subset of white people cannot be addressed through appeals to their human emotions; these emotions only apply to equals, and far too many white people do not see the world in terms of equality.
The root of this fear comes from the attacks on white male supremacy that are now open and successful. The presence of white privilege and the pervasiveness of white hegemony are so clearly demonstrated in our world that there is no real argument to overcome the overwhelming evidence. White men – white people – who refuse to take this message into themselves are left with nothing to stand on except willful refusal to admit that they are wrong.
The only argument left to white supremacists is to retreat into the ideas that always supported this way of thinking, namely, that white people are superior and that white men are entitled to run the world. To their way of thinking, the clearest example of this is the degraded and criminal state of black people in particular, who are the opposite of white people and therefore the ethnic group who are marked out to be the most despised. Other groups can sometimes be admitted to a kind of whiteness, and individual black people who support the ideas of white supremacy – whether explicitly or implicitly – are also all white in their way.
Calls for white people to examine our racism are met by the same responses, all of which fall into familiar categories.
Someone will write to say that all people are racist and that no progress will be made on the issue until everybody admits this. This ignores the fact that racism is different from prejudice, requires a structure of power to support it, and cannot be practiced by groups who do not have power. The argument amounts to saying that we all have to be perfect before anything can change. History clearly demonstrates that white people have played a special role in the promotion of racism in our country, at the very least, and most likely in the wider world as well. The idea of white supremacy was applicable to the whole world, after all.
Someone will write to say that white people have invented nearly every good thing in the world, that we have clearly demonstrated our superiority, and that any argument to the contrary is simply based on political correctness, whining, or jealousy. This argument usually comes with a list of the good things that white people have brought to the world, and nearly all the time a simple online search of the history of any of these good things will clearly demonstrate that very few of these inventions or innovations are attributable to white people alone or at all.
Someone will write to attack black people, using words like “thugs,” asserting that black people are inherently criminal, that “they” ruin schools, neighborhoods, cities, by their willful destructiveness, and that any effort to keep “them” in line is justified. The historical roots of this argument go all the way back to the earliest justifications for the slave trade. The fact that a discussion of racism veers immediately into the reasons that racism is justified is clear proof that racism is a problem without the need of any further debate.
Often the author of any statement about white racism or white supremacy will be invited to move to Africa; this happened to me recently in the aftermath of the publication of my memoir about school desegregation in 1960s North Carolina. The underlying foundation of this statement is clearly that the U.S. is a white country, founded and operated for the benefit of white people and their supporters, and anyone who has ideas to the contrary should go elsewhere.
The pattern of these arguments against the pervasiveness of white supremacy is self-perpetuating; every debate on this issue is followed by the same litany of response.
It is easy to misinterpret these statements as ignorance, but they are in fact something much worse. These arguments and all their kin – including the similar constellation of reactions to writing and thinking about sexism, which is the other pillar of white male supremacy – are evidence that smart people, educated people, and so-called decent people, have developed sophisticated, conscious strategies to refuse any truth they find difficult or inconvenient.
Ignorance is not our problem. People have abandoned the idea of objective truth altogether. Our idea of whiteness is so precious to some of us that we would trade anything in order to keep it. That’s a much more dangerous state.