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Two Great Myths

So, I’ve been wondering, lately, about how we in this country—we white folk of the majority, in wealth and influence if decreasingly in absolute numbers—will manage to reconcile, going forward, our contradictory founding myths: equality and white supremacy.

We’ve only in my generation driven the white supremacist ideology underground. Our great development was the story we told ourselves of the crazy old uncle who spouted racist crap when he got drunk at Thanksgiving. That story defanged, deprecated and deplored the racism, taking away its authority. We convinced ourselves, culturally, that white supremacy was now old, that most un-American of things. We hoped that when the older folk died out, their nonsense would die with them, and so would anyone’s responsibility for doing anything about it. We knew better, we who grew up with a federal holiday honoring a civil rights hero; we could celebrate equality and the other one, embarrassed and ostracized, would simply fade away.

It won’t.

But now what do we do?

I have thought that the way to tackle the contradiction was by focusing on America as an aspirational ideal: we failed to live up to it, we have always failed in various ways, but the ideal of equality and liberty was not to blame for that failure. And at any rate striving to live up to that ideal was the important part, striving and failing and continuing to strive. It’s naïve, sure, but also inspiring, at least to me. Or, perhaps, it’s just a way I can reconcile the contradiction, or at least live with it. After all, it’s not really true that our Founders were striving for equality as I understand it; they believed that their heritage was superior to everyone else’s, and that the ability of everyone who didn’t share that (largely English, German and Dutch) heritage could participate in civilization only to the extent that they took that heritage on themselves. This was racist to them when someone felt that a person’s skin color or ancestry prevented them from fully taking part in that Anglo-Dutch heritage; the non-racists pretty much felt that anyone, given enough encouragement, could attend church, wear starched neckcloths, discuss the writings of Aristotle and become properly civilized. I know that history; we all know that. That’s not falling short of equality. That’s rejecting it.

One of the ways we have, in our generation and in the past, attempted to reconcile these two incompatible founding myths of equality and supremacy is to insist that people of color were and by rights ought to be happy about it all. Those who were ungrateful for the gifts of technology, civilization and white supremacy had to be silenced lest they burst the fragile illusion. Now the new illusion that white supremacy is ancient history is perhaps even more fragile, and our outrage when it is burst is even more sudden and shocked for being (mostly) non-violent. Angry black men (and Native Americans and Latinos uswusf) scare us, not just because the blood of the lash may still be repaid with the blood of the sword and the gun, but because it throws off our own sense of who we are. If their anger is just—if Colin Kaepernick is legitimately angry and is not alone in his anger, if the Native Americans at Standing Rock are legitimately angry and are not alone in their anger—then our balance of those two primal myths is a lie.

Which it is, of course.

But now what do we do?

Our instinct, us white liberal folk who believe in equality, diversity and hope… I think our instinct is to push away the problem into a basket of deplorables, those terrible people who are so openly and horrifyingly vicious to Mr. Kaepernick or the Standing Rock protesters or the immigrants with or without documents or a Moslem woman who was just walking down the street in New York, for crying out loud, to anyone who expresses anger at the continuing legacy of white supremacy, and to tsk ourselves better that we are not in that basket with the deplorables. And it’s true that there’s a basketful of deplorables in this country, a racist rump of ten or twenty percent, and right now of course they are getting to make all the noise and fuss. And we really do need to keep deploring, to keep that racist crap underground where it belongs. That’s important. But I think it’s not enough. We thought it was enough, our generation, that we could just make fun of our crazy racist uncles and shut them up when they were sober and that would be enough. It wasn’t.

Now what do we do?

In truth, I have no idea. I don’t. If we can’t, as a culture, accept that people are angry enough to kneel in silent protest during the national anthem… well, I don’t know. I just don’t.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Why is there an imperative to reconcile founding myths? Beliefs in equality and belief in white supremacy both shaped the founding of this nation. The former belief set American society on a path toward democracy, tolerance, diversity, and broadly shared prosperity. The latter belief set American society on the path toward oligarchy, intolerance, segregation, and extreme economic inequality. The benefits to health and happiness of an egalitarian society are many and obvious; the harms to health and happiness of a racist, unequal society are also many and obvious, but those that gained in power and wealth from the brutal exploitation that belief in white supremacy justified and concealed have been tenacious in defense of that belief and unwilling to acknowledge the benefits of equality. That's American history. Why should anything be done with white supremacy except to state and live by the truth that it was a lie then, it is a lie now, and its effects are consistently pernicious?

As I see it, American society is still in the throes of the struggle that ensued when the racists who never stopped believing in white supremacy and believed that all the civil rights stuff was just kabuki that we went through to be polite but that the real power would always be white and male woke up to the fact in 2008 that the rest of us were really serious about this equality stuff and had actually voted for the black guy. When they discovered that the actual democratic process was no longer functioning as a polite cover for white supremacy, they went all in against democracy. If the illusion for liberals was that the crazy old uncles were powerless old coots, the illusion for the crazy old uncles was that they were still really in charge. This co-dependent arrangement (for whites) has fallen apart, and we have a real struggle for power on our hands, in which the immediate stakes are the principles and practices of democratic government.

So for those who love equality, justice, and all the benefits those conditions bring to everyone, the main thing to do is defend democracy. I am with Reverend Barber 100% that the task is to revive the heart of our democracy. As we keep and extend democracy, we create the conditions in which equality, justice, environmental health, and broad prosperity can grow. As those grow, all whose hearts have not been hardened by racist ideology will see those benefits and have their commitment to democracy, equality, and justice deepened.

The spirit of revival offers opportunities for conversion experiences, in which those with hard hearts may feel them become tender, and all who have the calling to bring the good news of equality and inclusivity to racists are doing the work of the saints. But for the ordinary citizens, the thing to do now is defend and revive democracy and vote for candidates who stand for equality, justice, inclusivity, and care for the earth.

That's what I see as the way forward. I don't know how much that gets at the troubles you are worrying over in this post.

The word reconciled was probably the wrong one, in that I certainly don't mean that we should reconcile ourselves to white supremacy.

I often refer to the bit in the story where Ella can't go to the ball until she picks out all the lentils from the cinders. What I meant was that we really need to stop thinking of them as two separate things, lentils and ashes, and the task is separation. I no longer think that's right. We cannot sing down a flock of Founders to separate the two myths. The truth, as unpleasant as it is to face, is that the Founders did not think they were scattering lentils among ashes. They mixed them on purpose; for them white supremacy (that is, Anglo/Dutch/European/Enlightenment supremacy) was what made equality and democracy work. I think they were wrong about that, and I certainly don't want to throw away the whole mess, but the task turns out to be more like unstirring jam out of porridge.
We have to work toward it. That's not really a choice. I'm not sure if it's reviving the heart of democracy; I'm not sure that we have ever had the heart we wanted. But whatever it is, Rev. Barber and his like are inspiring us to it, in many ways, many practical and important ways. But I am coming to think that part of the work that needs to be done by us white folk is to break free from the notion that those two founding myths are easily separable, lentils and ashes, and that we have already done the work (or more accurately, our Magic Birds have already done the work) of separating them.


Came back to add—this David Brooks column called The Uses of Patriotism seems like an excellent example of believing in the one myth but not the other, and thinking they are separate.


Our nation was organized around principles of fractionated equality and a principle of white supremacy, and both of those principles have shaped and permeated many of our institutional policies. I think the attitudes of individuals today are more affected by present institutions than by founding myths. I also think that fractionated equality and real equality are rather different, and I don't see fractionated equality and white supremacy as being in opposition. To make progress towards real equality, we need changes in the hearts of many individuals and changes in the policies of many institutions. A clearer understanding of history should help to explain how long a road we have to travel, but I don't think it's necessary in order to make that progress. I think far more important are a charitable view of the range of individual experiences, an understanding that our society remains tremendously unequal, a willingness on the part of those out of power to do the hard work of taking more power in a non-violent way, and a willingness on the part of those in power to relinquish much of their current power and privilege.

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