What's the Matter With White People? Longing for a Golden Age That Never Was
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To the “whiteness studies” people [in left-wing academia], this was the Irish trying to prove that they were American, but in fact it postponed the Americanization of the Irish by at least a decade. The words that were used by the New York Times and other thought-leaders of the day was that the Irish were animals, they were savages. It’s so striking that almost exactly 100 years later, when African-American neighborhoods began going up in flames, my family and many other people used those words to describe black people: animals and savages.
Sure. Many white people all across America used that language, I’m afraid.
Almost no one saw the correspondences, almost no one said, “Hey, that’s what we were called.” There was no linking of the two things, yet before the Watts riots [in Los Angeles in 1965], the largest civil insurrection in American history was the New York City draft riots, with the Irish playing that role. To left-wing groups, the draft riots are a despicable act of savagery and racism, and to right-wing groups the ’60s riots were a despicable act of savagery and destruction. There’s no conversation that bridges the two.
Where did your personal and political interest in race come from? People who know you from TV may not know this, but race relations and racial justice and the intersection of race and economics have been enduring issues throughout your career.
Well, I don’t think I was even in kindergarten when my father started discussing the civil rights movement with me. For both my parents, that was the moral issue of the time. We watched it all on TV — the fire hoses and the dogs — and we were horrified. One day when we were alone, my father explained to me that we were “black Irish” and that meant we were possibly descended from Spanish or Moorish invaders, with dark hair and hazel eyes as opposed to the redheads and blonds. We should not look down on “those people” because we might be them. I never thought that I was black or that I would suffer discrimination or anything.
This is not you explaining that you’re really black.
No, this is not my way of explaining that I’m actually black. I have tried! I don’t get very far, so I gave that up a long time ago. I’m not, and it didn’t enter my consciousness that way. It was “do unto others,” in a really vivid rendering. I just continued, even after it was no longer fashionable, to think that racism and particularly poverty were the moral issues of our time. Ironically, I’ve lived in California for more than half my life, and California is really complicated for the black-white racial paradigm. It doesn’t really work there. Certainly in San Francisco, where you can see the black school superintendent clashing with Chinese parents, or in Oakland, where we had black and Latino parents sparring, it became clear to me that there was not going to be this natural people-of-color coalition that would transform American politics. Strife is the natural state, and we’re all tribal to some extent.
We need models of cooperation and a social future that don’t rely so much on race, and do not view whites as always being the people on top, the oppressors, the haves. The inability to parse the meaning of what it means to be white today — nobody was even trying to do that. The same impulses that caused me to be concerned about racial justice for black people caused me, later in life, to become more sympathetic to white working-class people and poor people. For those people to be told that they have white privilege, that there’s never a situation in which they are the underdog, that’s preposterous.