Newt Gingrich's upset victory in South Carolina appears to have been made possible by his success in tapping into a deep, bitter, implacable sense of grievance and victimhood that afflicts a large segment of the Republican electorate in that state. This permanent ressentiment was manifested in the eruptions of applause with which the debate audience greeted Gingrich's attack on moderator Juan Williams. It found expression in their delight when Gingrich called Obama a "food stamp president." And of course its steadiest manifestation is their hysterical hatred of and contempt for President Obama. The principal appeal of Gingrich to this electorate seems to be rooted in their erotic fantasy that Gingrich would, in a debate with Obama, whip the President and put him in his place.
The sense of being insulted and injured is not new, of course. It has long, deep roots. The purpose of this blog post is to explore those roots and identify what I believe to be the real origin of the grievance that motivates so large a segment of the Republican electorate today. As will become obvious, my explanation is little more than a suggestion, grounded in some historical realities. But readers of this blog may find it to be of some interest.
Our story begins, as do so many of the stories of America, in the pre-Civil War institution of slavery. Slavery was a fact of American society and economy north and south for several centuries -- one tends to forget that at one point New York City was home to more slaves than any other city in America. But although slavery was widespread in the North, the northern economy was not a slave economy. That is to say, slave labor was not the foundation of northern wealth. The South, however, was a slave economy. The tobacco, rice, and then cotton that made the ante-bellum South the wealthiest region of the United States rested firmly on slave labor.
It was far from the case that all white southerners owned slaves. Healthy, adult Black men and women were an extremely valuable commodity in the southern slave markets, each one bringing more money than a northern white free worker could earn in a year. Indeed, in his very valuable study of the economics of southern slavery, Branches Without Roots, Gerald Jaynes tells us that fully one half of the entire wealth of the South at the outbreak of the Civil War was in the form of slaves.
There were a great many poor whites trying to wrest some sort of living from the soil in the hollows and backwoods and upcountry reaches of the Southern states. Jacqueline Jones, in her splendid book American Work, reports that in the period before the Civil War, the popular view among affluent Southern whites was that the slaves were good workers -- skilled, obedient, hard-working -- but that the poor whites were lazy, shiftless, and no account. Within a generation after the end of the War, this attitude had flipped. It was now the newly freed Blacks who were condemned as lazy and shiftless and the white workers who were lauded as reliable and industrious.
Poor as the rural whites were in the Old South, they had one cardinal fact that they could clutch to their bosoms, one balm for their troubled souls, and it was not the old time religion. It was that THEY WERE NOT BLACK. However they might be scorned and condescended to by the gentry in the big plantations, there was an entire large segment of the population that was permanently, unalterably below them in the caste system of the South.
There is an old American saying that was still current when I was a boy: "I can do what I like. I am free, White, and twenty-One!" I am free -- I am not an indentured servant or a slave. I am White -- I can never be a slave; I am a citizen. And I am twenty-one, I am an adult." This was the proud boast of the poorest, most despised whites in an America with Black slaves.
At the end of the Civil War, everything changed. Suddenly, that oppressed, enslaved, and despised caste of Black men and women was Free. This created a situation that Whites found intolerable. An entire system of socially, legally, and extra-legally enforced caste separations and oppressions had to be introduced to replace the easily recognizable status of Slave. Thus were born the Black Codes and the system of Jim Crow. If a legally free Black man walking on a sidewalk did not step into the gutter to make way for a White man or women, he risked a blow, a beating, or even death. Before the war, white slave owners traveled by train with their slaves in the train car with them to attend to their needs and desires. Now, legally free Black travelers were forced to ride in separate cars so as not to offend the tender sensibilities of well-born Whites. Under slavery, Blacks drove carriages and they built and repaired them; Blacks cooked the food of Whites, fed it to them, cleaned up their messes, wet-nursed their babies, bathed them, and did their hair. After liberation, the sensibilities of White women were so easily offended by the mere presence of Black women that Black women were barred from serving as salesladies in department stores.
The hideous practice of lynching was entirely a post-bellum phenomenon. In slavery times, a slave was worth a great deal of money, and a sensible owner would no more kill a slave than kill a horse or a mule. The law records are full of cases in which one white man rented another white man's slave and, by beating him too harshly, returned him as damaged goods, giving rise to a lawsuit for the recovery of damages [to the white owner, of course, not to the slave!]
The strictly enforced caste system persisted through the end of the nineteenth century into the new twentieth century, through the First World, War and the Great Depression, and through the Second World War as well. During all that long century, poor whites could console themselves with the thought, spoken or unspoken, that they were not at the bottom of the social and economic ladder because THEY WERE NOT BLACK. In the great northern cities, housing discrimination, enforced by the Federal Government's policies as well as those of the states and localities, created large inner city ghettoes, in which Black Americans were forced to live by the covenants and housing discrimination in the rapidly expanding suburbs.
It was more or less at this time that a new and curious linguistic practice entered the public speech of America. Ordinary White working class families began to be referred to, and increasingly referred to themselves, as "middle class." Now "middle class" is itself a rather suspicious bastard sociological category. It does not have the historical roots and deeper meaning of "petty bourgeoisie," which conveys the notion of shopkeepers and small business owners who, although owners of their means of production, are yet not the great geldbesitzeren or haute bourgeois who command the economic heights. But it also does not merely mean "between rich and poor." It does, in the American context, somewhat correspond to the old distinction between "suits" and "shirts" or "white collar" and "blue collar." However, in the racially segregated America of the '50s and '60s, "middle class" clearly meant suburban, respectable, not living in an inner city ghetto. It meant NOT BLACK.
The Civil Rights Movement challenged the Black Codes, it challenged Jim Crow, it challenged the deeply embedded caste system of American society. And it was successful! I will yield to no one in my outrage at the discriminations that still afflict Black Americans, but I am old enough to recall what this country was like in the '40s and '50s, and that change has been dramatic, transformative, and irreversible.
We may celebrate this change as the greatest progressive victory of the twentieth century, but to a large number of Americans, the change has been devastating, incomprehensible, and hateful. No longer can Whites at the bottom of the economic ladder console themselves, in the dark night of their souls, with the secret thought, AT LEAST I AM NOT BLACK.
Now add to these thoughts the fact that even now, half a century after the GI Bill, only 30% of adult Americans 25 and older have college degrees. For seventy percent of Americans, even such mediocre jobs as Elementary School teacher or WalMart store supervisor are closed to them because they do not have the college degree that the mass media comfortably assume is possessed by everyone who matters.
Into this world, stripped by the changes of the past half century of the comforting reassurance that at least I AM NOT BLACK, comes Barack Obama, who gets himself elected president in an election that not even a compliant Supreme Court can throw. Obama is the ultimate uppity Nigger, made infinitely more unbearable by his easy manner and insufferable good humor. By popular consensus, the President is the highest status person in America, regardless of politics. It is, to a great many Americans, deeply, unacceptably, offensively cognitively dissonant to see a Black man in the White House. It contradicts everything on which they have built whatever remains of their self-esteem.
Which brings me, at long last, to the question why so many right wing Republicans are prepared to throw their support to Gingrich, despite the polling evidence that he would stand no chance at all against Obama even in these terrible economic times. The answer, I suggest, is that this is their last desperate effort to see Obama -- and by extension, all the other uppity Blacks -- get what is coming to him -- to see him humiliated on the public stage, before all America, by a smart White man who takes no crap and is not afraid to say what they all think.
Now, it goes without saying that this is a mad, hopeless, pathetic fantasy. In the first place, Obama is smarter than Gingrich, and a good deal more knowledgeable. Secondly, so long as you retain your cool, which Obama is a master at doing, you never are destroyed, wiped out, put in your place, in a debate. That is simply not how Presidential debates work. Gingrich's pseudo-historical call for "Lincoln Douglas Debates" between himself and Obama is even dumber. Those debates consisted of a ninety-minute speech by one man followed by a thirty-minute rebuttal by the other. Before the first statement was a third done all America would be watching re-runs of "Two and a Half Men."
But despised for their lack of education, mocked for their religion, deprived of the last-ditch self-defense that AT LEAST I AM NOT BLACK, large numbers of White Americans have a deep, ineradicable need to see the iconic Black man put in his place by a White hero. And that need swamps all practical calculation, all tactical or strategic thinking, even mere self-preservation. If Obama wins in November, especially against Gingrich, a cry of despair will rise up from certain corners of White America that only the Rapture can allay. One almost wishes it for them, especially if they leave America to the rest of us, along with their dentures and prosthetic devices.