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Breaking the Cycle of White Dependence: A Call for Majority Self-Sufficiency


Wise

I

think it’s called ‘projection.’ When someone subconsciously realizes that a

particular trait applies to them, and then attempts to locate that trait in

others, so as to alleviate the stigma or self-doubt engendered by the trait in

question.

It’s

a well-understood concept of modern psychology, and explains much: like why men

who are struggling with their own sexuality are often the most outwardly

homophobic. Or the way whites during slavery typified black men as rapists, even

though the primary rapists were the white slaveowners themselves, taking

liberties with their female property, or white men generally, raping their wives

with impunity.

I got

to thinking about projection recently, after receiving many an angry e-mail from

folks who had read one or another of my previous commentaries, and felt the need

to inform me that people of color are "looking for a handout," and are

"dependent" on government, and of course, whites.

Such

claims are making the rounds these days, especially as debate heats up about

such issues as reparations for enslavement, or affirmative action. And this

critique is a prime example of projection, for in truth, no people have been as

dependent on others throughout history as white folks.

We

depended on laws to defend slavery and segregation so as to elevate us,

politically, socially and economically. We depended on the Naturalization Act of

1790, to make all European immigrants eligible for nearly automatic citizenship,

with rights above all persons of color. We depended on land giveaways like the

Homestead Act, and housing subsidies that were essentially white-only for many

years, like FHA and VA loans. Even the GI Bill was largely for whites only, and

all of these government-sponsored efforts were instrumental in creating the

white middle class. But it goes deeper than that.

>From

the earliest days, "whites" were dependent on the land and natural resources of

the Americas, Africa, and Asia. Since Europe offered no substantial natural

riches from its soil, European economic advance and expansion was entirely

reliant on the taking of other people’s land by force, trickery or coercion.

That, my friends, is dependence.

Then

these same Europeans relied on slave labor to build a new nation and to create

wealth for whites; wealth that was instrumental to financing the American

Revolution, as well as allowing the textile and tobacco industries to emerge as

international powerhouses. From 1790 to 1860 alone, whites and the overall

economy reaped the benefits of as much as $40 billion in unpaid black labor.

That, my friends, is dependence.

Though apologists for black oppression enjoy pointing out that Africans often

sold other Africans into slavery, this too indicates just how dependent whites

have been on black people: having to pay and bribe Africans to catch their own

and deliver them to us so as to fatten the profits of European elites. We

couldn’t even do that by ourselves.

Then

whites were dependent on Native peoples to teach us farming skills, as our

complete ineptitude in this realm left the earliest colonists starving to death

and turning to cannibalism when the winters came in order to survive.

We

were dependent on Mexicans to teach us how to extract gold from riverbeds and

quartz–critical to the growth of the national economy in the mid to late

1800′s–and had we not taken over half their nation in an unprovoked war, the

emerging Pacific ports so vital to the modern U.S. economy would not have been

ours, but Mexico’ s. That, my friends, is dependence. Then we were dependent on

their labor in the mid 20th century under the bracero program, through which

over five million Mexicans were brought into the country for cheap agricultural

work, and then sent back across the border.

And

we were dependent on Asian labor to build the railroads that made

transcontinental travel and commerce possible. 90% of the labor used to build

the Central Pacific Railroad in the 1860′s were Chinese, imported for the

purpose, and exploited because the railroad bosses felt they could better

control them than white workers.

In

fact, all throughout U.S. labor history, whites have depended on the

subordination of workers of color; by the marking of black and brown peoples as

the bottom rung on the ladder–a rung below which they would not be allowed to

fall. By virtue of this racialized class system whites could receive the

"psychological wage" of whiteness, even if their real wages left them destitute.

That too is dependence, and a kind that has marked even the poorest whites.

The

plantation owners in the South were surely dependent on blacks, and for more

than field labor. We relied on black women to suckle and care for our children.

We relied on blacks to build the levees that kept rivers like the Mississippi

from our doorstep. We relied on black girls to fan our sleeping white ladies so

as to ensure their comfort. We relied on blacks to do everything from cooking,

to cleaning, to making our beds, to polishing our shoes, to chopping the wood to

heat our homes, to nursing us back to health when we fell ill. We prided

ourselves on being (or aspiring to be) men and women of leisure, while black and

brown folks did all the work. That, and a lot more, is dependence; and yet we

still insist they are the lazy ones.

And

northern industrial capitalism relied on black labor too, especially to break

the labor militance of white ethnics by playing off one group of workers against

the other. That also, is dependence.

During the civil war, the armies of the Confederacy relied on blacks to cook for

the troops and to make the implements of war they would use in battle; and

likewise, the Union relied on black soldiers–around 200,000 of them–to

ultimately win the war. That too, is most assuredly dependence.

And

white dependence on people of color continues to this day. Each year, African

Americans spend over $500 billion with white-owned companies: money that goes

mostly into the pockets of the white owners, white employees, white

stockholders, and white communities in which they live. And yet we say black

people need us? We think they are the dependent ones, relying as we assume they

do on the paltry scraps of an eviscerated welfare state? Now let’s just cut the

crap. Who would be hurt more: black folks if all welfare programs were shut down

tomorrow, or white folks, if blacks decided they were through transferring

half-a-trillion dollars each year to white people and were going to keep their

money in their own communities?

Or

what about the ongoing dependence of white businesses on the exploitation of

black labor? Each year, according to estimates from the Urban Institute, over

$120 billion in wages are lost to African Americans thanks to discrimination in

the labor market. That’s money that doesn’t end up in the hands of the folks who

earned it, but rather remains in the bank accounts of owners. That my friends,

is dependence.

Our

dependence on people of color even extends to our need to have them as

spokespeople for our ideologies and agendas: thus, the proliferation of

high-profile conservatives of color who bash their own people for us, so we

don’t have to do it alone. Ken Hamblin, Clarence Thomas, Larry Elder, Walter

Williams, Linda Chavez: all of them, walking, talking, lawn jockeys, shining

their lights for white supremacy. And oh yes, our need for them is most

certainly a form of dependence.

Then,

we rely on still more people of color to help further the agenda of white

dominance: namely Asians, whom we proclaim to be "model minorities." "See how

hard the Asians work,’ whites love to say, ‘why can’t blacks be more like them?"

Of course, we fail to mention the staggering poverty among Southeast Asians; or

the fact that the most successful Asian sub-groups came to this country with

both business experience and usually college educations; or the fact that

despite hard work, Asian Pacific Islanders still earn between 11-26% less than

their white counterparts, even when their qualifications are equal. Never mind

all that: the model minority myth has a power all its own, and is one more way

in which whites have become dependent on those who are not.

Indeed, I am beginning to think that whites are so dependent on people of color

that we wouldn’t know what to do without them. Oh sure, some neo-Nazis say they

would love to try, but in reality I doubt they could make it. If there were no

black and brown folks around then whites would have no one to blame but

themselves for the crime that occurred; no one to blame but themselves when they

didn’t get the job they wanted; no one to blame but themselves when their lives

turned out to be less than they expected. In short, we need people of

color–especially in a subordinate role–as a way to build ourselves up, and

provide a sense of self-worth we otherwise lack.

To be

sure, our very existence as white people is dependent on a negative: to be white

has meaning only in terms of what it doesn’t mean. To be white only has meaning

in so far as it means not to be black or brown. Whiteness has no intrinsic

meaning culturally: can anyone even articulate what "white culture" means? Not

our various European cultures mind you–which do have meaning but have been

largely lost to us in the mad dash to accept whiteness and the perks that come

with it–but white culture itself.

In

workshops I have asked white folks and people of color what they like about

being black, white, or whatever they in fact may be. For African-Americans the

answers always have to do with the pride they feel, coming from families who

have struggled against the odds, fought injustice, persevered, and maintained

dignity in the face of great obstacles. In other words, to be black has internal

meaning, derived from the positive actions and experiences of black people

themselves. Variations on the same theme tend to be expressed by Latinos, Asians

and Indigenous peoples as well.

But

for whites, if they come up with anything at all, it is typically something

about how nice it is not to have to worry about being racially profiled by

police, or how nice it is not to be presumed less competent by employers, or

discriminated against when applying for a loan, or looking for a home. In other

words, for whites, our self-definition is wrapped up entirely in terms of what

and who we aren’t. What it means to be white is merely to not be "the other."

And for that to have any meaning whatsoever there first must be an "other"

against which to contrast oneself.

And

that is the most significant dependence of all.

Tim

Wise is a Nashville-based antiracist writer, lecturer and activist. He can be

reached at <mailto:[email protected]>

[email protected]

 

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