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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
that is the most significant dependence of all.
Wise is a Nashville-based antiracist writer, lecturer and activist. He can be
reached at <mailto:[email protected]>