“Pay No Attention To That Racism Behind The Curtain!”

“Ha, ha, ha!” LOL with the hardiest chortle I can muster. You know how you’ve always known something but one day it sort of clicks in a way that it never did before and you really “get it”? Racism was originally and has always been a way to control other white people. I’ll be darned my white friends, the joke’s been entirely on you all along. 

I hope you really get that so you will finally, truly understand that the dismantling of racism isn’t something WE (non-white people) need your help with. You have a pony in this race too.

Let’s go back to Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676. Around this time, monied plantation owners paid for a man’s passage overseas to the thirteen colonies in exchange for a commitment to some years of work as an indentured servant. Tracts of land were paid out to a servant upon completion of their contract as “freedom dues”. Plantation owners kept the best land for themselves, of course. Freedom dues land was usually less arid and on the outskirts of the settlements, subject to more frequent contact with both friendly and hostile Native Americans.

Enter Nathaniel Bacon, a well heeled Englishman with a chunk of money from his dad running ahead of accusations he’d cheated another man out of his inheritance. Bacon bought land on the outskirts and found his expansion ambitions hindered by pre-existing treaty arrangements between the Natives and the Jamestown governor. His neighbors, disgruntled former indentured servants both white and black (African slavery as we know it hadn’t quite evolved yet) were meagerly eeking out a living. They were promised if they worked hard and followed the rules, they too could one day live like plantation gentry. Instead many were broke, fighting off Indian attacks, and without wives to boot due to the shortage of women. Not all were poor, Bacon’s neighbors represented all facets of race and means. They were truly a rainbow coalition.

Bacon showed up in the middle of all of this and passed out generous portions of a most excellent brandy. “What’s the government doing for us, the little guy?” he proclaimed emphatically. “They’re taxing us to death but not doing a damn thing to protect us from Indians. And what about those Indians, why is the governor coddling them anyway? Seems like the land they’re on ought to belong to decent Christian folk like us!” 

The men all replied “yeah, decent Christian folk like us!” Gathering their rifles and tiki torches, they overtook the nearby Native American settlements, friend or foe status notwithstanding, then marched to Jamestown and burned it to the ground too. History romanticizes Bacon’s Rebellion as that brief, shining moment where an egalitarian coalition of people from all walks of life united against the greed of the tiny class of rich and connected. Early America’s Occupy Wall Street. 

Fast forward, England sent reinforcements, Bacon died of dysentery, the movement lost its resolve, men were hung, you get the picture. And America did what it has always done since, what has now become the go-to playbook.

The owning class saw this cross section of people uniting and said “if they ever figure out that together they outnumber us, our monopoly over resources would be over. We’ve got to figure out a way to throw the white proletariat a bone while still keeping the meat for ourselves.” 

Et Voilà, the Virginia Slave Codes of 1705 [and 1691] were born. 

They specified that persons who were not Christian before they came to the colonies (non-white people) would now be slaves for life with no chance to end their contracts. A white person who married a black person, free or otherwise, would be banished from white society. A white servant could not be beaten naked without an order from the justice of the peace, whereas no such due process was afforded a black servant. Free black men could not purchase the contracts of white indentured servants. A white servant woman who bore a black child gave her child up in servitude until the child came to age thirty one, such children being referred to in the codes as “that abominable mixture and spurious issue.” An Indian, black or mulatto who struck a Christian (white person) in self defense or for any other reason would receive thirty lashes.

Notice these laws didn’t actually give white people anything. All they did was take away from black people, making white people now feel like they had more in comparison to someone else. It gave whites pretend status and power, no more than a wooden nickel. A cheap county fair trinket that said “thanks for playing.” But the nickel held weight in their pockets, almost the same as real money. In the absence of a real fair shake, the weight of this wood and the dreams they represented would do for now. And, like a cheap county fair trick, the tactic took work-a-day white folks’ eyes off the wealthy, who were still making money and acquiring the fertile land, while preserving the hope that if they just kept working any one of them could go home with that giant stuffed panda hanging in the back called The American Dream. Historian and activist Tim Wise explains it beautifully in this video. (Jump to 10:30-14:12)

Fast forward, again, to the American Civil War. During slavery, the South had an insane number of what today we call “the one percenters” thanks to slave labor. Guess what that did? Made a good living scarce for average white workers. Eleven Southern states seceded from the Union and, after four horrendous years, were dragged back kicking and screaming like runaway slaves themselves. The Confederacy was again part of the United States. 

The federal government had an interest in investing in the rebuilding of the South since we were all one big happy again. But no, white Southerners said “listen, it’s enough for us if you’d just go away and not interfere as we proceed to lynch, cheat, and kick the shit out of black people in exchange for our burnt farms and beleaguered pride.” The Feds said “hey, if it doesn’t cost us any more money, we’re good with that.” They packed up and left, turning a blind eye to decades of Jim Crow laws, lynching, and the pleas of law abiding, tax paying black citizens begging for help. In the end that’s all whites of the Confederacy fought for, the right to not have to bear the indignity of having blacks stand among them as equals. Then they’d have had to take an honest look at how lowly they had actually become. They preferred the comforting weight of those wooden nickels in their pockets. You can argue with me all day that the Civil War wasn’t really about slavery. I’m just talking about the indisputable outcome.

Frank Hyman said it perfectly in this 2017 opinion piece titled “The Confederacy Was A Con Job On Whites And Still Is.” “[M]ost Southerners didn’t own slaves. But they were persuaded to risk their lives and limbs for the right of a few to get rich as Croesus from slavery. For their sacrifices and their votes, they earned two things before and after the Civil War. First, a very skinny slice of the immense Southern pie. And second, the thing that made those slim rations palatable then and now: the shallow satisfaction of knowing that blacks had no slice at all.”

Moving to 1974 Boston, the site of harrowing riots prompted by school desegregation efforts. Around that same time, I was put on a bus and sent to the white side of my town for schooling. I had no idea I was in the middle of this huge social experiment and the entire country was holding its breath. Looking at old news video of Boston, it’s a wonder my mother wasn’t a nervous wreck on a daily basis, God rest her soul. (Maybe she was and never told me….) Meanwhile in white South Boston, projectiles were hurled at busloads of black children, windows broken, violence erupted, police escorts rode three rows deep in front and back of these buses. Here’s your red herring though. At the time, South Boston was the locus of the highest concentration of white poverty in the country. Not Apalachia, not Mississippi, South Boston. Feeling powerless to take the fight to business and government entities, white people instead threw rocks at busloads of children as if to say “we don’t got nuthin else but the belief that we’re at least better than black people. We’re not giving up our last wooden nickels without a fight.” And the rich went on about their business while the attention of Boston’s poor whites were diverted–as usual. (See Michael Patrick McDonald in this video at 23:05-30:52)

For a long time I had a hard time seeing myself as a “real writer.” I didn’t feel like I had anything new to say that hasn’t already been said. For whatever reason, humans just need to hear the same thing fifty different ways over years and years. So here you are reading me when revered scholar and one of the founding members of the N.A.A.C.P., W.E.B Du Bois, said over eighty years ago in his 1935 work Black Reconstruction In America:

“[Uniting black and white commoners] failed to work in the South, and it failed to work because the theory of race was supplemented by a carefully planned and slowly evolved method, which drove such a wedge between the white and black workers  that there probably are not today in the world two groups of workers with practically identical interests who hate and fear each other so deeply and persistently and who are kept so far apart that neither sees anything of common interest.

It must be remembered that the white group of laborers, while they received a low wage, were compensated in part by a sort of public and psychological wage. They were given public deference and titles of courtesy because they were white. They were admitted freely with all classes of white people to public functions, public parks, and the best schools. The police were drawn from their ranks, and the courts, dependent on their votes, treated them with such leniency as to encourage lawlessness. Their vote selected public officials, and while this had small effect upon the economic situation, it had great effect upon their personal treatment and the deference shown them. White schoolhouses were the best in the community, and conspicuously placed, and they cost anywhere from twice to ten times as much per capita as the colored schools. The newspapers specialized on news that flattered the poor whites and almost utterly ignored the Negro except in crime and ridicule. 

Mark Twain said it in 1884 in what was for me the most memorable passage of his book The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn. The titular character’s father, “Pap” Finn, was the town’s wayward drunk, regarded so poorly as to be beyond the Christian grace of a hopeful prayer for his redemption. “Pap” erupted into an N-word laden bluster about a black, college educated man he’d encountered wearing the most impeccable suit of clothes one could imagine. The man was said to be fluent in several languages. “Pap”, incensed the gentleman didn’t understand that despite his refinement it was still his place to yield the sidewalk to a white man such as he, shoved the fellow off the curb. The larger tragedy isn’t just that “Pap” is such a ne’er do well. It’s that he would settle for so little in life as another man yielding the side walk to affirm his being.

My white friends, 95% of the economic recovery gains after the 2008 housing crisis went to the top 1% wealthiest people in this country. People were getting up and going to work every day only to still lose their homes, yet bankers and brokerages were distributing year end bonuses. All the while, the eyes of the country’s populace were fixed on making sure the wrong people didn’t end up with some such communist thing as access to affordable health care.

People, this is more than just the rich pitting the poor and working class against each other. This is and always has been about keeping white people looking down on others for their self worth and sense of well being. This has always been about distracting and fooling you.

I hope you get where I’m going with this because I’m going to cheat you out of another edit and a clean ending for now. I have been working on this essay for three days. I’m tired and punchy, and I just need to post something and get back to putting the finishing touches on my “Moving BEYOND “White Fragility” presentation in Rochester this Sunday, August 18th. So if you’re a book agent or editor “pay no attention to that dangling participle behind the curtain!!!…” 

Published by Nanette D. Massey

Trying to help my white allies figure this whole "race" thing out.

3 thoughts on ““Pay No Attention To That Racism Behind The Curtain!”

  1. Thank you for this! I’ve been working through my own thoughts on whiteness, it’s costs to White people and how to engage other White people in an effort to open their eyes to seeing racism as not just overt acts of discrimination.

    For whatever reason, humans just need to hear the same thing fifty different ways over years and years.
    Myself included because I’m continuously struck, amazed and saddened by words from decades or even a century ago can be repeated verbatim today because the more things change, the more they remain the same.


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