White Dread

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Watching the McCain-Palin rallies is a little scary. No, it’s a lot scary. The intensity of their rage at Obama is obviously fueled by the awareness that their world view on free markets and anti-government intervention is as dead as Lehman Bros., while their assumed beliefs in the inherent exceptionalism of the American way of life—our economy is safe, so everyone who wants to work can and will; we win all wars, so people in the world can trust us; every person with a job is “middle class,” so we’re just one lucky step away from being like the rich—have gone up in the smoke of a bad debt, bad militarism, and very, very bad 401(k)s.

When people have cherished beliefs, to be confronted with the stark reality that you may have been sold not only a bill of goods but down the river is psychologically devastating. What we’re seeing at those rallies is how not just anger but the outcome of massive cognitive dissonance: if I let go of all that I have believed, I lose my identity; if I hold on to what I believe, I may lose my life. Trapped between these two poles, people adapt to this unbearable tension by becoming even more extreme in one belief or the other. Every teenager goes through this as they begin to distinguish the simple truths of their childhood with their dawning awareness that the world is more complex (and inevitably more hypocritical) than they realized as children. We can go through this as adults, too: a divorce can challenge one’s beliefs about love and trust; beliefs in fairness may be tested in similar ways at work. Lucky for the world, the extreme behaviors of teens and adults in various moments of mid-life crisis get acted out pretty much away from the center stage of national life.

Not so in this election, for the kicker on top of all these other shattered beliefs is the final one at play here: racial identity and the unspoken sense of superiority embedded in white American life that Mr. Obama (among others) has been shattering for some time now. As I’ve written about in my other blogs, I grew up within a white, working class/ middle class world that pretty much held on to that belief. Such beliefs aren’t only expressed in blatantly racist ways; they’re just there, in the air, wafting through dinner conversations and hallway chit-chat about whose smart and whose not, who works hard and who got lucky, whose a successful striver and whose a devious schemer. That such oft-repeated truisms are as hollow as a Wall Street junk bond doesn’t mean they don’t construct within so many white people a sense that, no matter what else goes wrong, there are those African-Americans out there—or Chicanos, or Puerto Ricans, or somebody darker (in Italy, it’s Sicilians)—who are not just worse off but worse.

So how much identity can white Americans shed in three or four months…or maybe weeks? If we pull that lever that says we believe a Black man is better equipped than a white man to lead us out of the economic, political and moral crisis we now confront, can we see a new identity taking shape together with him? Or will the dread bred by so much cognitive dissonance coursing through sectors of white America cause them to vote not in their best interests but for their shattered beliefs?

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This page contains a single entry by Steve Burghardt published on October 17, 2008 11:17 AM.

What Exactly Is a Community Organizer? was the previous entry in this blog.

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