Before the Romans and Caledonians clashed in the Battle of Mons Graupius, a warlord named Calgacus delivered a speech to his men, an opprobrium of Pax Romana. The Romans had come to lay the garlanded chains of civilization on the countryside of what is now north-east Scotland, home of free Celtic tribes.
“To robbery, slaughter, plunder,” Calgacus said, “they give the lying name of empire; they make a wasteland and call it peace.”
This was a first-century rejection of the “bitter clingers” view articulated by Barack Obama in our time. Small town Americans, like those in the Midwest bearing the long brunt of globalization, he said, tend to “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” The plunder of neoliberalism, from Ronald Reagan to Obama, left a wasteland called “progress.”
More than a decade later, Obama’s vituperations have only taken on a more explicit edge.
“What’s always interesting to me is the degree to which you’ve seen created in Republican politics the sense that white males are victims,” Obama told “The Breakfast Club.” “They are the ones who are under attack, which obviously doesn’t jive with both history and data and economics,” he went on. “But that’s a sincere belief that’s been internalized, that’s a story that’s being told, and how you unwind that is going to be not something that is done right away, it’s going to take some time.”
The irony is that the GOP did no such thing. If anything, in fact, they took their white voters for granted as an expendable demographic. As one Republican operative in Florida said of the GOP’s thinking: “you’ve got to kind of recognize that old white men are dying.”
The GOP’s neglect is part contempt, part fear. For more than half a century, whites have been conditioned to see themselves as the bearers of a litany of singular crimes in history. As a bemused “outsider,” I see history licking its finger and turning the page in the long book of speckled human existence. It does not “jive” with me that whites bear special burden or blame.
But what does Obama mean by data and economics? These things in fact paint a portrait not of privilege but of despair.
Starting around 2000, whites and white men specifically became virtually the only group to experience a shortening lifespan. “For white Americans between 45 and 54, average life expectancy was no longer increasing; in fact, it was actually declining—in a pattern seen almost nowhere else on Earth,” Jim Zarroli reported in NPR. “This reversal has come almost entirely among white Americans without a four-year college degree, who make up 38 percent of the U.S. working-age population.”
Zarroli cites Anne Case and Angus Deaton, authors of Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism. Deaton won the 2015 Nobel Prize for Economics. Their work shows that for white men without a college degree, the average growth in median wages between 1979 and 2017 was actually a negative number.
“Something is making life worse, especially for less educated whites,” Case and Deaton write. As a result, they “are drinking themselves to death, or poisoning themselves with drugs, or shooting or hanging themselves” at a higher rate than any other group. And yet, their anguish is met by Obama spitting on their graves, and Republicans squandering the political capital of their votes on old wine in new bottles. Donald Trump has not been much better.
Perhaps Obama is arguing that whites are statistical oppressors? Even that claim is in doubt or exaggerated.
In an analysis of the latest official data from the Justice Department, Gerard Baker finds “if you adjust the figures for the relative size of each group in the total U.S. population, they show that blacks are 50% overrepresented among perpetrators of hate crimes, while whites are about 25% underrepresented.” Data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting from 1995 to 2019 also show black-on-white killings occurring at roughly twice the rate than vice versa. Conversely, study after study shows that whites, including unarmed whites, are more likely than blacks to be the victims of police shootings.
Does Obama mean, then, that whites are simply more “racist” than others? It’s not even clear what that term means anymore, but available data indicates Obama is wrong here, too.
A Rasmussen survey conducted July 21-22 found that Americans think blacks are more racist than whites, Hispanics, and Asians, paralleling surveying from 2013. This trend can also be seen in the GenForward Survey by the University of Chicago, “a nationally representative survey of over 1750 young adults ages 18-34 conducted bi-monthly that pays special attention to how race and ethnicity shape how respondents experience and think about the world.”
Data from a September 2017 GenForward Survey indicated that among racial groups whites were lowest in in-group preference. In an October 2017 GenForward Survey, a plurality of Hispanics (59 percent), blacks (46 percent), and Asians (61 percent) said demographic changes projected to make minorities the majority of the U.S. population by the middle of this century would “Strengthen the country,” compared to 35 percent of whites who agreed.
By contrast, a plurality of whites (49 percent) responded “Doesn’t make much difference.”
When asked “which threat facing people in the United States is most concerning to them,” 39 percent of whites responded: “People in the U.S. inspired by foreign extremists.” Twenty nine percent of whites said “Individuals and groups from outside the U.S.” On the other hand, Hispanics (44 percent), blacks (55 percent), and Asians (52 percent) overwhelmingly identified “White extremists” as the greatest threat facing the U.S. Just 32 percent of whites agreed.
As to whether they “agree or disagree that discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities,” respondent answers were similarly predictable: 72 percent of Hispanics, 71 percent of blacks, and 77 percent of Asians disagreed, compared to 48 percent of whites who agreed.
All of this is not to give credence to the slur of “racism,” an almost meaningless term that now functions only as a cudgel to bat away the legitimate grievances, views, and tastes of white people. It is, instead, to show that by Obama’s own metrics, the group he resents the most also happens to be composed of people most likely to be victims of today’s American regime.
They are the punchline of every joke, but are not allowed to make any of their own. They are forbidden from celebrating their heroes and symbols and myths, encouraged only to witness or partake in their destruction. They are conditioned to worship the “Other,” to denigrate and ignore what is theirs. There is no white equivalent of the “Office of African-American Affairs,” no counterpart of the “League of United Latin American Citizens.” Instead, we have codified anti-white bias into our culture, our government, and the public psyche.
Far from internalizing victimhood, as Obama claims, they are prohibited from defending themselves, have been deluded to overlook that they are under attack or to rationalize what is happening to them as something they deserve or is somehow good—and all these things are conditions for status, employment, even physical safety.
The curious thing about Calgacus is that there is debate over whether or not he actually existed. His speech excoriating the Roman Empire likely is an invention of the Roman historian Tacitus. There is therefore a chance that Tacitus’ criticisms of Rome were placed in the mouth of Calgacus, that the Celts were a stand-in for Romans who Tacitus saw as subjugated and censored by their own civilization, just like white Americans in theirs.