Sometimes I wish white people could be Black.
Not forever, mind you. Maybe for just a few weeks like John Howard Griffin, the author of “Black Like Me,” who darkened his skin and traveled the South in 1959. Sometimes, I wish white people could have that experience.
Not so they could feel the sickly apprehension that can accompany a simple traffic stop.
Not so they could feel the indignation of being asked to account for yourself just walking down the street.
Not so they could feel what it’s like when your bank loan is denied, your home appraises for less, your doctor doesn’t take your pain seriously, you don’t get the job, your preschooler gets suspended, the shopkeeper follows you around, you can’t hail a taxi or you wind up in handcuffs, because of the melanin in your skin.
No, I wish white people could be Black so they could know how it feels to deal with all of that — and then hear white people complain how hard they have it.
The reference is to a recent political ad. You likely haven’t seen it if you’re not in Georgia, but it surfaced on Twitter the other day courtesy of Isaac Hayes III (yes, the son of that Isaac Hayes), where it reminded us that, in matters of race, some of our white brethren and sistren — repeating for emphasis: some — are shameless beyond words and clueless beyond parody.
“When did racism against white people become OK?” asks the announcer. The piano frets worriedly behind him, and white people gaze soulfully into the camera as he lists supposed acts of “left-wing racism” and “anti-white bigotry” they face from President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. We lack space to detail those claims, but it won’t surprise you that they’ve been debunked by Factcheck.org, Politifact and The Washington Post. Nor will you be stunned to learn the ads are funded by something called America First Legal, led by Stephen Miller, a veteran of the Trump Reich who championed its obscene policy of stealing children from immigrants.
Yes, the spot is obviously a direct descendant of the notoriously racist Willie Horton ad of 1988. But our attention today is on how it tries to neutralize the language of liberal protest by co-opting it, i.e., re-framing “racism” as something suffered by white folks. It’s a rhetorical trick the white right has used for years. Which is not to say it has lost its power to infuriate. This narrative that racism is a “both sides” phenomenon may be comfort food for them, but it is a libel upon my ancestors.
Again, however, it is not new. Maybe you recall a 2016 exchange about racism between Bryan Richter, a white cop in Austin Texas, and Breaion King, a black woman. “Do you believe it goes both ways?” he asked her. This, after he had body-slammed the 112-pound woman, handcuffed her, stuffed her in the back of his car and lectured her on the “violent tendencies” of, ahem, Black people. She had been pulled over for speeding.
Six years after that, five years after Charlottesville, four years after a court awarded four cents to the family of a Black man in Florida executed by police, three years after a white man threatened a Black one with a knife for walking in a “white town” in Kansas, two years after Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, it is difficult to overstate the brazenness of the white right asking us to fret over “racism against white people.”
One wishes they could be Black, but for their sake, it’s probably best that they can’t. If they were, they’d have to deal with white people like themselves.
They could not handle that.
Leonard Pitts Jr. (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a columnist for the Miami Herald, where this column iniitally appeared.