by David Ikard
With Extreme Prejudice. It was a mystery set in New Orleans in which the central murder was racially motivated. One of the things that mystified me at the time was how the white protagonist’s efforts to demonstrate his lack of racial prejudice only made his black friend and co-worker angrier with him. Though it was explained at the end of the novel, that feeling of confusion as I read the book always stayed with me. Ten years ago when I was with my wife and two young boys at Disneyland, we were in a long line waiting to get into Pirates of the Caribbean. Next to us was a black family with a small girl who couldn’t have been more than two years old. She did something incredibly cute--I can’t remember now what it was--but I remember looking up at her father and smiling with parental recognition at what she had done. Instead of a knowing return of my smile, however, he simply glared at me and turned away. I remember being incredibly angry about the incident, and it had nothing to do with his behavior. I was angry that we still lived in a country where he had every right to be angry with a white man he didn’t even know. Though I didn’t fully understand either incident at the time, I knew instinctively that racial prejudice in this country was very real. What I understand now, is that it may be as bad as it ever was.
There have been three major phases of racial discrimination against blacks in the United States. The first begins with the settling of this country in the seventeenth century and runs right up to the Civil War. During that phase black slavery was openly practiced, protected by the Constitution, and rationalized as an economic necessity in the southern states. The second phase begins after the Civil War and the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, with the end of Reconstruction and the institution of Jim Crow laws in the South. Legalized segregation, voting disenfranchisement, and the turning of a blind eye toward lynching lasted another hundred years until the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-twentieth century. The third and most insidious phase is the one we live in now, in which white supremacy has finally gone mainstream, resulting in a backlash against civil rights, equal status under the law, equal opportunity, the promulgation of the myths of white fear and white fragility, and specious accusations of reverse racism against blacks. What Vanderbilt University professor David Ikard does so well in his new book, Lovable Racists, Magical Negroes, and White Messiahs, is to show that while those first two phases may be over, their effects can still be felt today in the white blindness this country operates within. “It is rare indeed--even in this day and time--to get most whites to acknowledge that racism still exists or, for that matter, that slavery, segregation, and racial terrorism of the past are responsible in large part for the problems that plague Black America in the twenty-first century” (Ikard 15).
I purchased this book while doing research for my own book on Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, but I was utterly unprepared for what I found in the pages of what I assumed would be a straightforward literary analysis. What emerges from Ikard’s treatise is a philosophy of white supremacy that has informed this country’s thinking since its inception, a way of look at the world through white power and privilege that seems no different in 2018 than it was in 1618. As his starting point, Ikard uses the works of James Baldwin (The Fire Next Time) and Toni Morrison (Playing in the Dark) to identify and define the nature of white supremacist thinking in America—and it’s important to note that this is not a phrase that refers to radical, fringe elements like the KKK, but regular Americans who don’t even think of themselves as racist. “Whites often genuinely do not see the consequences of their oppression or privilege because they have conditioned themselves not to see them” (Ikard 14). He then builds upon their ideas to show how this unconscious belief system has informed notions of white identity and, far more tragically, black identity for centuries. This way of understanding the world is not a new one, but has roots in many more areas of cultural life in the United States, in which default assumptions of normalcy include Christianity, patriarchy, and capitalism.
Though Ikard mentions all three of these in passing, he doesn’t go into depth about similar modes of thought control in other areas of American life as a way of explaining the incredible longevity and tenacious hold that racism still has in this country. My recent exploration of the writers of the Frankfurt School has opened my eyes to a world of propaganda and manipulation that disguises itself as cultural identity, but actually has as its only goal the indoctrination of people to a particular way of thinking and behaving that aids and abets the ruling powers who benefit from the control over laborers, women, and minorities that comes when they internalize these false beliefs. Max Horkheimer, one of the critical theorists from the Frankfurt School, wrote about the challenge faced by those who would attempt to make society better, when faced with a nation of people who have been taught, and internalized, that the status quo--whether White, Christian, Patriarchal, or Capitalist--is normal and good, and that anything else must therefore be bad. Though Horkheimer was writing about capitalism, the concept itself is applicable to any of the societal assumptions that American culture operates within.
Because a bad society transacts man’s business although it does it badly, the person that endangers
its survival also acts directly against mankind; [mankind’s] friend appears as its enemy. In reality, the
bad cannot be disentangled from the good, and therefore the fight against what is outdated also
appears as the fight against what is necessary . . . [This results in the] absolute readiness to loyally
adopt all significant values of the ruling class, to hate and libel the person who commits his life to the
improvement of conditions . . . Every thought, every show of sympathy, every relationship, every minor
or major act against the ruling class involves the risk of personal disadvantage . . . People who want
to get somewhere must early acquire beliefs which enable them to have a good conscience as they
do what reality demands . . . The system affects everything, down to the most delicate tendrils of the
individual’s soul. It has placed a premium on vileness. (Horkheimer 29-31)
Because of this, ideas like cut throat competition, male chauvinism, religious superiority, American exceptionalism --and racism--are the norm in this country, and to go against those ideas is, in a perverted way, to be anti-American. In Ikard’s words, “Critical engagements with our nation’s troubled and troubling past are treated as unpatriotic, socially disruptive, and bordering on treason” (Ikard 19). Thus these ideas are absorbed and normalized in our society through the media, education, and business to the point where the vast majority of citizens don’t even realize their thoughts are not their own, and yet have been so thoroughly indoctrinated that they defend those thoughts as if they were.
Ikard opens the book with an introduction in which he relates the story of being accosted by a fellow professor at a book signing who, in the guise of mistakenly trying to correct the author about the rap group NWA, used the word “nigger” loudly and freely, much to the shock not only of most of those within earshot but to the author himself. He relates the incident as an example of what Robin DeAngelo calls “white fragility,” a negative reaction by whites to the suggestion that their unconscious behaviors constitute a substantial and continuing assault on black citizenship in America. “My sense is that, at bottom, he was actually upset with the audacity of my claim that even the most progressive (middle- and upper-class) white liberals have a deep and abiding investment in certain aspects of white supremacy and, by extension, institutionalized racial inequality” (Ikard 3). The offending professor is also an example of Brit Bennett’s “Good White People,” whites who are not only unaware of how their unconscious beliefs perpetuate white supremacy, but are also unable to comprehend how their “ostensible gestures of white goodwill and good intentions reproduce white supremacy in the expectation of, if not demand for, black gratitude” (4). The basis for this behavior is the way in which blacks are perceived in the culture, “the unuttered racial mindset that blacks are prone to criminal and pathological behavior” (5). Rather than apologize, the professor insisted on reciting his anti-racist credentials to Ikard, even going so far as to continue his demand for recognition by sending Ikard an email later. This, then, explains the wide disparity in the experiences of the fictional characters in Fredrick Barton’s novel, which Ikard summarizes rather neatly: “Whites are simply defending their right to remain socially, culturally, and economically dominant; blacks and people of color are defending their very humanity” (8).
The episode goes by rather quickly, and though Ikard doesn’t take the time to spell it out in his introduction, it seems to me to be the real thesis of the book. Whites have been the dominant racial group in the United States for the past four hundred years. Very little--if anything--that happens to blacks has an impact on the lives of white Americans. The relative comfort from which they view the racial struggles in this country are light years away from the day to day experiences of blacks, who find themselves fighting battles on seemingly every front, from being defined as the other--as opposed to the white appropriation of normalcy--to ongoing insensitivity in nearly every aspect of society, marginalization in education and employment, negative portrayals in the media, and a white majority who seems to have no interest in defending obvious abuses that range from racial profiling to overrepresented incarceration to murder. Whites—quite literally—have no idea what the black experience in America is like. Max Horkheimer had something to say about that as well:
Our privileged position, our capacity for experiencing the suffering of all living beings within ourselves
does not mean that we can truly become one with them and certainly not that we can free anyone by
that act of identification. We can make the life of individuals easier, we can deduce some practical
consequences from empirical insight. But we are still surrounded by a sea of darkness which cannot
be illuminated by language. (Horkheimer 31)
This is what I see as real white blindness. Acknowledging that whites know absolutely nothing about the suffering that blacks have experienced seems to be the first step toward meaningful change--much more meaningful, certainly, than pretending to empathize with or understand what whites cannot possibly know. But instead the opposite happens, an example of which is one of the most misguided attempts at addressing white ignorance ever put on film. White Man’s Burden, starring Harry Belafonte and John Travolta, was intended to provide a vicarious experience for whites by reversing their role in society. Belafonte is now the rich member of the dominant black class, while Travolta is an example of the oppressed white minority. Instead of allowing whites to see what they are doing to blacks, however, all the film does is to perpetuate racial stereotypes: blacks are cruel and heartless while whites are good hearted and put upon. Even with the roles reversed, whites are still the good guys and blacks the bad. The term “epic fail” was never more appropriate in describing a work of art than it is with this film. In this context it’s no wonder that white sympathy and assurances of understanding are cause for black anger rather than gratitude, as the very real plight of blacks in this country is “not going to matter one way or another in terms of exploding white supremacist ideology or institutional dominance” (Ikard 132).
In his first chapter Ikard contrasts the two versions of the slave narrative Twelve Years a Slave, by Solomon Northrup, which presents a challenge to any analysis right up front because of the unclear nature of the authorship. While the story was Northrup’s, it was actually written by white attorney David Wilson. The result is a curious disconnect between portions of the narrative which attempt to expose the inhumanity of slavery, while at the same time seemingly making a moral distinction between slave owners, going so far as to call one of them, “a model master, walking uprightly, according to the light of his understanding, and fortunate was the slave who came to his possession” (Ikard 22). This is one of the earliest examples of what Ikard calls “the low bar of black expectation” (12). Because the white terrorism against blacks was so horrific in the past, whites see any concession toward blacks as something that should be gratefully acknowledged. But problems arise, in the form of perpetuation of this behavior, when blacks willingly engage in it along with whites.
The metaphoric bar of black expectation of humane treatment from whites was often set very low,
meaning that blacks experienced white common decency . . . as laudable and even heroic. This
calculus of low expectations, gratitude, and indebtedness made blacks who pushed for true racial
equality seem radical and dangerous to whites and to a significant number of blacks. (12)
These historically low expectations for white behavior toward blacks are an example of Ikard’s first trope, the lovable racist, in which as long as token recognition of blacks by whites is seen as something that blacks should be grateful for, otherwise racist ideologies and behaviors by whites should be ignored. “A lovable racist is a white character who is rendered in such a way that it encourages the reader or viewer to see his/her racism or inhumanity toward backs or people of color as a minor, if not justifiable, character flaw” (24). The end result of this tacit acceptance of white racism is that anyone who challenges the status quo—black or white—appears to be operating outside the accepted mode of societal behavior and is therefore to be feared.
12 Years a Slave. What screenwriter John Ridley and director Steve McQueen were able to do, according to Ikard, is take the isolated narrative of Solomon and the uncomfortable issue of who is responsible for his lauding of the “good slave master,” and include “the critical perspectives of other enslaved blacks” in order to provide a “space therein to interrogate the problems of lovable racist thinking” by both Solomon and the viewer (27). Solomon’s defense of the kindly slave owner Ford in the narrative is indicative of what Ikard calls “battered slave syndrome,” in which the slave, like the battered wife the term is derived from, exhibits “the conditioned belief, borne of fear and violent verbal and physical assault, that you cannot escape the abusive relationship; that compromising with your abuser on his terms, and with the misguided belief that things will get better over time, is the best way to manage the relationship” (27). Using other slaves in the film, primarily black women, to essentially call out Solomon’s timid reaction to his captivity, provides what Ikard calls a “corrective intervention” to the white supremacist thinking that defends slavery as an institution and the continued belief in white supremacy in American society that has evolved from that defense.
Ikard’s second chapter is a fascinating exploration of the way in which ideas of white supremacy are passed on to children, and the attempt to disguise that indoctrination with the myth of “white innocence.” The idea here is that the complete disavowal of the way in which children absorb societal norms and understand their place in society gives whites a way of rationalizing their own internalized negative beliefs about people of color. “The extant myth of white innocence functions on many levels to obscure the systemic ways in which white privilege and power are passed down from one generation to the next” (Ikard 48). By linking whiteness to innocence, what whites are able to do is define whiteness as normal. In this way whiteness is the default setting, so to speak, for one’s existence in American society. Referencing tragedies like the 9/11 terrorist attacks, or the school shooting in Newtown, and contrasting public reaction to aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Ikard says, “What this means in terms of lived experience of race is that whites’ problems are American problems and people of color’s problems are people of color’s problems” (51). When victims are primarily—or assumed to be—white, as in the 9/11 attacks, societal discourse tends to center on how to protect future victims. When victims are primarily black, however, discourse tends to devolve into back complicity in their own suffering.
If the shooter in Sandy Hook were a black or a person of color, then the entire political focus point
would change. Rather than addressing the possible motives for the shooting, including mental health
issues and violent video games, the focus would be on the supposed criminality and violence of black
men and politicians would be calling for heightened surveillance of and profiling of black men. (55)
From here Ikard goes on to show how the idea of white innocence has bee able to adjust to the changing cultural landscape as the country has moved through its phases of racial prejudice. “As we know, ideologies of power are not easily dismantled. When they face serious social, cultural, or economic challenges, as was the case with white supremacist ideology during the Civil Rights Movement, they adjust like a chameleon to the new environment” (57). The author uses the example of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin to demonstrate the way in which her abolitionist sentiments were tempered by a reliance on the trope of the “magical negro,” which actually served to reinforce white supremacist thinking about blacks within a call for an end to the practice of slavery but not its underlying ideology. “In order to make . . . Uncle Tom redemptive within her white liberal paternalistic framework, Stowe had to make him pathologically selfless and tether his redemption to white paternalistic Christian sponsorship, protection, and logic” (58). In this way the character of Tom has to fit into the expectation of black gratitude in order not to be seen as an outlier, undeserving of white intervention. Thus, as Ikard demonstrates, “The key point here is that white redemption, not racial equality, is the driving motivation behind the novel” (59). In modern entertainment terms, “updated versions of these myths in pathologically self-sacrificial, caring, and loving sidekicks, lucky charms, maids, secretaries, butlers, and mascots operate to obscure the lingering and tenacious legacy of white supremacist slavery” (61).
In this way the Magical Negro is directly related to the Lovable Racist. Granting specialness to certain blacks who adhere to white expectations, and then showing their gratitude on screen or in the pages of a novel, serves to reinforce the idea that it is only through white largess that blacks earn their way into a modified version of citizenship. “The idea of indebtedness to whites derives from the thinking that whites must ‘accept’ blacks into US society and make the grand sacrifice of tolerating their integration in white schools and other previously segregated spaces . . . which, of course, drives willful white blindness [and] radically informs black notions of self-determinism and agency” (15). At the same time, however, the magical negro is unable to escape from the very debilitating definitions imposed on him by the white majority. Ikard makes this clear by examining Stephen King’s The Green Mile. Though the character of John Coffey is eventually turned into a Christ figure, he is at first understood by all the whites in the film to be a child murderer and rapist—an assumption that is never questioned because of his blackness. Like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the film is not about the humanity of the black character--who “is a modern-day version of Uncle Tom with the temperament and IQ if a very tame ten-year-old”--but instead is about the redemption of the jailer Paul (62). Despite whatever redeeming qualities John might have, including complete innocence of the crime, the black man remains in jail the entire film and is ultimately executed. “It purports on a surface level to expose white racism as vile. But in reality the racist idea that black men in general are criminals and prone to violence is never seriously under scrutiny” (64). In the end, the message of the film is ultimately that Paul is to be forgiven for his racist assumptions about John, thus reinforcing his position as a lovable racist, forgiven yet again, by the magical negro.
What I found most enlightening in Ikard’s book was his discussion of distraction as a means of oppressing blacks. This is something that I have been extremely familiar with in the context of capitalism’s indoctrination of consumers. By providing all sorts of distractions, from cell phones and social media, to video games, sports and entertainment, citizen-consumers are continuously kept from examining their lives and the true nature of their place in society. Ikard’s distraction, however, is more along the lines of changing definitions in order to redirect the argument in a completely different direction. One of these distractions is a perversion of one of our most sacred legal precepts, innocent until proven guilty. In practice, however, the media typically portrays black victims in the most unflattering light possible, which in real terms renders them guilty until proven innocent. “This pattern of perpetually placing blacks in this defensive posture is immensely advantageous to the dominant white supremacist power structure as it allows whites to blame imagined black pathologies for black social and economic struggles without having to contend with their white privilege, pathological racist behavior or the white supremacist power structure that licenses black social degradation and death” (70). By constantly having to prove their innocence, or refute white victim blaming, blacks are never able to get out from under the argument and focus attention on the real cause of inequity: white oppression. Ikard also goes on to cite Derrick Bell in an argument that is a variation on Richard Hofstadter’s “pseudo-conservative” from the mid nineteen-fifties. Rather than giving ordinary citizens a true path to success, and as a way to keep them mindlessly working for corporate interests, the controlling elite has instead given them a common enemy in the form of people of color. “Instead of providing the masses with access to real wealth and power, they provided them with embodied wealth in the form of control and dominance over blacks” (74). Ultimately, as Ikard shows, this is simply a variation on property rights concerning blacks that goes back to the days of slavery.
Making the situation even more untenable is white reaction to calls for examination of white complicity in continued black disenfranchisement in the form of intentional misunderstanding. “It places the onus on blacks to prove to whites what they already know to be true and have a significant socio-economic stake in not knowing or acknowledging--namely, that blacks are human beings whose basic rights to freedom have been ruthlessly trampled on by whites for economic, social and cultural gain” (76). But the biggest distraction of all comes in the form of white admonishment for any act by blacks that seeks to make headway in seeking redress for four hundred years of oppression and abuse that can only be defined as white terrorism. From so-called black “rebellion” in the days of slavery, to marches and protests in the Jim Crow era, to movements like Black Lives Matter, white response has always been to see these acts through the lens of black sabotage of their own cause. Ikard cites James Baldwin as identifying “the white habit of perpetually blaming blacks for the consequences of long-standing patterns of white oppression and then claiming ignorance and innocence when their destructive tactics breed civil unrest and protest like Civil Rights and Black Power movements” (78). The result of this distraction trap, as Ikard puts it, is “treating violent black responses to white violence as the source of the racial conflict . . . [exposing] the audacity of the chief historical white perpetrators of looting and violence against black humanity to proclaim that they are somehow victims when blacks retaliate in self-defense or protest against such white assaults” (77).
Interestingly, white messiahs get very little attention in Ikard’s book, perhaps because they are so closely related to the lovable racist. The examples he gives are Clint Eastwood’s racist character from Gran Torino who, in the end, sacrifices himself for the Hmong teenagers who live next door, but in doing so vilifies the gang members who have tormented them, “because the film treats the gangbangers as heartless thugs, ignoring not only their humanity but also the white supremacist capitalism that has decimated their community” (25). The other white messiah that Ikard singles out is Bill Clinton, and by association Hillary. Despite Clinton’s affinity for blacks and black voters, his record on drugs and incarceration prove his policies to be every bit as deleterious to black self-determination as the culture at large. Again, this is another example of someone whose claims of black advocacy are only successful in comparison with the more extreme hatred of blacks professed by those on the political right. “Culturally speaking, white-messiah figures like Clinton are able to leverage blacks’ historically low expectation of just white treatment to appear heroic in their empathy toward black concerns . . . In reality his welfare reform and crime policies have had a devastating impact on black communities” (15-16). Likewise Ikard sees Hillary Clinton’s pivot on Black Lives Matter--from initially declaring that “all lives matter” to supporting the cause when running against a blatant racist--as motivated by “social pressure and political expediency” rather than a genuine “change of heart” (16).
While Ikard deals briefly with the interconnection of capitalism and racism, his final chapter brings religion, specifically Christianity, into the mix as well. He returns to the idea of the indoctrination of children, this time using the imagery of Santa Claus and Jesus Christ, both religious icons despite their seeming differences. Tellingly, Ikard also associates the two figures with other elements of American cultural mythology, as well as illuminating their use in social propaganda. “Because being white is still synonymous culturally with being ‘normal,’ the cultural programming of our children vis-à-vis whitewashed superheroes, myths, and religious figures typically flies under the radar of concern . . . What’s more, the majority of villains and antichrist figures tend to be of a darker hue . . . Even black folks internalize these messages (oftentimes despite ourselves) because we have been conditioned to see them as universal and morally transcendent” (112-113). And just as with Critical Theory, Ikard accurately assesses the role that the media and entertainment play as the tool of the oligarchical elite in controlling the cultural messages that have become an intrinsic part of the American experience for all citizens. “If we take seriously the intensity and insidiousness of the white supremacist messaging that is rendered through fairy tales, mythologies, cartoons, and even religion in the United States, it should become clear that we cannot rid our society of racial inequality if we cannot rid ourselves of the cultural mediums that reproduce and substantiate it . . . There is nothing random or innocent about this whitewashing phenomenon. Santa Claus and the Judeo-Christian messiah figure Jesus are constructed as white for specific political and ideological purposes” (125).
Again, this is all part of a white supremacist ideology in which, counterintuitively, the white majority has a vested interest in promoting racial tension. Some critics argue, and Ikard references, that the whole idea of racial difference is merely a construct that continues to reinforce white appropriation of normalcy compared to that of any people of color.
Americans and Westerners in general conceptualize brown Middle Eastern terrorists as heartless
religious fanatical monsters who prey on the weak—a conceptualization that conspicuously ignores
how Christianity and white supremacy has been employed for centuries in the United States to exploit,
dominate, enslave, and murder generations of people of color, especially people of African descent” (131).
In a curious case of construction, Ikard saves his most powerful argument for the end of the book, in a coda that is not only highly personal, but chilling in its implications. By far the most disturbing aspect of continued white supremacist indoctrination is the devaluation of the lives of people of color. Ikard references the terrorist killings in a black church in South Carolina by Dylan Roof. While whites clearly define attacks against other whites as terrorism, they refuse to do so when the victims are black. Attacks on white school children, now too numerous to list, are seen as hate crimes by mentally ill white perpetrators. Black children dying everyday in in urban neighborhoods, on the other hand, are virtually ignored, even though their numbers are far greater than the more highly publicized massacres. But even that cannot compare with the tragedy that is the blatant killing of black citizens by white police officers. The ubiquitous number of murders of innocent and unarmed blacks by police--especially considering that nearly all of the white police officers wind up being exonerated--is no less than the modern day equivalent of lynching.
In a word, the book is brilliant. Ikard resists the temptation to give in to deconstructionist fantasies that are hardly relevant. Instead, his literary examples are well drawn, and his references to other analyses by the likes of Baldwin and Morrison are equally well chosen. If there’s a criticism it is that he doesn’t take enough time to explain the context in which his literary arguments are being made. He criticizes white authors and filmmakers for their white blindness in terms of the myths they perpetuate, but he isn’t necessarily blaming them. Their white blindness simply reflects their own indoctrination and the identification of that unconscious racism is finally the point, by allowing the reader see the ways that white supremacist thinking has always been part of America’s cultural landscape. While he rightly criticizes them by pointing out what they could have done instead, I have the sense that he isn’t blaming them for what they should have done. At least I hope that’s the case--although it may be my own white blindness that makes me think that. I also take exception with Ikard’s blanket condemnation of Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, as I’m not sure he fully understands that Huck is anything but redeemed at the end of the novel and Twain indicts society fairly decisively in the form of Tom. But these are minor quibbles in an impressive work overall.
As Horkheimer said, it’s impossible for whites to know the suffering that they have put blacks through in this country, as mere language is not enough to convey what it’s like, for example, for black parents to have to give “the talk” to their children. That said, however, it’s not to difficult to take their word for it, especially considering the mountain of empirical evidence that is available. At the same time, language cannot be overlooked as a means to continue to apply pressure to a system that has built in resistance to change. “As exasperating as it may be at times to speak out on racism and white supremacy, it is crucial that anti-racist scholars within and beyond black spaces do so wherever and whenever we encounter it.” By going beyond mere literary analysis, David Ikard has masterfully demonstrated how racial tropes in literature not only reflect but inform a way of thinking in this country that significantly devalues the lives of people of color. Lovable Racists, Magical Negroes, and White Messiahs should not just be on the bookshelf of every home in this country, it should be in the hands of every person in America so that they can begin to see how their unconscious behaviors negatively affect those around them, as well as their moral obligation to do something proactive about those behaviors.