Lena Horne, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump

Lena Horne, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump

Back in the Golden Era of Hollywood* white folks would point to Lena Horne as an example of how America wasn’t racist, America offered opportunities for everyone.

“Look at her!  She’s a movie star!  She appears in big movies!

“How could she do that if we were racists?”

Every society, no matter how stratified or hidebound, has space for a few socially approved outliers.

You can always afford one rigidly controlled exception to the rule, who can paradoxically serve as both a reassurance that there’s room for others and as an easily dismissed distraction should they arouse too much or the wrong kind of attention.

Lena Horne was an exceptionally beautiful singer-actress in a time and place where beautiful singer-actresses were the norm.  She appeared in dozens of major movies from big studios, and was well respected by her co-workers and peers.

And she was -- or rather the role she occupied in America was -- totally fake.

Ms Horne never had a substantial role or dramatic scene in any movie that did not feature a predominantly African-American cast.

The big budget musicals she appeared in, the ones aimed at mainstream audiences -- white audiences -- typically cast her as a specialty number:  In the middle of a big show within the movie, the camera would pan over to her standing in front of a curtain where she would belt out a show tune.

And white Americans would say to foreigners who criticized the US for its racism, “What about Lena Horne? Look at all the movies she appears in!”

She appeared as an appendix, a wholly superfluous addition whose presence or absence didn’t affect the film one whit.

Her musical numbers in mainstream (i.e., white) musicals were filmed and edited into the final picture so they could be cut out!

See, there were parts of the US that did not care for Ms Horne’s skin color one little bit.

And when her movies played there -- snip-snip.

Out she came.

That way no lily white audiences ever had to be offended that a n[FL play]er dared sully their lily white screen.

Why was she in there in the first place?

As a sop to the African-American community, to lure them into the theaters so they could have five minutes enjoying a performance by somebody who looked like them.

And to a lesser degree, as a sop to those few white Americans who, while not exactly “woke”, were at least stirring restlessly in their sleep.  “Hey, we can’t be all bad if we let a colored girl sing in a movie, can we?”

[SIDEBAR:  You wanna see what Ms Horne was capable of, track down Stormy Weather, an all African-American musical that I rank as the 3rd best movie musical ever made, trailing narrowly behind Singin’ In The Rain and The Band Wagon.]

Barack Obama was 21st century white America’s Lena Horne.

“Hey, how can we be racist if we elected a black president?” was white code for “We want you black people to shut up about the injustices you have suffered and continue to suffer.”

White America wanted Obama to be their Oreo:  Black on the outside but white on the inside.

They wanted him to champion white values and interests.

Not American values and interests.

White values and interests.

“Hey, we elected a black president…”

”…so we don’t have to do anything about
the disproportionate justice meted out
against African-Americans.”

“Hey, we elected a black president…”

”…so we don’t have to do anything about
inner city communities that are still reeling
from the effects of hundreds of years
of dehumanization.”

“Hey, we elected a black president…”

”…so we don’t have to do anything about
addressing the needs and concerns of people
who have been deliberately and consciously
excluded from the American dream.”

No, Obama was supposed to be the magic cure-all, the ultimate placebo that would get those pesky minorities to stop complaining so white folks could like their lives in ease and comfort and not have to worry about how non-whites were being treated.

Just stand up against that curtain, Barack, and sing…

But Barack Obama didn’t do that.

Barack Obama said, “Hey, we still have a problem if police accost an African-American in his own home and accuse him of being a burglar even when he can prove he lives there.”

And ya know what?

We do have a problem if that can happen.

Because in order to reach the relatively mild level of just getting falsely arrested by a police office who doesn’t believe your identity, we first have to undercut your basic rights as a human being and as a citizen of the United States.

We have to pre-judge you on the color of your skin, to assume you are intrinsically criminal and hence worthy only of suspicion and distrust.

We have to assume you are not educated enough to hold a job that would pay enough for you to buy the home we’re accusing you of burglarizing.

Many white people voted for Obama because they wanted to shut up minority critics.

And to their surprise and horror, Obama basically said, “No, they’ve got a point:  There still is a lot we need to work on to make this nation what is claims it wants to be.”

White people lost their shit over that.

Things got worse as the #BlackLivesMatter movement started.

White folks really lost their shit over that!

Most white people do not hate minorities…

…but they do fear them.

They fear minority crime, but not in the way one thinks.

White people are the biggest criminal threat to other white people.

Rather, they fear minorities because they ultimately fear a loss of status.

As I’ve noted previously, white identity defines itself by whom it excludes.

Barack Obama had one white American and one black Kenyan parent.

In the eyes of white America, that made him black.

And to many white Americans, it made him Kenyan as well.

White Americans define themselves by whom they exclude, never by whom they include.

Also as noted previously, despite its claims to be a classless society, America is very much a class-oriented society, one in which white people were guaranteed at the very least working class status by the simple fact non-whites were automatically regulated to lower class status.

When non-whites achieved skills and education that enabled them to climb out of their lower class status, they were only allowed to climb to higher status within their own communities.

An African-American lawyer might be able to plead a case in a white court, but only for a black client, never a white one.

Middle and working class whites feared losing their status; middle class whites feared slipping down to working class, working class feared becoming lower class.

Only if there was a built-in cushion, a concrete floor they were guaranteed they could not fall below, did whites feel comfortable.

(The astute reader will note this also applies to matters of gender, and orientation, and religion; we focus on race in this post because it’s the most obvious example, but it’s far from the only one.)

That floor was a ceiling for the minorities trapped below it, and the cracks that allowed some minorities to rise above it terrified whites who feared they’d slip through it.

Laws and customs and traditions and practices that kept minorities at arm’s length were the spackling that plugged those cracks.

Police and law enforcement and the judicial and penal systems were part of those plugs.

Minorities were treated more harshly, and penalized more severely, than whites who committed similar crimes.

Whites justified this by saying minorities were, by nature or nurture, more dangerous…more violent…more criminal than mainstream (read “white”) culture, and as such were inherently deserving of such treatment.

A white college student caught with a gram of cocaine would likely get A Very Strong Talking To by the judge and perhaps even have to perform some token community service, but a ghetto kid with a joint?  

Five to ten.

But as whites excluded more and more people from their group -- their own children and grandchildren from matings with non-whites -- the number and voice of minorities grew.

#BlackLivesMatter quite literally and explicitly means “Black lives matter as much as all other lives” but the white community couldn’t have that.

First they deliberately lied, and said #BlackLivesMatter meant “only black lives matter’.

I’ve said elsewhere that some people project so much they should really pay union dues to IATSE. #BlackLivesMatter is a response to the “only white lives matter” attitude found among too many people in law enforcement and the judicial system.

Second, whites claimed #BlackLivesMatter was anti-police (no, it only calls for the police to treat all persons with the same degree of courtesy and respect).

They framed that fake anti-police stance as a desire among the African-American community to wreak harm and havoc on innocent whites (though, as noted elsewhere, how innocent are you if you help maintain a system that harms others for your benefit?).

Nobody ever posted #AllLivesMatter or anything like it prior to #BlackLivesMatter making its first appearance, yet the sentiment found in #BlackLivesMatter can be traced back to the earliest calls for racial justice in this land.

Finally, whites promoted #BlueLivesMatter, a completely bogus straw man argument that places the lives and safety of the police above those of common citizens.

Whitey, please…

Being a police officer is a stressful and dangerous job -- though far from the most dangerous job in America (you wanna risk your life on a daily basis, become a roofer).

Being a police officer isn’t even among the top ten most dangerous jobs in America -- and most law enforcement on the job deaths are the result of traffic accidents (not surprising considering how much time the average officer spends on the road).

Being a police officer means one is entrusted with an awesome and terrible responsibility:  The authority to carry a lethal weapon and to use it against anyone the officer deems to be a clear and present danger to the lives of others.

That is absolutely an authority police officers should have…

…but not all police officers today are worthy of that responsibility.

There is nothing wrong or outrageous about African-American and other minority communities insisting the country’s police officers treat all people they encounter with the same courtesy and respect.

There will be people of all races and genders and ages who will respond to the police with defiance, perhaps up to and including armed resistance.

Fine, that’s why we give the police their authority to carry and use a weapon.

But they need to approach every situation based on what the person is doing at that moment and not whether whether they think or they fear the person may do them harm.

We are employing them -- in every sense of the word -- to put their lives on the line, and to risk their safety in order to preserve the public safety.

And most times, this means waiting until you know what the person you’re dealing with intends to do before acting yourself.

Frankly, if you’re inclined to shoot someone because you’re afraid they might do something, police work is not the career for you.

If unarmed, unresisting whites were treated as callously at so many unarmed and unresisting minorities are, if police gunned down a 12 year old white child without warning while playing in a public park the way they killed Tamir Rice, the white people in this country would go berserk and demand systemic changes top to bottom.

Which brings us to Donald Trump.

If Obama was the homeopathic placebo that white people thought would give them the “Get Out Of Racism FREE” card they longed to have, Trump was to be their purge to drive all the toxins they perceived out of the system and to restore them to their previous lost status.

Make American Great Again was their motto.

And yet when you asked them what that meant, it never referred to real measurable metrics such as changes in purchasing power, increases in productivity, spiraling health care costs, etc.

It always came back to re-establishing a mythical golden social order, where whites felt safe and secure in their (disguised) middle and working class status, and never feared dropping below the concrete floor that held so many others down.

Several years ago I wrote about the fast approaching year 2048.

That’s the year the census bureau projects the number of people identified as “white” Americans will drop to 49.99%.

The year the white majority vanishes…

…replaced by one large minority…

…but a minority nonetheless.

Knowing this day approaches, we will see more and more acting out by white people.

Uglier and uglier.

Sicker and sicker.

Deadlier and deadlier.

In a perverse way, we are lucky to have Trump now.

A competent racist demagogue could do far more damage.

He will taint the white political waters for at least a decade.

And that will shave white majority status ever narrower.

Remember, don’t feel sorry for whites; they are causing this by excluding their own descendants.

What they do to their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren will eventually be visited upon their own community.

The day they fear will finally arrive.

They won’t be anything special.

They’ll just be like everybody else.

E pluribus unum = “Out of the many, one.”

Maybe that will finally come about when there is no longer an arbitrary racial barrier to divide us by class.


© Buzz Dixon


* Well, post-WWII era Hollywood; the real golden era ran from the end of WWI to the start of WWII.


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