Popularity, Privilege, and the White Populists Who Populate the Airwaves

By David Leonard Sep 21, 2004

After the sixth book arrived in the mail, I realized something might be going on here. Stupid White Men; Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot, Does Anyone Have a Problem With That: The Best of Politically Incorrect; Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right; When You Ride Alone You Ride With Bin Laden: What the Government Should Be Telling Us to Help Fight the War on Terrorism; Dude, Where’s My Country? Turn on the TV, and there’s Jon Stewart sneering at Trent Lott, Strom Thurmond or the bigoted Republican Party. Listen to the radio, and there’s Al Franken talking about the racist plot to disenfranchise black voters during the 2000 election. Liberal pundits, while not as ubiquitous as conservative talk radio and TV warriors, nevertheless seem to be coming out of the woodwork these days.

In addition to excoriating the Christian right, the gun lobby, and evil corporations in general, these liberal pop-culture icons-in-the-making also talk about race on occasion.

In his corporate speeches, Al Franken likes to offer the following commentary on U.S. racism: “Looking at your faces today, I can see that this group hasn’t caved in to that whole affirmative action nonsense. Look around, see all the white faces and laugh. ”

Bill Maher, who has a new HBO show “Real Time With Bill Maher” since the canning of his “Politically Incorrect” post-Sept. 11, made this remark during a March 2004 segment: “Nothing gets white people to the polls like fear. In fact, the right wing is so fired up about Jews and gays and the potty mouth, they’ve almost forgotten who the real enemy is —brown people.”

Like the white populist movements of olden days, the new white populists of today claim allegiance with people of color and supposedly represent a solidarity of common white folk and communities of color against the establishment.

But the history of white populism is a story of overlapping goals and class politics; however, it is equally a story of sustained racism, of pimping people of color in the name of working class power and thereby erasing the privilege and power bestowed upon white workers because of their skin color.

Historians have long cited the white populist revolt of the late nineteenth century that brought Southern white and black sharecroppers together as a powerful cross-racial movement. Throughout the South, white sharecroppers joined together to form the Farmers Alliance during the 1880s. Unwilling to admit blacks, they helped form the Black Farmers Alliance, which existed as an appendage with little power or autonomy. A number of candidates supported by the Farmers Alliance found their way into legislatures on the backs of black voters, only to later support anti-black bills.

The history of white populism (including the abolitionist movement and the progressive movement of the 1920s) is a story of claimed working class solidarity against the common enemy of the white elite. Yet these same white populists supported legislation that denied a minimum wage or labor protection to agricultural and domestic workers (mainly people of color) as part of the New Deal.

Recent coalitions have found similar problems—white support for the civil rights movement during Freedom Summer or the 1960s coalitions between the Weathermen and leftist organizations of color often replicated unequal power relations and sanction of white privilege. Moreover, many white activists from the 1960s, such as Todd Gitlin, Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda, have gone on to illustrious careers, while people of color like Leonard Peltier, Fred Hampton and Tommie Smith faced less fortunate futures.

Whether as a “giddy multitude” (a term used to describe black and white indentured servants of the 1700s) rising up against landowners exploiting indentured servants, or communities joining together against the outsourcing of jobs, social scientists often celebrate white populist movements without a discussion of racism, privilege and goals.

While conservatives have denigrated Moore, Franken and others in their milieu for unfairly exploiting racial divisions (as part of their un-American plot to “slander” Republicans like George Bush), their actual willingness to engage in a discussion of racism is more illusion than fact. Race and racism represent an afterthought, or at best, another tool for taking on “lying liars” of corporate America—but not to deal with the entrenched inequities that divide along racial lines.

Racism: A Republican, Southern, Elitist Thing

Whereas race in the popular imagination is often seen as an issue of the South and of backwards rednecks, the new white populists offer a slightly different vision of contemporary American racism. Bill Maher, during an episode of “Politically Incorrect” aired October 29, 1993, responded to the decision of the Library of Congress to pull Birth of a Nation because of its sympathetic portrayal of the Klu Klux Klan with the following jab: “The film industry in Mississippi said it was a shame that there were no longer any good roles being written for Klansmen.” In Stupid White Men, Moore has a chapter on “Killing Whitey” in which he interrogates modern manifestations of racism (only against blacks) as well as the participation of average white citizens in systems of inequality. Al Franken in Lies and the Lying Liars refers to Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter and the rest of the reactionary crew as “Klansmen.”

Franken, like Moore, Maher and Stewart, displays a tendency to only link racism with the easy target of the Klan, or the likes of Bush, Limbaugh, Thurmond and Lott, as well as a host of corporations that exploit people of color. Whether as a problem of the South, of poor (and stupid) whites, Republican elites or rabid right-wingers, the new white populist sees racism not as an American problem, but an issue of the powerful Other.

And that’s a major mistake— to see racism not as a central element of U.S. society, but only a ploy of the establishment to maintain power. What they miss is colorblind racism, which promotes institutionally racist results under the guise of legal equality. So while Pete Wilson is condemned as a racist because of his support for the “three strikes law,” similar critique is never directed at Gray Davis for prison construction or Bill Clinton for welfare reform.

New white populism finds little power in condemning racism among its own cultural elite. When comedienne Sarah stirred a whirlwind of controversy in 2000 by saying the word “chink” in her act, Bill Maher rescued her from the firestorm during an episode of “Politically Incorrect”: “I’ve always loved Asian Americans. I would say Sarah does, too. And I think when it comes to First Amendment rights and comedians and making jokes and being able to have free speech, you know, I’m sorry, that’s going to be number 1 with me.”

Beyond their tendency to locate racism elsewhere, new white populists have also espoused colorblind ideologies and goals and blamed people of color for racial problems. Michael Moore calls upon whites to marry blacks as “a way to help create a colorblind world,” and Bill Maher laments how “we have all lost sight of the goal of Martin Luther King.” The realities of twenty-first century racism, and the importance of race as a source of identity and communal formation, raise issue with the possibility or desirability of a colorblind society. Despite claims of both the right and the left, King never called for a society where color was invisible, but where color did not determine political, social, cultural and economic opportunities. Maher especially ignores power relations and history, citing the ways in which immigrants “stay in their insular communities,” while “minority college students are asking to live apart in separate dorms.”

Finally, the limitation of these commentators of the “left” shows itself in their tendency to talk about issues, ideologies and material reality in isolated terms. Poverty is poverty; racism is racism; and worse, war is war. There is no recognition that the ways people of color are affected by poverty and war are intertwined and, indeed, distinct because of racism. References to Halliburton, oil, occupation and America’s elite are ubiquitous in the current debate over Iraq. However, there is no discussion of white supremacy as it relates to America’s war efforts in the history of Manifest Destiny, White Man’s Burden, or colonization.

Erasing Racism in Bowling for Columbine

As Michael Moore becomes a hero with the release of Fahrenheit 9/11, his track record on race has been obscured. In Bowling for Columbine, Moore uses the school shooting as a launching pad to discuss gun violence in America and erases not only racism, but also people of color (only four appear in the film). Although the film makes passing references to the racialized dimensions of American fear and the criminalization of blackness (populists know little of Latinos, Asians, Native Americans, or Arabs), there is no sustained examination of white supremacy within the United States. Racism exists within a narrow construct of politicians who secure elections through fear of black criminals, or gun manufacturers who reap profits from such an environment. Moreover, Moore misses several opportunities in the film to explore institutional racism as it relates to American violence.

“ When talking about violence and fear, the two of us immediately think deportations, detentions, police brutality, sexual assault, racial profiling, the prison industrial complex,” wrote Philadelphia activists Priyanka Jindal and Walidah Imanisha in an open letter to Moore. “If you are talking about violence in America, how can you not mention the names of Amadou Diallo and Abner Louima, two black victims of police brutality?”

In their surface attempts to address issues of racism, Moore and his populist kin actually do more to silence than empower communities of color. None of the four people of color in Bowling for Columbine are given opportunities to speak on racism, other than as “man on the street” interviews or as victims. Where are the experts on the relationship between gun violence and racism, on racial profiling, police brutality, or prison abuses? Are Barry Glassner and Marilyn Manson sufficient?

White Privilege

The importance of white privilege transcends its absence from post-civil rights white populism. White privilege, as Peggy McIntosh notes, “is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks.” While there is surely a failure to recognize the ways whiteness embodies a wage cashed every day, whiteness explains both the presence and popularity of the new white populist. Moore, Franken and Maher laudably target the privilege reflected by Bush’s legacy admissions at Yale or job preferences for those with “white-sounding names,” but they are blind to the privileges bestowed by their own status as white men.

The willingness that corporate America shows in providing airtime and publication deals (Time Warner, Random House) reflects the value placed upon their analysis. In spite of their propensity to engage in the “politically incorrect,” each of these white populists is given numerous public platforms, while paid handsomely for their work. The availability of a variety of media, from television and movies to radio and publishing, cannot be understood outside of white privilege. Though Michael Moore has many critics, none have called him a terrorist for his broadsides against the U.S. government. Nor does Bill Maher or Al Franken need to worry about opponents accusing them of “playing the race card” for supporting Kobe Bryant or affirmative action.

The absence of comparative critics of color with an equally sizable platform is a testament to the power of white privilege within popular culture. Embracing identities as victims of corporate media censorship or emphasizing their working class roots, white populists fail to identify whiteness in its power and instead grasp at a kinship between liberals, people of color and the poor. In doing so, the white populist once again eschews racism as a problem inhabited elsewhere. This is no more evident than with Michael Moore, who habitually references conservative opposition and his working class identity, all the while ignoring his own whiteness as a great advantage. Like a fish that does not notice the water it’s in, Moore and the others swim in white privilege but cannot see it.

The invisibility of white privilege goes even further with the widespread inscription of white men as victims. Whether through debates about affirmative action or discussions of pop culture stereotypes, popular discourses systematically depict white males as the victims of a newly sensitive, racialized America. The new white populists deploy similar frames of victimhood. Bill Maher’s countless references to being fired for his politics, Michael Moore’s loud denunciations of censorship (most recently with his battle with Disney over Fahrenheit 9/11) and even Howard Stern’s political conversion following years of FCC and governmental harassment reflect the limitations of a movement that lacks the language to differentiate between censorship and white supremacy.

White Anti-Racist: An Oxymoron?

As a white scholar and activist, I continually contemplate my role and that of other whites in racial justice struggles. I am keenly aware of the difficulties of “white anti-racism.” History elucidates the often contentious and contradictory contributions of whites toward freedom struggles. This same history, which also includes the likes of John Brown, Stanley Levinson and the Young Patriot Party, equally speaks to the existence of productive coalitions. Within such a context, the emergence of a gang of white pop culture populists necessitates a close examination of their interest, ideologies and politics. Do they follow in the footsteps of Southern agriculturalists, who embraced abolitionist ideas and spoke about kinship in opposition to America’s elite only as a means to secure political power on the back of black voters? Or do they reflect a history of white intellectuals who have joined people of color in an effort to dream America anew?

Do the new white populists represent a potential ally, given their stance against globalization, U.S. hegemony, censorship, poverty, inequality and imperialism—or yet another oxymoron? Although reflecting neither extreme, their limited understanding of racism, failure to critically examine white privilege and ultimate refusal to explore the ways in which working class whites “swim in white preference” put these white populists in a long tradition of “allies” that use racism as a means for self- or communal-advantage rather than securing justice. The question is not whether or not these white populists are racists, unworthy of coalitional work—it’s whether the refusal to examine their own privilege, or their own replication of ideologies of white supremacy, ultimately silences people of color and the material issues affecting communities of color, all the while claiming an interest in race. Ultimately, we must ask whether a progressive mainstream white voice contributes to the efforts of racial justice or presents yet another illusion of white support.