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Fern L. Johnson Headshot

The Trifecta of Race in America

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Race and charges of racism continue to dominate the headlines in the U.S., with December turning out to be the "trifecta" of race in America. In early December, it was "Affluenza" -- not immediately coded for race, but yet a story with race in the background. A Texas judge sentenced a wealthy white teenager who killed four pedestrians when he lost control of his speeding pick-up truck to probation rather than jail. Although the teen confessed to intoxication manslaughter, the judge accepted the defense argument that the he suffered from "Affluenza," a disease caused by having too much money and too little supervision, which led to his reckless behavior and absolved him of responsibility for his actions. The judge's decision outraged many people because it showed blatant preference for the wealthy. But imagine a different scenario -- a wealthy Black teen facing the same charges. Would "Affluenza" be the cause, or would the teen now be the victim of Black men's irresponsibility, which, of course, would leave him fully responsible for his actions?

Then came the second big story when Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly assured any kids who happened to be watching her commentary about a Slate.com post on the possibility of a "Black Santa" that "Santa just is white." She also assured viewers that "Jesus was a white man too." Her statements set off a firestorm of criticism and satirical replies (John Stewart and SNL for example). The news commentators on the Boston PBS program "Beat the Press" wore black Santa pins to show support for non-white Santas. In an interview with Kelly on "The Kelly file" on December 13, political commentator and writer Zirlina Maxwell told her that whiteness is "not the default identity." Santa is a fantasy; why shouldn't Christian children of any race or ethnicity imagine that fantasy in their own image? Fern Johnson told a reporter for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette that Kelly's comments were an example of "white washing" images that have no firm racial definition. Kelly at least admitted in a later segment that controversy remains about whether Jesus was white. But Santa? The answer is "white."

Then we hit the trifecta when "Duck Dynasty" patriarch and star Phil Robertson's anti-gay and anti-Black statements were quoted in a GQ Magazine interview. While he defended his anti-gay statements by quoting scripture, his anti-Black comments were more insidious. Claiming he understood Blacks because he and his family were "white trash," Robertson insisted that Blacks were happier before the civil rights era: "Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues." In a few short sentences, Robertson managed to conflate race and social class and declare that he, a white man, knows how Blacks think and feel.

We don't want to add to the debate over whether any of these individuals or their comments was intentionally racist. The issue is more complex than what sounds like a racist comment. The comments each reflect the kind of racial thinking that shapes our understanding of the world in the U.S. Whether it's the belief that wealth corrupts whites while Blacks are born corrupt, or that Santa, like all iconic figures, is white, or that a white person who has some commonality with African-Americans knows what Blacks think or feel, these beliefs each normalize a vision of the world that is not necessarily shared by people of other races or cultural backgrounds. But as long as those of us who are in the dominant culture believe our thinking is natural and normal, we refuse to question it, even in the face of contrary evidence.

Yes, many commentators ridiculed the decision of the judge in the Affluenza case and Megyn Kelly's insistence that Santa is white and Phil Robertson's belief that Blacks were happier before the era of civil rights. But for all those who spoke up and questioned these beliefs, many still don't understand why they did. And many of those who did speak up might not know why the incidents reveal racial thinking. Often, we know something is wrong, but we don't know exactly why. Racial thinking is powerful precisely because it's normalized. If mainstream media and the shopping malls in American portray Santa as white, well... he must be white. Same for Jesus of Nazareth. We know these things to be true because these images repeat over and over. Santa is white, white people have money and money corrupts them, Blacks were happy before civil rights. In fact, Black people used to like white people -- after all, didn't Mammy love Scarlett in Gone with the Wind?