This week, Iowa Congressman Steve King has had something of a coming out party as a white nationalist. King’s racism has been on display for years, but rarely has he articulated it in such robust ideological terms. It seems that the shackles are off. And with the Trump/Sessions/Bannon triumvirate at the helm of the executive branch, why not? King’s racist ideology is ascendant in the twenty-first century.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. We Americans are lazily optimistic, defaulting to the assumption that things will work out in the end even if there is no particular reason to think so. On no question are white Americans, in particular, more lazily optimistic than the problem of racism. We are moving onward and upward forever!
If we understood race for what it is—something constructed in history, contingent and changeable—perhaps we could better see how dangerous is our optimism. Whiteness itself is an identity forged in conquest. As biology, it’s an absurdity. As a way to organize difference and deploy power, it has proven to be extraordinarily meaningful. It’s not that white people conquered and enslaved. It’s closer to the mark to say that these historical processes created white people. And to the present day this white identity bestows material advantages. That’s why political mobilizations that invoke whiteness as such are always reactionary and oppressive.
That’s why white nationalism is dangerous and profoundly evil. It is a denial of our common humanity; it is the negation of Christianity. That so much white nationalism appeals to a kind of cultural Christianity only reveals how heretical much of the so-called Christian world actually is.
It is white nationalism—not democracy or human rights or racial equality—that is ascendant here and in Europe. That this claim is controversial shows how ill-prepared we are to deal with resurgent racism. A congressman declares his racist ideology and most of us scramble to reinterpret, to condescend, to do everything but take him seriously and assume that he actually means what he says. A President becomes a political figure in the first place through the use of racist rhetoric, and we sit around arguing about whether doing racist stuff makes someone a racist.
I am so tired of the magical thinking, the condescension, the attempts to coddle racists and tell them that, after all, “you don’t really mean that, do you my boy?” To call Steve King a racist is not to insult him. It is to give him the respect we all want and deserve: to have our ideas taken seriously. I’m tired of a world where the pro forma denial, “I’m not a racist,” counts for more than what one actually does. This is a post-truth world where Paul Ryan is considered a good man because he is clean-cut and sounds earnest. It is downright rude to evaluate him on the basis of what he does. It doesn’t matter that he supports racism. Everything is symbolism. Nothing matters.
But all of this does matter. We lazily assume that American history is linear and on an upward trajectory. It is just as likely that a country that began in genocide and enslavement will circle around to a similar ending. We will avoid that kind of outcome in some distant decade or century not because of an historical inevitability or any innate goodness, but because of the tireless efforts of ordinary people willing to become, as Dr. King said, coworkers with God. Right now, we’re playing footsie with one of the most destructive ideologies in human history, an ideology responsible for the death of millions of people. Steve King is not your eccentric uncle. He’s a sitting Congressman espousing the ideology of terrorists like Dylann Roof.
I’m tired of the nominal Christians that think supporting this resurgent white nationalism is something other than a rejection of Christianity. I’m tired of the symbolic Christianity that says Jesus will save your soul and then you’re free to go oppress everybody else. Here, too, we’d do well to take each other seriously and count our actions more important than our intentions.