To the White People Who Penned Sweeping Love Letters to George H.W. Bush

To the White People Who Penned Sweeping Love Letters to George H.W. Bush

To the White People Who Penned Sweeping Love Letters to George H.W. Bush

Clearly, you never talked to a person of color about the Bush presidencies.


The George Herbert Walker Bush funeral week was a difficult week for me. Like many black people, I did not want to Malcolm X myself.

After the Kennedy assassination, Malcolm said “chickens coming home to roost never did make me sad.” Today we’d call that “troll-level alpha,” but at the time, words mattered. White people were so mad at Malcolm that the Nation of Islam bowed to public pressure and “silenced” Malcolm as punishment. The reaction to his comments established the rule for black people who do not want to join in the adulation of a dead white man: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

When Bush 41 passed, I wasn’t surprised by the whitewashing of his legacy. Instead, what struck me were the sweeping statements made by white people who, evidently, have never talked about the Bush family with a person of color.

“Bush taught us how to lose gracefully”—is something Willie Horton did not say. “President Bush was the embodiment of the values of the United States…fighting throughout his life for freedom from tyranny and oppression in any guise”—willfully ignores tyranny and oppression when it comes in the guise of mandatory minimums. “Why We Miss The WASPs”—was an actual headline in a major newspaper that apparently forgot to include African Americans, Jewish people, or anybody who doesn’t own a sailboat in its conception of “we.”

I do not think the least-common-denominator white person appreciates how stupid they sound when they unleash an opinion that garners negligible or nonexistent popular support from people of color. There are a lot of us nonwhites out here, and we don’t all think alike. How deep does your head have to go into your own navel to produce an opinion that impresses none of us?

Since it’s 2018 and we’re living in the future, I don’t even have to guess any more at how myopically white your opinions are. They keep stats on this now. I no longer have to take the author’s word that they have a “black friend” who says they’re “one of the good ones.” I can hover over whatever plumb ignorant thing you said or shared on Facebook, or Twitter, or Instagram, and get a pretty good idea about the diversity of popularity generated by your thought bomb.

When the diversity of your nonwhite support amounts to one world-renowned hip-hop artist tweeting from the Sunken Place, that’s evidence that your opinion is trash and tested only in the crucible of your own whiteness.

It occurs me that many white people don’t think that there is anything particularly wrong with having an opinion that people of color find unlikable or detestable. That impulse comes from a tradition of white supremacy that tells you nonwhite opinions don’t matter as much as white ones. White Americans have never required the support of nonwhites to turn their thoughts into reality; they’ve only had to convince a majority of other white folks to go along with them for the ride.

That’s why Ross Douthat, author of the aforementioned “Why We Miss the WASPs,” gets to exist. His op-ed nostalgically argues that the WASP’s sense of “noblesse oblige” and statesmanship of restraint is the critical element missing from the current ruling class of predominantly white men. Yes, someone actually used “noblesse oblige,” positively, in 2018, in The New York Times, and wasn’t quoting a Faulkner story. Douthat is so used to living in a world where only the opinions of other whites matter, the main concern of his piece is over what qualities white men should have as they rule over the rest of us.

Douthat makes mild protestations that the lack of diversity among the forlorn WASPs was a problem with their reign. But he gets around this (entirely fatal) flaw in his argument by granting the possibility of “WASP qualities” to nonwhites. What he’s trying to do is retcon the “white” out of his love for (wait for it) “White Anglo-Saxon Protestants,” by telling nonwhites that they can be part of the club if they act white too.

It’s a sleight of hand that fools functionally zero nonwhite readers. Michael Harriot of The Root absolutely dunked on Douthat. NewsOne Now’s Roland Martin punted Douthat into the sun. Fareed Zakaria tried to reform Douthat’s piece into something slightly less stupid-sounding, and since he’s brown that’s as close as Douthat has come to nonwhite support for his thesis. If you do not know who these brothers are, you need to stop being like Ross and start being a person who follows a few nonwhite sources.

Of course, Douthat’s “nonwhites can be WASPs too” arguments are not designed to fool people of color. They’re designed to make white people feel better about his argument. The strategy is to tell his white readers that white people really know what’s best for nonwhites:

So it’s possible to imagine adaptation rather than surrender as a different WASP strategy across the 1960s and 1970s. In such a world the establishment would have still admitted more blacks, Jews, Catholics and Hispanics (and more women) to its ranks…but it would have done so as a self-consciously elite-crafting strategy, rather than under the pseudo-democratic auspices of the SAT and the high school résumé and the dubious ideal of “merit.”

My social-media feeds are full of white men like Douthat. White guys who presume to tell me the “best” or most “appropriate” ways to convince white people to treat me like a full human, as if treating me with fundamental equality and dignity needs to be their idea in the first place.

Douthat’s rejoinder, published a few days later, shows, again, a disregard for the very diversity of experience that his original column so manifestly lacked. He writes: “Diversity, despite what many liberals want to think, does not provide a solution to this problem. A diverse elite may be good in its own right, as a matter of justice and representation. But nothing about being a woman or a minority makes you immune to meritocracy’s ruthless solipsism.” Got it? Listening to people from nonwhite traditions doesn’t matter because, if they succeed, they’ll just act like white people, says the white guy who wants everybody to act like WASPs if they are to rule.

To paraphrase that avatar of American whiteness, Jeff Foxworthy: If you come up with a racial-inclusion strategy that is unsupported by any of the races who demand inclusion, you might be a redneck.

Minorities rarely make the same mistake of myopic hubris when publishing their opinions. I certainly don’t. Again, I read about what happened to brother Malcolm and I don’t have his kind of strength. I make sure that I vet my opinions through at least some nonblack people. Safety first! It’s not like I roll out in public with thoughts that zero white people agree with.

I probably couldn’t write anything as racially self-regarding as Douthat, even if I wanted to, and I certainly couldn’t get such a piece published. I’m a black man in America; nostalgic opinions that I have that zero white people agree with are called “crimes” up in this mess.

Thank you for reading The Nation

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply-reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Throughout this critical election year and a time of media austerity and renewed campus activism and rising labor organizing, independent journalism that gets to the heart of the matter is more critical than ever before. Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to properly investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories into the hands of readers.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Ad Policy