I Could Have Joined the Tea Party

Justin E. H. Smith

Dustbowl Among the many distortions arising from the conceptualization of the human social world in terms of 'race' is the false belief this instills among lower status, historically disadvantaged 'white' people that they have something innate in common with all other 'white' people, and thus that their current disadvantage is the result of some exceptional injustice. This in contrast with the disadvantage of their non-white neighbors, which is, the reasoning goes, just in the nature of things. In the United States, ethnic difference among whites has been bleached out in the name of egalitarianism, and the only differences that are allowed to remain are the ones that are thought to be so pronounced in the phenotypes of 'non-white' groups that assimilation is ruled out on supposedly biological grounds. This seems a natural way of doing things for most Americans, while in fact it is anything but.

I think, in fact, that American whiteness is one symptom –if a milder one than ethnic cleansing and genocide– of the process that Michael Mann has identified as 'the dark side of democracy', where cultures within modern nation-states are forcibly homogenized, and informed by central planning that their identity is now simply the identity of a citizen of that state. The US has conducted itself in this regard very much like Turkey with its Kurdish minority, whose very existence the modern secular republic has practically denied. The one difference however is that it has been assumed in the United States that this homogenizing force can extend only up to the boundaries of 'race', and that whoever lies beyond those boundaries must remain eternally other (even if 'blacks' are deemed American, this is always a special variety of American, a marked category). The parameters of the social world in the American attempt at egalitarianism are set by some supposedly inflexible biological reality about human subtypes. In this respect the US has been, for better or worse, less audacious than Turkey in the democratic project of constructing citizens.

One problem with this sort of racially defined assimilationism is, obviously, that it groundlessly biologizes and essentializes the boundaries of social identity, and so guarantees that American society can never attain to real equality to the extent that the pseudoscientific myth of race continues to have a foothold. But another problem is that it constrains 'white' people to cognize their own social world in terms of a category that is not in fact rich enough to permit them to make sense of their own experiences.

What, after all, is a white person? Curiously, it would be difficult to imagine anyone less 'Caucasian' than a Caucasian. That is, few people conform less to the American stereotypes about white people than do the natives of the Caucasus. Compare, for example, a Chechen Muslim goatherd with, say, a third-generation Japanese American physician. The one has blue eyes and blond hair, but it would be extremely implausible to say that these phenotypic traits confer any advantage at all. Which of the two can move across borders without scrutiny? Which of the two can order things online with a credit card? But what, moreover, could white privilege be if not the sum of such small perks?

My take on the Tea Party movement is this: Tea Partiers are Americans who have been made to believe that they are 'white'; have been made to believe, furthermore, that this status carries with it some natural privilege; and who therefore wonder why, in spite of the fact that they are white, they have nonetheless been given the shaft.

I am a 'white' Californian whose ancestors migrated to the Golden State from elsewhere in the US in consequence of the Depression. On neither side are my ancestors 'Okies' in the strict sense, but rather Arkies and Minnesota Scandinavians. Still, odd-jobs and agriculture were what kept things going for them, and in this respect on both sides I trace my own heritage back to the people immortalized in Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath. I spent my childhood in the shadow of a now-closed Air Force Base outside Sacramento, surrounded by children of dustbowl migrants who, I've since learned, belonged to that special sub-type of the species I am attempting to describe known as 'Defense Okies'. Throughout the Central Valley of California –where, as I constantly have to explain to Europeans, no one surfs or sees movie stars– one can still spot restaurants with names like 'Po' Folks' that specialize in cornbread and okra (sometimes associated by false etymology with Oklahoma). In my childhood I ate countless meals, amidst obese couples dressed in matching overalls, at a buffet restaurant called 'Okie Frijole' which, perhaps showing a glimmer of hope for overcoming the 'racial' divide I've been describing as foundational, specialized in the fusion of Mexican and Okie fare.

Steinbeck thought the dustbowl migrants –to whom he also referred as 'harvest gypsies'– brought with them a distinctly American character that would justify their displacement of the peon laborers from the Philipines, China, Japan, and Mexico who had first worked the fields of the Central Valley, and that would bring about the absorption of the Far West into the sphere of social values first realized in the Jeffersonian yeomanry of the East Coast. Though Steinbeck was a defender of social justice and egalitarianism, his vision of the future of California was in effect that of a completion of manifest destiny.

Dust+bowl+ Some radical historians have offered a very different account. As Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz notes, the Okies making up the majority of California dustbowl migrants can ultimately trace their origins back to the Ulster Scots who served as the shock troops for the 17th-century colonization of Ireland. They were promised two things by the king: a plot of land, and guaranteed superiority to the permanent underclass of natives they would be displacing. Their eventual expansion into the Appalachians, the Ozarks, and the Great Plains was very much a continuation of this promise, which could only occasionally be kept.

By election I have gravitated towards a part of 'white' North America that is historically and spiritually (if I dare use that loaded term) far removed from the Okie experience. My new North America is mostly an extension of Central Europe; it is Jewish and to a lesser extent Catholic, urban, transnational, and perhaps with the exception of Chicago and Toronto it has barely crossed over the western boundaries of the original American colonies. It regularly commutes across the North Atlantic. It has deep and enduring ties to Old World culture; the Ulster Scots by contrast had a vital folk culture, but one that could easily be transformed into American folk culture, without any enduring awareness of its European roots. I am only gradually coming to realize the significance of these differences, and I attribute the long delay largely to the grip upon me in my earlier life of the myth that I was, generically and in a way that is not subject to further analysis, white. The only word left over for more fine-grained distinction is an insult, 'white trash', which in marking the category of 'trash' both implies that it is black by default, and implies that something has gone exceptionally wrong when white people end up trashy. (I note that if I myself have ever been heard using this term, it was as an appropriation, on the model of 'queer', rather than as an insult.)

Anyway with respect to self-understanding, stopping at 'white' failed, for me, to account for the lingering feeling of difference from other members of this umbrella category, not just from Chechen goatherds (who generally are not on the American radar), but also from the other 'white' people of North America with whom I would end up mingling. Racial self-understanding, in other words, suppresses the historical legacies that forge our orientations in the world. Until the 1960s (just before my era) one could still see 'No Okies' signs in stores and restaurants in the Central Valley. Okies had a way of speaking and a way of dressing that would pick them out as ethnic others just as surely as one might pick out a blond Chechen Muslim going through airport security. The Okies were an ethnic group, or an ethno-historical community with shared experiences and shared sources of meaning (embodied in material culture in the form of canned foods, orange cheese, Coors beer; in artistic culture as Bakersfield country; in spirituality as televangelism; in values as a love of independence and a suspicion of the federal government), and to deprive them of the ability to conceptualize themselves as such could not but deprive them of the ability to think about their plight in a lucid way.

It was bound, I mean, to lead them to stupid and reactionary political views, rooted most fundamentally in nativist resentment of non-'white' people both American and foreign, and in the valuing of self-sufficient plot-ownership (or, later, tract-house ownership) above community-based social welfare. The shift from ethno-historical community to 'race' occludes from view the various commonalities the dustbowl migrants might have with other ethno-historical communities, particularly African-American and Mexican agricultural laborers. An ethno-historical community can grasp that it has been shaped by the same forces that forged a neighboring community, whereas someone who thinks of himself in terms of 'race' could never grasp this, since races are conceived as essential and unchanging, and so as never having been historically forged at all. According to a very plausible strain of radical history, racial thinking in the United States has been aggressively imposed upon the self-understanding of disadvantaged communities precisely as a way of forestalling any possible recognition of common cause between these communities. In this respect, it seems reasonable to me to suggest that the Tea Party is a sort of revolutionary force manquée.

When I say I could have joined the Tea Party, I mean not just that had the circumstances of my life been somewhat different, and had I not been exposed by chance to enticing fragments of a culture beyond the Central Valley, I might have found the nativism, populism and libertarianism of the Tea Party demagogues attractive. I mean that there is an ethno-historical legacy, one that is no longer allowed to have a name, that continues to have a certain salience in the way I see the world. For the most part it's been trained out, and I give thanks every day for the later additions I've been able to make of elements from other cultures. But it's still there, and it would be nice if it could be spoken of, and not simply diverted into the myth of whiteness.

For an extensive archive of Justin Smith's writing, please go to www.jehsmith.com.

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