12th April 2022
10 minutes read
White Price Comfort
12th April 2022
10 minutes read
I was reading Thomas Lynch’s The Undertaking recently. It’s a good book. First published in 1997, it came out at a time when, let’s be honest, most white Americans—like me—thought “race relations” were in a better place than most white Americans think they are now. Americans of color were, as ever, not fooled. They also understood that the very concept “race relations” was a white-engineered canard—that whole way of framing white supremacism’s ongoing distortion of American life.
Superficially, The Undertaking has nothing to do with race—which is to say, it rests on the unspoken whiteness of those who appear in it. I found the paperback in a Little Free Library in Boston—one of those Beatrix Potter dream houses (you can picture a small hedgehog living inside) held aloft by a fencepost, trying hard to keep its offerings dry. I was in the middle of a move, and the throwback quality of Lynch’s prose, and of the book’s portrait of America, soothed my anxieties. “When . . . [the children] were in bed and the house was ahum with its appliances, washer and dryer and dishwasher and stereo, I’d pour myself a tumbler of Irish whiskey, sit in a wingback chair and smoke and drink. . . .” The warm tones were reassuring.
Many white Americans, in 1997, would have said that racism was no longer a living, moment-to-moment reality in the United States. A year earlier, on the campaign trail for her husband, Hillary Clinton had referred in a speech to young gang members targeted by the 1994 crime bill. “They are not just gangs of kids anymore,” the speech went.
“They are often the kinds of kids that are called superpredators. No conscience, no empathy.
We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel.” And even as she made these claims, it was easy for white Americans—possibly even Clinton herself—to hear tolerance and moderation. They could believe, first of all, that a dangerous change had really come. Communities of color knew there was as much humanity and love in their younger generations as ever—and as much inhumanity and scapegoating being directed against them. But with few connections to those communities, white Americans—like me—could believe anything. It was easier still to preserve a quasi-innocent vantage. We could stay with the surface of Clinton’s words, in something like the negative of dog-whistle politics: she had said nothing about race because she hadn’t mentioned it.
The children in question—incarcerated in horrific numbers because of the new strictures and imbalances in that bill—were overwhelmingly Black and brown. But such was our white innocence—and in many respects, such it remains—that we could hear her words and know their meaning and deny that meaning at the same time.
So back to Thomas Lynch and my reading of The Undertaking.
It’s no slight to a small-town Michigan undertaker of that era—not in my telling of this, anyway—that his book fails to reflect the realities of race in America. But it should be said that the omission encapsulates the history of whites here.
All of this was very far from my mind as I read.
Then on page 104 came this sentence: “There is the general sense that the lives we lead here [in Milford, Michigan] are busy with the neighborly business of making what twenty years from now we intend to call the Good Old Days.”
In that moment, my complicity in something destructive became sharply clear.
The soothing power I’d felt was a kind of nostalgia, a version of “America great again.” And it was furthering the work of oppression.
What’s hardest to convey about this might become clear if I make the case more extreme, and then repeat that last thought. If the town in question, an American town, had not a single person of color in it, and the inhabitants stayed within the town’s limits their entire lives, shopping and working, not raising a hand to anyone, still then, their contentment would be structurally racist, and to the same degree.
Lynch is no more to blame than I am. Which is not to say we are not to blame—just that we share the burden collectively.
He writes, “Five thousand people live in town and ten thousand in the surrounding township. They occupy their cozy homes, shop locally, support their police and volunteer fire departments, and enjoy the usual parades down Main.” He intentionally, and temporarily, invokes a version of Mayberry, only to complicate it with tales of murder. But that first, appreciative glance arrests me. Implicates me. Its nature—and, to me, the familiarity of it.
I grew up in those “good old days.”
In small-town America, moreover: Hummelstown, Pennsylvania, which I adore. We had the Fuzzy Few Carnival, the Dillsburg Fair not too far away, the Antique Auto Show in Hershey. We had the auctions at Dutch Village and Root’s in nearby Manheim. Black people were more than welcome. Everyone could have told you that, and most of them would have meant it. A Black family could walk through any of those grounds without arousing more than a few over-enthusiastic hellos and, to the shame of many of the other white bystanders, an occasional mumbled imprecation. What if a young Black man had walked through alone? I don’t know. I don’t remember seeing that. But the point is, most everyone in those all-white spaces would have proudly and honestly said that they didn’t give one goddamn if a Black person wanted to come and open their wallet along with everyone else—their money was green too. This was said slightly aggressively, but the main note was innocence.
As a white person in small-town Central PA, I had little reason to experience that epoch as anything but, as Lynch has it, the Good Old Days in the making. Up to then, I had little personal or—given school curricula that treated slavery as an ancient bygone and stopped well before the Civil Rights Era—educational experience of any other America. And that, too, is part of the point.
But it takes willful innocence to look back without seeing a split screen: on one side, how other Americans were living then, what they were experiencing, and on the other side, not simply the Fuzzy Few Carnival with its roulette wheel run by the volunteer fire department, the dunk tank where we often knew the person we were pitching to dunk, but the racial enclave our world was (and in many respects still is)—created, by arms and mob and law, to establish a space in which I and the white Americans I grew up with, most of them middle class, some lower middle class, could believe that no one was unwelcome (except by a few “racists,” which meant those who uttered the N-word) and—here’s the main thing—that our situation was natural. The homogeneity around us, in that valley where we assumed few Black people had ever wanted or tried to settle, was simply the way things were. A few thousand acres of America’s greatness.
No one excluded.
And all of our problems, and “their” problems too, matters of health, money (including “luck” and “good fortune”), and individual behavior.
“Make America Great Again.” Trump’s slogan means nothing more or less than this.
A few weeks ago, my partner hosted a reading by student writers. One of them, Ning Sullivan, was an American immigrant from China whose protagonist liked to set up restrictions for herself, to limit the routes forward. She practiced not just the Ikebana art of flower arranging, but an early version known as Ikenobo, with its very precise expectations. We rarely get close enough to others to understand their most habitual choices, but—this is one of the beauties and intimacies of fiction—a narration can dissolve those barriers. The woman’s parents had raised her to expect and desire rules. To believe in them. And then she left for the United States. “What surprised her was that with the freedom came choices. She became more and more indecisive, and anxiety followed.”
For whites in this country, it’s easy to practically define Americans as people raised to love and expect freedom (I’d add, “without much awareness of its meaning and needful limitations,” but that’s another conversation). The American in the story had an irreducible reason to feel differently. Her experience was typical, part of the mesh of this country from the start: displacement and imposition, not belonging and insisting on belonging, constructing systems to get by. It is white Americans, not inevitably, who made those systems exclusionary and deadly, in order to establish safe zones—the whole geography of the country if possible—where, to those born within, the established, imposed culture could feel as natural as air.
Reading The Undertaking—being soothed by Lynch’s landscapes and prose, and then reaching that phrase “the Good Old Days”—was a reminder of how much the old innocence remains with me and other white Americans even where we clenchingly don’t want it. Even and sometimes especially where we work against it, because light on the surface can fool us about the depths.
I’ll tell this final bit by analogy. I grew up in a Rockefeller Republican household, with parents who were then fiscally conservative and socially moderate. In the years after I left college, it became clear I didn’t hold those beliefs anymore—I’d migrated to liberalism, the old enemy.
That happened thirty years ago, yet still I find myself needing, sometimes, to reframe the public figures and events of my childhood, to recognize where my sympathies lie, to revise leftover impressions of good and bad.
In first grade, my classmates and I chanted in the lunch line: “Nixon, Nixon, he’s our man, put McGovern in the can”—and to this day I can hardly remove the taint from the sound of McGovern in my ear, though he and Mondale and the others we scorned in the seventies were giants of decency. Just a few years ago, I learned enough about the Alger Hiss trial, which took place nearly two decades before my birth, to flip the perspective I’d been raised with, and to understand that Whitaker Chambers was not the hero Reagan had made him out to be.
Our first impressions, the postulates of our youth, get built in to the shape of our consciousness and do not change lightly. We can learn to live well, with increasing awareness. We can overcome our loudest bigotries. But we cannot smooth out the warp of having been raised blind.
This is the meaning of just one of the racisms that will take generations to wipe away. Insistence on the truth of it, the reality of a systemic racism in American society, is not meant to offend anyone. It’s meant to change the world.
William PierceMore about the author