By Lee A. Daniels
One can be forgiven for thinking the contest for the most outrageous, publicly-exposed racist behavior of recent weeks was between Cliven Bundy, the chiseling Nevada rancher, and Donald Sterling, the despicable billionaire owner of the Los Angeles Clippers.
As New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow wrote recently of Sterling’s now-famous taped rant, both men’s words offer “a rare and vivid exposition of the historical themes and loopy logic of the racist mind: possessed of derangement, detached from reason, bereft of morality.” Further, Blow’s column is a must-read for its sharp-eyed analysis that the race-driven pathology of both Sterling and his mistress, V. Stiviano, provides “a disturbing peek at the intersection of racism, misogyny and privilege.
In one sense, that tips the scale between the two toward Sterling. He’s so deeply mired in the psychosexual muck of the slave-master mentality—of being attracted to a woman of African American and Mexican-American parentage while deluding himself that he’s dominating black men because he’s so personally powerful and attractive.
However, the top prize in this particular pathetic contest belongs to the reportedly nearly 1,000 men and women who trekked to Bundy’s ranch to be his “militia” in the stand-off he and they manufactured against agents of the federal Bureau of Land Management who had come to end Bundy’s cheating the federal government out of the $1 million.
There were these self-described American patriots, with rifles, pistols, revolvers and AK-47s in hand, declaring themselves ready to “protect” a man who had repeatedly said he doesn’t recognize the authority of the federal government. There were these so-called patriots prepared to shoot to kill officers of the United States of America. There were these men and women, so wrapped up in their delusional, mashed-up Hollywood western, “Rambo” and “Dirty Harry” fantasies, clutching their weaponry as if they’d be naked without them, itching for their personal apocalypse.
Tim Egan, an op-ed columnist for the New York Times, got it right when, before Bundy’s racist rant, he called this motley crew, “the thugs in the desert.” He wrote, “This phony event brought out the worst of the gun-waving far right, and the national politicians who are barely one degree of separation from them.… If you changed that picture to Black Panthers surrounding a lawful eviction in the inner city, do you think right-wing media would be there cheering the outlaws?”
Egan’s point underscores, as with so many of the forces roiling American society today, how deeply racism motivates white conservatives’ criticism of President Obama and opposition to federal policies. It’s laced through and through the “angry white man” dynamic that pushes so much of the politics of the Tea Party and the Republican Party now—an “aggrieved entitlement” scholar Michael Kimmel calls it in his 2013 book, Angry White Men: American Masculinity and the End of an Era.
The anger of these men and women at having lost their “place” in society has numerous causes and targets. But, chief among them is the “threat” they feel from the advancement of people of color, especially blacks. That’s clearly the source of the –what else can one say?–anguish strikingly evident in Donald Sterling’s taped comments at having to acknowledge that black men exist on their own without his permission.
But, Egan’s accurate assessment of the Bundy mob also recalls another moment a half-century ago, when a similar band of “armed thugs” gathered to mount an insurrection against the federal government’s enforcing the law. That was the firefight more than 2,000 violent white extremists staged the night of Sept. 30, 1962 at Oxford, Miss. to try to kill James Meredith and the small force of federal marshals guarding him as he prepared to make good on his enrollment in the University of Mississippi.
The insurrection—the most violent action against the federal government since the Civil War—lasted all night. Two civilians were killed and 160 federal marshals were wounded. Meredith and the federal officers were saved only when President Kennedy ordered a small unit of the Mississippi National Guard and paratroopers from the U.S. Army 101st Airborne Division to occupy the campus.
What would have happened at the Bundy ranch if federal officials had not kept their cool and let the armed thugs goad them into a gun battle? The Oxford insurrection—and the entire history of the South’s Jim Crow regime—illustrates what happens when so-called respectable conservatives let the “armed thugs” faction of White America into their tent. When is today’s conservative movement going to accept that lesson?
Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City. His latest book is Last Chance: The Political Threat to Black America.