Whitelash: A Hindrance Towards A Perfect Union

Mhambi Musonda
9 min readMar 6, 2023

White Backlash has been a constant impediment to America’s slow embrace of pluralistic multiculturalism.

As Black History Month concluded, I cogitated intensely on Black Resistance and its White Backlash. The Association for the Study of African American Life and History, founded by Dr. Carter G. Woodson, the leading organizer behind what is today known as Black History Month, declared that the theme of Black History Month in 2023 is “Black Resistance.”

ASALH notes that “African Americans have resisted historic and ongoing oppression, in all forms, especially the racial terrorism of lynching, racial pogroms, and police killings since our arrival upon these shores.” In explaining why it chose “Black Resistance” as the 2023 theme, ASALH writes, “as societal and political forces escalate to limit the access to and exercise of the ballot, eliminate the teaching of Black history, and work to push us back into the 1890s, we can only rely on our capacity to resist.”

I would define Black Resistance as an intentional act of defying systemic oppression in whatever form it rears itself. Understanding America’s lapidarian journey involves Black Resistance. We find black Resistance in the gallantry of Nat Turner, who led a slave rebellion against the oppressive class. We find Black Resistance in David Walker’s “Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World.” In it, Walker exposes the pharisaism of America—a country that espouses the ideals and values of justice and Christianity, yet by the time Walker published the booklet in 1829, the slave population in America was more than two million.

The Appeal was of such consequence in the South that whites seized with affright passed laws that forbade Blacks to learn how to read and prohibited the distribution of anti-Slavery literature. (Sound familiar?)

We find acts of Black Resistance in the founding of Black publications that sought to educate the Black community on the issues of their time. Freedom’s Journal, The People’s Advocate, The National Era, The North Star, The Douglass Monthly, The Chicago Defender, Baltimore Afro-American, Ebony, Jet, The Root, Essence, The New York Amsterdam News, and The Washington Afro-American. We find Black Resistance in the security of our faith. The Black Church has been the locus point of Black Resistance—offering a place of refuge against the daily attacks of oppression, a place of strategy during the struggle for justice, and the church has become a place of political activism. Where political candidates of all political parties flock to gauge the temperature of one of the most powerful voting blocs in the country. Black Resistance is everywhere.

It ranges from the lyrical prose of bell hooks, Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, and Langston Hughes, to the funk of George Clinton, the New Jack Swing of Teddy Riley that defined an entire generation. Babyface, Puff Daddy, Dr. Dre Jermaine Dupri, LA Reid, Jimmy Jam, and Terry Lewis are some of the producing geniuses of Black Resistance. Black Resistance is the musical brilliance of Michael Jackson. Hip Hop & Rap shows the trials of Black life in urban America. We find black Resistance in the eloquence of Frederick, Malcolm, Martin, and Barack. We find Black Resistance in the bravery of Harriet and Marcus.

There is Black Resistance in the halls of academia—Dubois, Delaney, Cruse, Crenshaw, Carr, DeGruy, Gordon-Reed, Henry Louis-Gates, Michael Eric Dyson, Mary Frances Berry, among other countless Black scholars that have intellectually contributed to Black America. Black Resistance is on the campuses of Howard and Hampton, Morehouse, and Spelman. On the burning sands and teeming shores of Alpha Phi Alpha, Alpha Kappa Alpha, and the Divine Nine. Black Resistance is uniquely American.

It offers us insight into how far we have come and how far we need to go until we achieve the goal of creating, in the words of John Lewis and Dr. King, a “beloved community.” Achieving the promise of a “beloved community” requires a nation to finally reckon with its ignominious past. We transiently began that work in 2020 and 2021, after a once-in-a-century pandemic exposed the institutional fault lines of our system of governance and the state-sanctioned murder of George Floyd, at the hands of a Minneapolis police department animated the largest acts of mass demonstrations worldwide since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s, and 1960s. Many observers, including me, thought that America was on the verge of a “third reconstruction.”

Perhaps, this time, we could get right. Reckon with our past, atone for our sins, and begin the work of becoming the multiracial democracy America was meant to be, at least from 1964 to 1965. At the time, I was optimistic—White Americans began to engage in contemplative discussions about their privileges, and societal institutions began deliberate reforms at trying to correct systemic oppression within their institutions. It seemed uniform that Americans were in unanimity—America is systematically racist. Now let us all, Americans from all backgrounds, work together to find solutions.

In addition, with Joe Biden elected as the 46th President of the United States in November 2020 with promises to reshape the role of government in America, it seemed to the outward progressive observer that America was poised to enter a period of progressivism not seen since the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson. Much to my dismay, that did not happen.

Six days into January 2021, a mob of domestic terrorists egged on by Donald Trump and his band of confederates, and a proto-fascist Republican Party stormed the Capitol—why? They believed that the 2020 presidential election was “stolen” and that Joe Biden was the winner, therefore an illegitimate usurper of the presidency. The white grievance on display was palpable—the noose and gallows, The White power hand gestures, white nationalists and Holocaust deniers dressed in militaristic attire, Confederate Flag in the halls of the temple of American democracy. If you have read the book “FantasyLand” by Kurt Andersen, you quickly glean that much of American history is viewed through the prisms of mythology. “The Big Lie” is an extension of another American mythology — “The Lost Cause.”

During the late 19th century, the myth of Lost Cause grew. It was an attempt to cast the men who went to war in support of the Confederacy as “honorable.” Notwithstanding, those same men went to war in support of an antidemocratic nation-state whose very existence and economic vitality depended on the bondage of people of African origin.

In the months, and now a year since January 6th, 2021, those on the political right, from lawmakers to media personalities to shock jocks, and ordinary Americans have sought to portray the terrorists that defiled the seat of the American government as “true, law-abiding Americans.’ The Republican National Committee characterized the events of January 6th as “legitimate political discourse.” This whitewashing—this racial backlash is typical of our nation’s inability to atone for our transgressions and is indicative of a large, vocal minority of white conservatives who, for a multitude of reasons, fear a multiracial, progressive democracy. Racial backlash is not new–in fact, we expect it every time our country makes a step toward becoming a more perfect union—right-wing reactionaries seek to pull us back.

What was the reaction of nearly 50 years of the progressivism of the Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, and Carter administrations? 40+ years of Reaganomics, the murder of the middle class, the fallacy of supply-side economics, the “War on Drugs”, and the explosion of wealth furthering the divide between social classes. And that was just the 1980s. Enter the 1990s, Bill Clinton, a once-in-a-generation political talent, is elected President in 1992. Ending twelve years of Republican dominance in the Executive Branch. What was the reaction to Clinton’s election? The culture wars — Republicans began tapping in more overtly to white grievances and descending further into a prism of anti-intellectualism.

What was the reaction to Clinton’s presidency? Eight years of Bush and Chaney, and increasing social, political, educational, economic, and racial divides. Two wars, a tax cut and a Great Recession later, America, ready to clamor for change, elected an unknown Senator from Illinois named Barack Obama, who spoke of hope. To some naïve white progressives, Obama’s election marked the onset of a “post-racial era” in American society—whatever that meant. The Obama years were full of advancement, transformative achievements, dashed ambitions—and of course, white grievances. The Tea Party is a perfect example of such grievance.

Masked under the guise of “economic anxiety,” The Tea Party oozed racial resentment—that a Black man with educational degrees from Columbia and Harvard could be elevated to the highest political office in the country did not set well with some white conservatives.

Right-wing reactionaries attempted to disaffirm any racial resentments with the mission of the Tea Party, which was to fight against the policies of the Obama administration, that many of those same participants benefited. The racial resentment towards President Barack Obama was personified in Donald Trump who began his fast track to the presidency by spreading the falsity that Obama, the first Black president was not born in Hawaii (which he was.) but rather born in Kenya and was secretly a Muslim. A theory that at the time 51% of GOP voters believed. Trump’s presidency was a repudiation of the Obama presidency and the progressive values it governed on. Trump’s racism was overt, from calling immigrants from African countries and Hati, “shithole countries.”

White backlash at the core of American politics — we are seeing that backlash in the conservative campaign to erase Black history and efforts to make our nation equitable and tolerant. In 2021, conservative activist Chris Rufo waged war on Critical Race Theory — a legal theory originated by Derrick Bell, the late American lawyer and Black intellectual, and Kimberlé Crenshaw. The premise behind Critical Race Theory is not complex.

Critical Race Theory argues that racism is more than individual prejudice; it is ingrained in our societal institutions, structures, and policies—which unfortunately it is. Critical race theory holds a mirror up to America and forces us to engage in an uncomfortable dialogue on how racism has shaped every facet of American life and the steps we can and must take to repent of our original sin and turn America into the beacon of justice it was always meant to be. Contrary to what Chris Rufo, Gov. Ron DeSantis, Moms for Liberty, and scores of reactionary right-wingers might believe, CRT’s aim is to offer an unvarnished account of our nation’s history—good, bad, and ugly.

The whitewashing of Black history by Republicans and their increasing attacks on multiculturalism is rooted in white fear. In twenty years, for the first time in American history, white people will not make up the majority of this country. Instead, this country will reflect the ongoing post-1965 multicultural democracy we are currently living in. Such change scares people, particularly conservative White Americans, who fear “losing power.”

One of the many reasons Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016 was because of white fear. Numerous recall media reports, think-tank studies, and books were written on why Trump won the “rust-belt” states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio. Some of it is attributed to years of government neglect — some of it is also attributed to decades of racial resentment.

Republicans, aided by their allies in the media have for decades successfully played “the race card,” employing racial fear as a device to win over aggrieved white voters. Whether it was Nixon’s “southern strategy,” or Reagan calling Black women “welfare queens. Republicans have long used Black and Hispanic Americans as scapegoats to spread their racial hysteria, scaring white voters, and thus winning elections.

So, this new effort by Republicans to whitewash and eliminate elements of Black history is not new. Dishearting, yes—surprising—no. After all, it is consistent with our country’s attitude toward learning and embracing our nation’s ongoing abysmal treatment of Black Americans and other minority groups. The notion that history should not cause children “discomfort” is nonsensical.

Professor Timothy Synder of Yale University pointed out that “History is not therapy.” An effective education often and should cause discomfort. Discomfort provokes conversations, and conversations provoke changes within our society. For Americans to deny our country’s systemic racism is to deny the very idea of America.

I believe that two things can be true: we are the greatest ongoing democratic experiment in the world and we are a systematically racist nation. If more of my fellow Americans can acknowledge that fact and cast aside their biases, perhaps we as a nation can lay the foundation for truth and reconciliation. A great nation does not hide its history. The good and the bad— but a great nation tells its unvarnished history and seeks to learn from it. That is how I view American exceptionalism.

America is great not only because of our founding precepts, but because we come from varied ethnic and cultural backgrounds that make up this beautiful mosaic called the United States of America. America is great because we have strived, despite the efforts of a vocal right-wing minority to live up to the ideals Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence on that summer day in 1776. We are great because like South Africa and Germany we acknowledge our sins and in the name of truth and reconciliation march towards becoming a “more perfect union.”

Come, my fellow Americans let us reason together at the table of reconciliation in the house of Justice.

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