White Flight

My mother was a tea-partier in spirit, though not in fact. By the time America’s newest political vehicle for put-upon Caucasians made its debut on Fox News on Tax Day 2009, she was far too advanced in years to hit the streets threatening secession. It wasn’t her style anyway. Like many Americans, my mother preferred to study and critique current events from the comforts of a well-worn sofa. The observations she gleaned from that post, as wars and soap operas and civil rights movements and political scandals unfolded on a series of television sets in our working-class North Carolina home, gave me some purchase on the tea-party mindset—on the always-fervent, always-frustrated desire to halt history in its tracks and then start nudging it backward.

I thought about this after my mother died from old-age disease, just hours shy of April Fools Day and less than a week before the 42nd anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s martyrdom in Memphis. I was only 4 when King was gunned down, so it’s not surprising that I have no vivid memories of the event or its aftermath. But even if I’d been 14 or 24, I wouldn’t have seen it at home. “Yuck! Turn off that filth!” my mother would have said, as she did whenever hippies, gay activists, Jesse Jackson, Cesar Chavez, Gloria Steinem or Soap threatened to leap through the TV screen and infect our good white Methodist home with their messages of change and chaos.

When I was in the 8th grade, I learned while watching a film of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech that I had been born on the day he delivered it. When I mentioned this interesting coincidence to my mother, she sighed. Yes, it was true, she said, “And I was so glad you spared me having to watch it.”

My mother’s reflexive aversion toward the non-white, the non-straight and the non-traditional made no sense to me. It took many years and thousands of ferocious arguments to finally see that the root of it all was fear—the same fear you can detect behind the ferocious glares of many a tea-partier. For folks like my mother, being white and “respectable” remained a primary source of self-esteem. The idea that being a white woman in America who had raised four healthy children didn’t entitle you to a superior status was unfathomable to my mother. The “coloreds” and queers and feminists were not “filth” because of who they were or what they wanted; they were filth because they aimed to knock my mother off her pedestal. And it happened to be the only pedestal she thought she had.

Nostalgia fueled the fear. My mother had that dreamy Southern malady of longing for things to be the swell way they once were—or the way she imagined they were. You know, back when everyone was a church-going Christian. Back when nobody had a nasty mouth or smoked marijuana. Back when blacks “knew their place” and Latinos were charming novelties. When women were women and men were men and gays had not been invented.

Like my mother on her sofa, tea-partiers want nothing more than to seize the nation’s collective remote control and make the last 80 years or so fade to black. (In some cases, of course, nothing less than 180 years would do.) The persistence of this longing for an America that never existed is, of course, one reason the Republicans, both nationally and in Texas, are banking on winning in November by simply saying “No.” Barack Obama’s victory in 2008 was the closest thing to a pure national “yes” we’ve seen in a long time. The backlash naturally whips back to an emphatic “no,” a mass yearning to change the channel and get back to a fictive normality.

Like most of the tea-party people I’ve met in Texas, my mother had a lot of good in her. But when faced with threats to her fragile sense of unearned superiority, her finer qualities left the building. My mother died in her mid-80s, though. The thought that so many millions of Americans from later generations are still dedicated to the hopeless quest of reasserting the old white ways is mighty depressing. Maybe I had somehow imagined that Gone With the Wind­-style white Southern screwiness would expire along with my mother. But American backwardness is apparently too hardy a strain to die. We will just have to keep arguing with it.

Published at 4:56 pm CST