If ever there was a "teachable moment" about race in modern America, now is it. With the birthers and the reparations conspiracy theories and the Nazi imagery at health care meetings, someone's gotta explain why all these white folks are wilding out. We need an articulate, impassioned race man to clarify things. But not Al Sharpton; I say pass the mic to Jim Webb.
Remember way back when Webb, a Democratic senator from Virginia and the voice of Appalachia's neglected white yeoman, was sniffing around a veep nod? In the midst of that media moment, he hit on an idea we'd do well to dwell upon. "Black America and Scots-Irish America are like tortured siblings," Webb patiently explained to Pat Buchanan in a May 2008 Morning Joe appearance on MSNBC. "There's a saying in the Appalachian mountains. . . 'If you're poor and white, you're out of sight.'"
Webb went from there into a bizarre attack on all the nonwhite and nonblack people who he believes have hijacked affirmative action. But his core message is deeply relevant to today's tumult. Poor whites have always gotten screwed in America, Webb told us, and they're terribly angry about it. Whoever directs that rage harnesses a powerful political tool.
Which brings us to both the profiteering right-wing media and the aimless Republican Party stuck in its tail wind. Both have decided their survival in America's new multiracial reality depends upon a very old playbook: pursue narrow financial and political gain by exploiting the justified anxieties of working-class whites.
As a result, we all feel like we're living through a Saturday Night Live skit. Each day brings another twisted punch line. More than half of Republicans aren't convinced Obama's a citizen? Huh? Fox host Glenn Beck actually attracts viewers by proclaiming Obama has "a deep-seated hatred of whites"? Health reform as Holocaust? Really?
We've all got reason to avoid the uncomfortable truths King shoved in the nation's face. It's a lot easier for African Americans to pine for his leadership than it is to accept our own responsibility for creating the radicalized community he urged upon us. And it's more comfortable for white America to reduce King's goals to an idyllic meeting of little black boys and little white girls than it is to consider his analysis of how white supremacy keeps that from becoming reality.
Take, for instance, his point that segregation's purpose wasn't just to keep blacks out in the streets but to keep poor whites from taking to them and demanding economic justice. There's a concept that's not likely to come up in, say, the speech John McCain was rumored to be planning for today. "The Southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow," King lectured from the Alabama Capitol steps, following the 1965 march on Selma. "And when his wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than a black man."