For decades, people have used the phrase “playing the race card” to shut down conversations about our nation’s racial caste system.
What they likely didn’t realize was that the phrase offered a tacit admission that racial grievance, in many cases, had virtually no equal and virtually no response. There’s no trumping that card.
But in a testament to the resolve of those committed to protecting dominant-caste privilege, the “what about my right to oppress you?” crowd is trying. Upper-caste people with strangleholds on federal courts, the U.S. Supreme Court, and most state legislatures, are simply claiming what they’ve coveted — grievance. Let’s call it grievance envy.
Specifically, grievance envy involves upper-caste non-victims — or at least non-victims in the ways America has victimized Black people — asserting victim status for transgressions that, at best, qualify as annoyances or inconveniences.
Why attempt this? Simple. Political strategists have long advocated attacking your adversary’s perceived greatest strength.
Chase Billingham, associate professor of Sociology at Wichita State University, said it’s not unlike a cynical debate strategy, an “all lives matter” response to “Black Lives Matter.”
“Seeing the success of the civil rights movement and thinking, ‘How can I emulate that,’ ” Billingham said. “If I can adopt that posture, I could be successful.”
So, from the throngs descending on school board meetings decrying the need for emergency public safety measures during a pandemic, to the hysteria surrounding the possibility of students learning about the ugliest details of our racial past, absurd claims continue to surface.
At a recent Wichita discussion of a proposed non-discrimination ordinance, faith-based organizations intimated that provisions for protected classes might somehow diminish religious rights — as though rights were pizza. If you get more, I somehow, get less.
Conservative Christians remain one of this nation’s most powerful lobbies. These folks aren’t oppressed, and this behavior isn’t exactly Christian, either. James 3:16 says, “For where envying and strife is, there is confusion and every evil work.”
Imagine a life so comfortable, secure, and privileged that a request to wear a mask, or take a vaccine, or learn more about American history registers as an outrage.
Imagine also the emptiness of such protestations from the perspective of lower-caste Americans who’ve watched people like them killed for selling CDs, for selling loose cigarettes, or for passing a counterfeit bill.
After a bomb killed four little Black girls in their Birmingham, Ala., church in 1963, for example, the mother of one of the girls arrived to identify her child’s body. The mother recalled in Spike Lee’s documentary, “Four Little Girls,” that the white woman checking her in called her “gal.”
In her worst moment — any parent’s nightmare — the mother of a dead child couldn’t be extended any kindness outside caste system norms. Most Black Americans, thankfully, have not had to endure that same tragedy, but we are reminded often, as that mother was, of our lower-caste status.
Losing a well-run election, however, isn’t. That likely didn’t occur to those who defecated in the Capital on Jan. 6.
Do people abuse grievance? Yes.
Is this the only kind of grievance? Of course not.
This behavior, by the way, isn’t limited to upper-caste conservatives, either. Upper-caste progressives do this, too.
The so-called “woke” also declare standing where they have none, insinuating themselves into the culture war as advocates claiming grievance on behalf of others. Some even have the audacity to lecture Black people about racism.
What’s the answer? Justice. There’s no grievance without injustice. If we don’t start addressing our deep, daunting social issues, we will continue comparing atrocities and reducing real and painful grievances to a mere commodity. All this does is expand a culture of victimhood.
Consider this the next time you hear about the “war on Christmas,” or see someone in a $60,000 pickup sporting a Gadsen “don’t tread on me” flag, or when someone brings up the horrors of a previous presidential administration trying to extend health care to more Americans.
Remind them that grievance envy is having its moment, but it isn’t cute, or chic, or moral.
It is lying, it is appropriation, and while it is not a card game, we’re all certainly losing because of it.
This commentary by Mark McCormick, former executive director of The Kansas African American Museum, is published through a Creative Commons license.