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Popularity, Privilege, and the White Populists Who Populate the Airwaves

by David Leonard, ColorLines - vol. 7, no. 3
After the sixth book arrived in the mail, I realized something might
be going on here. Stupid White Men; Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot, Does
Anyone Have a Problem With That: The Best of Politically Incorrect;
Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the
Right; When You Ride Alone You Ride With Bin Laden: What the Government
Should Be Telling Us to Help Fight the War on Terrorism; Dude, Where's
My Country? Turn on the TV, and there's Jon Stewart sneering at Trent
Lott, Strom Thurmond or the bigoted Republican Party. Listen to the
radio, and there's Al Franken talking about the racist plot to
disenfranchise black voters during the 2000 election. Liberal pundits,
while not as ubiquitous as conservative talk radio and TV warriors,
nevertheless seem to be coming out of the woodwork these days.

In addition to excoriating the Christian right, the gun lobby, and evil
corporations in general, these liberal pop-culture icons-in-the-making
also talk about race on occasion.

In his corporate speeches, Al Franken likes to offer the following
commentary on U.S. racism: "Looking at your faces today, I can see that
this group hasn't caved in to that whole affirmative action nonsense.
Look around, see all the white faces and laugh. "

Bill Maher, who has a new HBO show "Real Time With Bill Maher" since
the canning of his "Politically Incorrect" post-Sept. 11, made this remark
during a March 2004 segment: "Nothing gets white people to the polls
like fear. In fact, the right wing is so fired up about Jews and gays and
the potty mouth, they've almost forgotten who the real enemy is —brown

Like the white populist movements of olden days, the new white
populists of today claim allegiance with people of color and supposedly represent
a solidarity of common white folk and communities of color against the

But the history of white populism is a story of overlapping goals and
class politics; however, it is equally a story of sustained racism, of
pimping people of color in the name of working class power and thereby
erasing the privilege and power bestowed upon white workers because of
their skin color.

Historians have long cited the white populist revolt of the late
nineteenth century that brought Southern white and black sharecroppers
together as a powerful cross-racial movement. Throughout the South,
white sharecroppers joined together to form the Farmers Alliance during the
1880s. Unwilling to admit blacks, they helped form the Black Farmers
Alliance, which existed as an appendage with little power or autonomy.
A number of candidates supported by the Farmers Alliance found their way
into legislatures on the backs of black voters, only to later support
anti-black bills.

The history of white populism (including the abolitionist movement and
the progressive movement of the 1920s) is a story of claimed working class
solidarity against the common enemy of the white elite. Yet these same
white populists supported legislation that denied a minimum wage or
labor protection to agricultural and domestic workers (mainly people of
color) as part of the New Deal.

Recent coalitions have found similar problems—white support for the
civil rights movement during Freedom Summer or the 1960s coalitions between
the Weathermen and leftist organizations of color often replicated unequal
power relations and sanction of white privilege. Moreover, many white
activists from the 1960s, such as Todd Gitlin, Tom Hayden and Jane
Fonda, have gone on to illustrious careers, while people of color like Leonard
Peltier, Fred Hampton and Tommie Smith faced less fortunate futures.

Whether as a "giddy multitude" (a term used to describe black and white
indentured servants of the 1700s) rising up against landowners
exploiting indentured servants, or communities joining together against the
outsourcing of jobs, social scientists often celebrate white populist
movements without a discussion of racism, privilege and goals.

While conservatives have denigrated Moore, Franken and others in their
milieu for unfairly exploiting racial divisions (as part of their
un-American plot to "slander" Republicans like George Bush), their
actual willingness to engage in a discussion of racism is more illusion than
fact. Race and racism represent an afterthought, or at best, another
tool for taking on "lying liars" of corporate America—but not to deal with
the entrenched inequities that divide along racial lines.


Whereas race in the popular imagination is often seen as an issue of
the South and of backwards rednecks, the new white populists offer a
slightly different vision of contemporary American racism. Bill Maher, during an
episode of "Politically Incorrect" aired October 29, 1993, responded to
the decision of the Library of Congress to pull Birth of a Nation
because of its sympathetic portrayal of the Klu Klux Klan with the following
"The film industry in Mississippi said it was a shame that there were
no longer any good roles being written for Klansmen." In Stupid White Men,
Moore has a chapter on "Killing Whitey" in which he interrogates modern
manifestations of racism (only against blacks) as well as the
participation of average white citizens in systems of inequality. Al
Franken in Lies and the Lying Liars refers to Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter
and the rest of the reactionary crew as "Klansmen."

Franken, like Moore, Maher and Stewart, displays a tendency to only
linkracism with the easy target of the Klan, or the likes of Bush,
Limbaugh, Thurmond and Lott, as well as a host of corporations that exploit
people of color. Whether as a problem of the South, of poor (and stupid)
whites, Republican elites or rabid right-wingers, the new white populist sees
racism not as an American problem, but an issue of the powerful Other.

And that's a major mistake— to see racism not as a central element of
U.S. society, but only a ploy of the establishment to maintain power. What
they miss is colorblind racism, which promotes institutionally racist
results under the guise of legal equality. So while Pete Wilson is condemned as
a racist because of his support for the "three strikes law," similar
critique is never directed at Gray Davis for prison construction or
Bill Clinton for welfare reform.

New white populism finds little power in condemning racism among its
own cultural elite. When comedienne Sarah stirred a whirlwind of
controversy in 2000 by saying the word "chink" in her act, Bill Maher rescued her
from the firestorm during an episode of "Politically Incorrect": "I've
always loved Asian Americans. I would say Sarah does, too. And I think when it
comes to First Amendment rights and comedians and making jokes and
being able to have free speech, you know, I'm sorry, that's going to be
number 1 with me."

Beyond their tendency to locate racism elsewhere, new white populists
have also espoused colorblind ideologies and goals and blamed people of
color for racial problems. Michael Moore calls upon whites to marry blacks as
"a way to help create a colorblind world," and Bill Maher laments how "we
have all lost sight of the goal of Martin Luther King." The realities
of twenty-first century racism, and the importance of race as a source of
identity and communal formation, raise issue with the possibility or
desirability of a colorblind society. Despite claims of both the right
and the left, King never called for a society where color was invisible,
but where color did not determine political, social, cultural and economic
opportunities. Maher especially ignores power relations and history,
citing the ways in which immigrants "stay in their insular
communities," while "minority college students are asking to live apart in separate

Finally, the limitation of these commentators of the "left" shows
itself in their tendency to talk about issues, ideologies and material reality
in isolated terms. Poverty is poverty; racism is racism; and worse, war is
war. There is no recognition that the ways people of color are affected
by poverty and war are intertwined and, indeed, distinct because of

References to Halliburton, oil, occupation and America's elite are
ubiquitous in the current debate over Iraq. However, there is no
discussion of white supremacy as it relates to America's war efforts in
the history of Manifest Destiny, White Man's Burden, or colonization.


As Michael Moore becomes a hero with the release of Fahrenheit 9/11,
his track record on race has been obscured. In Bowling for Columbine, Moore
uses the school shooting as a launching pad to discuss gun violence in
America and erases not only racism, but also people of color (only four
appear in the film). Although the film makes passing references to the
racialized dimensions of American fear and the criminalization of
blackness (populists know little of Latinos, Asians, Native Americans,
or Arabs), there is no sustained examination of white supremacy within the
United States. Racism exists within a narrow construct of politicians
who secure elections through fear of black criminals, or gun manufacturers
who reap profits from such an environment. Moreover, Moore misses several
opportunities in the film to explore institutional racism as it relates
to American violence.

" When talking about violence and fear, the two of us immediately think
deportations, detentions, police brutality, sexual assault, racial
profiling, the prison industrial complex," wrote Philadelphia activists
Priyanka Jindal and Walidah Imanisha in an open letter to Moore. "If
you are talking about violence in America, how can you not mention the
names of Amadou Diallo and Abner Louima, two black victims of police

In their surface attempts to address issues of racism, Moore and his
populist kin actually do more to silence than empower communities of
color. None of the four people of color in <I>Bowling for Columbine<I>
are given opportunities to speak on racism, other than as "man on the
street" interviews or as victims. Where are the experts on the relationship
between gun violence and racism, on racial profiling, police brutality,
or prison abuses? Are Barry Glassner and Marilyn Manson sufficient?


The importance of white privilege transcends its absence from
post-civil rights white populism. White privilege, as Peggy McIntosh notes, "is
like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps,
passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks." While there is
surely a failure to recognize the ways whiteness embodies a wage cashed every
day, whiteness explains both the presence and popularity of the new
white populist. Moore, Franken and Maher laudably target the privilege
reflected by Bush's legacy admissions at Yale or job preferences for those with
"white-sounding names," but they are blind to the privileges bestowed
by their own status as white men.

The willingness that corporate America shows in providing airtime and
publication deals (Time Warner, Random House) reflects the value placed
upon their analysis. In spite of their propensity to engage in the
"politically incorrect," each of these white populists is given
numerous public platforms, while paid handsomely for their work. The
availability of a variety of media, from television and movies to radio and
publishing, cannot be understood outside of white privilege. Though Michael Moore
has many critics, none have called him a terrorist for his broadsides
against the U.S. government. Nor does Bill Maher or Al Franken need to worry
about opponents accusing them of "playing the race card" for supporting Kobe
Bryant or affirmative action.

The absence of comparative critics of color with an equally sizable
platform is a testament to the power of white privilege within popular
culture. Embracing identities as victims of corporate media censorship
emphasizing their working class roots, white populists fail to identify
whiteness in its power and instead grasp at a kinship between liberals,
people of color and the poor. In doing so, the white populist once
eschews racism as a problem inhabited elsewhere. This is no more
than with Michael Moore, who habitually references conservative
and his working class identity, all the while ignoring his own
as a great advantage. Like a fish that does not notice the water it's
Moore and the others swim in white privilege but cannot see it.

The invisibility of white privilege goes even further with the
inscription of white men as victims. Whether through debates about
affirmative action or discussions of pop culture stereotypes, popular
discourses systematically depict white males as the victims of a newly
sensitive, racialized America. The new white populists deploy similar
frames of victimhood. Bill Maher's countless references to being fired
his politics, Michael Moore's loud denunciations of censorship (most
recently with his battle with Disney over Fahrenheit 9/11) and even
Stern's political conversion following years of FCC and governmental
harassment reflect the limitations of a movement that lacks the
to differentiate between censorship and white supremacy.


As a white scholar and activist, I continually contemplate my role and
that of other whites in racial justice struggles. I am keenly aware of
difficulties of "white anti-racism." History elucidates the often
contentious and contradictory contributions of whites toward freedom
struggles. This same history, which also includes the likes of John
Stanley Levinson and the Young Patriot Party, equally speaks to the
existence of productive coalitions. Within such a context, the
emergence of a gang of white pop culture populists necessitates a close
examination of their interest, ideologies and politics. Do they follow in the
footsteps of Southern agriculturalists, who embraced abolitionist ideas
and spoke about kinship in opposition to America's elite only as a
means to secure political power on the back of black voters? Or do they
reflect a history of white intellectuals who have joined people of color in an
effort to dream America anew?

Do the new white populists represent a potential ally, given their
stance against globalization, U.S. hegemony, censorship, poverty, inequality
and imperialism—or yet another oxymoron? Although reflecting neither
extreme,their limited understanding of racism, failure to critically examine
white privilege and ultimate refusal to explore the ways in which working
class whites "swim in white preference" put these white populists in a long
tradition of "allies" that use racism as a means for self- or
communal-advantage rather than securing justice. The question is not
whether or not these white populists are racists, unworthy of
coalitional work—it's whether the refusal to examine their own privilege, or their
own replication of ideologies of white supremacy, ultimately silences
people of color and the material issues affecting communities of color, all
the while claiming an interest in race. Ultimately, we must ask whether a
progressive mainstream white voice contributes to the efforts of racial
justice or presents yet another illusion of white support.