“I’m so sick of white entitlement,” said a friend at dinner recently. It took me aback because of who was saying it. Like me, on the spectrum of African American activism, the friend swings more Martin Luther King Jr. than Malcolm X. And it surprised me, because the comment voiced a frustration whose grip has tightened around me of late.
Displays of white entitlement have been around us since before the founding of the republic (see: slavery and the Trail of Tears). But since the election of President Trump, said exhibitions of privilege have been more brazen. “BBQ Becky,” “Permit Patty” and “ID Adam” joined other absurd situations in which living while black was questioned by whites. And then there’s the case of Botham Shem Jean, a black man killed in his own apartment by a now-fired off-duty Dallas police officer.
That’s why Thursday’s wretched display of white (male) entitlement was especially galling. I can understand why Brett M. Kavanaugh erupted with anger. It was the lack of humility and decorum and contrition that canceled any human emotion I could have had for him as he fought back tears during the hearing over his imperiled Supreme Court nomination.
Kavanaugh’s words of rage in his opening statement were very similar to those uttered by Justice Clarence Thomas when he sat in the hot seat in 1991 over allegations of sexual harassment from Anita Hill. But the situations weren’t the same. Back then, I couldn’t help but feel a pang of empathy for Thomas. As an African American, I understood Thomas’s controlled fury. He was a living example of the admonition relatives gave me about successful black folks: There’s only so far “they” will let a black man rise. Keep your nose clean, lest you give “them” an excuse to tear you down. I didn’t want Thomas to ascend to the Supreme Court, but his humanity came through when he sternly said, “From my standpoint, as a black American, as far as I’m concerned, it is a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves.”
To be sure, Thomas was defiant. But what we got from Kavanaugh was sputtering, tearful grievance. Even worse was his audience-of-one belligerence, his talking over senators, his smug, rude and petulant behavior overall, not to mention his bald partisanship. The entire spectacle was one long “but you promised” tantrum of a grown man denied what he seems to believe is his. And after Kavanaugh got jammed up by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) on his refusal to support or call on the White House to request an FBI investigation into the allegations against him, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) came through with his own galling display of entitlement.
“Boy, you all want power. God, I hope you never get it. I hope the American people can see through this sham,” said an animated Graham. He went on to say, “To my Republican colleagues, if you vote no, you’re legitimizing the most despicable thing I have seen in my time in politics.” This from the man who supported the unconscionable and destructive strategy of denying Merrick Garland even a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing when he was nominated by President Barack Obama in 2016.
Imagine if Thomas had acted out as Kavanaugh did. Imagine if Christine Blasey Ford had behaved the way Kavanaugh did. You can’t. Thanks to the racism and misogyny tightly woven into our national DNA, both Thomas and Ford knew they couldn’t get away with it and wouldn’t be believed if they had. Their dilemma is one faced by untold millions of Americans hourly. But the histrionics of Graham and Kavanaugh showed once again how hell hath no fury like an entitled white man denied. No humility. No contrition. No humanity beyond his narrow interests.
Strong words broadly brushed, I know. But I’m done tiptoeing around powerful men like Kavanaugh and Graham when their bruised, tender feelings will have an impact on my life and my country.
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