In the United States of America, not all rich people are expected to be grateful for their wealth. The language of gratitude never enters the conversation when rich white men inherit millions; nor is it used to frame the behavior of the rich white man whose wealth was derived from selling credit default swaps or shady mortgage-backed securities.
No one ever said, “These ungrateful rich white men need to sit down, shut up, and be grateful to live in a nation where a group of rich white men can become obscenely wealthy off of garbage financial instruments.”
No one ever asks if Wall Street bankers’ behavior is offensive to the flag or the troops, even when they nearly destroy the economy and ruin countless people’s lives.
But the behavior of rich white men has been infinitely more damaging to America than kneeling during a song.
In the United States, white men don’t owe anybody anything—certainly not gratitude. Their wealth, no matter how ill-gained, is presumed to be the fruit of righteous hard work and labor. And any threat to that wealth is a tax worth fighting.
Rich white people aren’t taught to expect that the price for wealth is their silence. That transaction cost is antithetical to the experience of American whiteness, largely because of an underlying American reality: that the right for white men to accumulate wealth is inalienable and unquestioned. That’s why white wealth is presumed to be inherently legitimate. That’s why white guys don’t get pulled over for driving flashy cars. That’s why the process of white guys accumulating wealth is never framed in transactional terms.
It’s different for black people in America. For black people, the pursuit of wealth and success isn’t a right; it’s a gift. That much is obvious when black millionaire athletes speak up. When they do, white society doesn’t focus on their message, but instead questions their audacity to complain about anything in a country that has allowed them to become rich and successful.
America repeatedly reminds us of the transaction costs associated with black success. For many white people, Barack Obama’s presidency meant black people lost the right to talk about racism because one out of America’s 44 presidents was now a black man. And as Jemele Hill knows, the price for being a successful black woman rationally addressing protest and white supremacy is a two-week suspension at ESPN—and direct attacks from the president of the United States.
Gratitude is an appropriate response when you’re given a gift. And for many white people, opportunities afforded black people are considered a gift from a righteous nation.
Former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan articulated the case for black gratitude back in a 2008 article titled “A Brief for Whitey,” published two months after Obama’s inauguration.
“America has been the best country on earth for black folks. It was here that 600,000 black people, brought from Africa in slave ships, grew into a community of 40 million, were introduced to Christian salvation, and reached the greatest levels of freedom and prosperity blacks have ever known.”
This is the historical backdrop, the historical rationale for demanding black gratitude. This is why Colin Kaepernick and Michael Bennett are considered ungrateful. Regardless of the countless hours of training they put into becoming elite athletes for America’s entertainment, the tax for their financial success is unquestioning gratitude. It is a tax many will never remove from their bill regardless of how many titles they win, how many schools they build, or how many millions they make through their labor because at the end of the day, as Buchanan suggests, black people should consider themselves lucky to even be able to live in this country because chattel slavery was abolished and black people now have the privilege of knowing the good Lord, thanks to white men.
“No people anywhere has done more to lift up blacks than white Americans. Untold trillions have been spent since the ’60s on welfare, food stamps, rent supplements, Section 8 housing, Pell grants, student loans, legal services, Medicaid, Earned Income Tax Credits and poverty programs designed to bring the African-American community into the mainstream.”
And then Buchanan’s kicker: “We hear the grievances. Where is the gratitude?”
Buchanan isn’t alone. Earlier this year when Congressman John Lewis, a civil rights icon, questioned Donald Trump’s legitimacy, Maine Governor Paul LePage attacked Lewis with the gratitude playbook. ‘‘You know, I will just say this: John Lewis ought to look at history,” LePage said. “It was Abraham Lincoln that freed the slaves. It was Rutherford B. Hayes and Ulysses S. Grant that fought against Jim Crow laws. A simple thank you would suffice.’’
We shouldn’t allow ourselves to be tricked into believing that black people owe a debt of gratitude to the flag or America. The concept of America doesn’t bestow rights; neither do flags or anthems. Actual people do that. People write the laws and enforce them. In America, those people have historically been white men.
And when your origin story starts out with ancestors as literal property of white men, every subsequent positive development becomes a testament to white benevolence. And every gain, no matter how small, is viewed as a bullshit reparations package. But that package isn’t even tangible; it isn’t acres or mules. Getting rich is simply an opportunity—an opportunity that white America affords black America to acquire wealth in a racist system that’s still structured to minimize black people’s full access to opportunity.