“Great White Hope,” or “Great White Hype?”
Atop the inner front doorway of my father’s house was a card-stock sign that posted a rather peculiar, yet, presciently profound aphorism that–although amusing–befuddled me in my youth. Whenever I glanced up at that sign before crossing the threshold of the doorway before departure I was reminded of the putative relationship that exists between spoken words and cognitive origin. The adage read: “Make sure that brain is engaged before putting mouth into gear.” The profundity of such metaphor has earned my unwavering respect in the years since, however, there may be others who, ignorant of such sage advice, just step on the gas while the cerebral gray matter is still in park.
On the 19th of August 2009, during a town-hall forum that was supposed to bolster the befallen political spirits of her Hiawatha, Kansas constituents, U.S. Republican Representative, Lynn Jenkins, made a rhetorical gaffe that epitomized the aforesaid maxim. Whilst some among the Republican party are still smarting behind the shift in administration that the Democratic party has assumed, she audaciously spoke volumes for the racial element that undergirds the true sentiment that some are feeling now with a black president. Forecasting for the 2012 presidential Republican nomination, Jenkins averred “Republicans are struggling right now to find the great white hope…[and]… I suggest to any of you who are concerned about that , who are Republicans, there are some great young Republican minds in Washington.” This comment was in response to a question posed to the congresswoman about the probability of constructing a viable opposition that would constitute a cogent Republican strategy for regaining the public’s trust and a reacquisition of the White House. She didn’t just abstrusely conjecture though, for she supplied the names of three stalwart individuals who just may restore some congruity between the color of the White House and its chief interior office-holder; she proffered the identities of U.S. House Representatives: Eric Cantor, R-Va.; Kevin McCarthy, R-Ca.; and, Paul Ryan, R-Ws.
Now, the comment in-and-of-itself while bankrupting the very notion of what an alleged democracy should be was one thing, however, what really challenges the credulity of those who know better is the claim later advanced by Jenkins– after she had been informed that such a comment offended some–that “I was unaware of any negative connotation, and if I offended anybody, obviously, I apologize.” How could she not conceive of the idea that the interjection of such a racially-loaded comment, spoken in a town-hall forum of constituents who mirrored her racial phenotype, could possibly rub some others the wrong way. Perhaps it is because some white folk have become so accustomed to half-a-millennium of the power structure in this country reflecting their racial composite that they can’t envisage an alternative reality, and that an internal analysis of where such comments originate from has yet to be explored in-depth.
Why is that whenever insidiously racialized comments uttered by some white folk reverberate beyond the presumed circle of acceptability of those of their like-minded ilk, thus ineluctably creating waves of consternation and embarrassment, the sure-fire retort is: I didn’t know that was a racist comment; or, I have no idea from whence such a comment originated? Do they suppose that such expressions originate in a social context devoid of any historical meaning, or just ooze out of a social vacuum where issues of race no longer apply because of a supposed post-racial atmosphere that we now occupy? Jenkins’ comment doesn’t stand alone in the pantheon of individuals making such repartees, for just one month ago, subsequent to the racially-tinged imbroglio involving Harvard University professor, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and the police officer who couldn’t make the connection between a legal occupant of a residential dwelling and the two forms of identification that Gates produces to corroborate such, a fellow white Boston police office (Justin Barrett), when angered by a journalist piece that questioned the legality of the Gates arrest, wrote a widely publicized email piece that referred to the professor as “a banana eating jungle monkey.” Later, after a great deal of public criticism had reached a feverish groundswell, Justin Barrett disavowed any knowledge of the racist intent behind such rhetoric and said that he “did not intend any racial bigotry, harm or prejudicd in my words.” He also said that he “sincerely apologize[d] that these words have been received as such. I truly apologize to all.” What, no racist intent? Black people have been caricatured and referred to using such simian connotations since Europeans decided to subjugate them and rationalize, even pseudo-scientifically, their involvement in slavery and other forms of exploitation. While the jury is still out deliberating just when the term “banana eating jungle monkey” may have been coined, the terminology “the great white hope” is even easier to date.
On the 26th of December 1908, in a world heavyweight boxing title fight, Jack Johnson–an American black boxer known for his brash boxing style and ability to dominate his opponents by punishing them long into the boxing match–defeated the Canadian world prize-fighter, Tommy Burns in Sydney, Australia. Burns was white. Although boxing is now, and was then, conceived of as a gentlemanly sport, racism was a virulent force to be reckoned with, and the unseating of a white man by a black man wasn’t taken lightly. This event occurred four years after then President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, in an attempt to assuage the ever-growing anger that had been stoked amongst whites in the South, when he invited Booker T. Washington as a dinner guest to the White House, said to a certain Mr. Owen Wister, ” Now, as to the negroes! I entirely agree with you that as a race and in the mass they are altogether inferior to the whites” (Gossett, 1997). And, that fight occurred three years prior to a certain Georgian statesman named George Watson, in an attempt to rationalize why the lynchings of blacks was spreading like an uncontrolled conflagration across the South, explicated that people in the South “had to lynch him occasionally, and flog him, now and then, to keep him from blaspheming the Almighty, by his conduct, on account of his smell and his color” (Gossett, 1997, p. 271). In such a racially charged environment, Jack London, known for his socialist leanings, intimated that a “Great White Hope” was needed to restore the heavyweight belt, and racial honor, back to the superior white race.
So, as one can see, such words carry social import irrespective of whether Lynn Jenkins concedes of their cognitive and racial impact or not. That the supposed honor of white Americans was misappropriated when Jack Johnson defeated an allegedly superior white prize-fighter then, almost runs hauntingly parallel to the alleged stolen honor that many of the Republican party deem has occurred to them contemporaneously with a democratically elected black president. However, the driving force of ignorance today is similar to what it was then when fear dominated the public domain, and individuals spoke and acted with the foot depressing the gas pedal while the cultural and cognitive transmission were still disengaged.
Gossett, T. (1997). Race: The history of an idea in America. Oxford University Press.