Robert Azzi: Being white means never saying you’re sorry

  • White House chief of staff John Kelly listens as President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting on tax policy with business leaders in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on Oct. 31. AP file

For the Monitor
Sunday, November 05, 2017

On July 16, 2009, the 44th president of the United States, Barack Obama, speaking to a NAACP gathering in Philadelphia, said: “No one has written your destiny for you. Your destiny is in your hands – you cannot forget that. That’s what we have to teach all of our children. No excuses. No excuses.”

Obama was wrong – a lesson he and we have learned all too well.

On that very same day, 300 miles away, Harvard University’s pre-eminent African American scholar, Henry Louis Gates Jr., was arrested in daylight at his home in Cambridge, Mass. He was arrested after a neighbor called 911 to report that two black men – Gates and the cabdriver who had driven him home – appeared to be breaking into a house.

Gates, who had arrived home to find his front door damaged, entered through his back door and, with the driver’s help, forced open the front door.

By the time Sgt. James Crowley arrived, Gates was safely ensconced inside his home and the driver was gone.

Crowley asked Gates to step outside his house and Gates refused. A confrontation ensued: Crowley arrested Gates on a charge of disorderly conduct and led him out of his own home in handcuffs.

“I don’t know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts, what role race played in that,” Obama said after Gates’s arrest. “But I think it’s fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry; number two, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home, and, number three, what I think we know separate and apart from this incident is that there’s a long history in this country of African Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately.”

In response, many white Americans accused Obama of playing the “race” card. He was bullied by an ensuing uproar of manufactured faux rage into hosting Gates and Crowley at a “Beer Summit” near the White House Rose Garden as an act of contrition – a way of saying sorry he’d disrespected Sgt. Crowley.

After all, Crowley had only been doing his job when he arrested – at his own house – the Alphonse Fletcher University professor and director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University, a man who walks with a cane, who is a celebrated historian, father, literary critic, husband, filmmaker and a leading public intellectual.

Obama – and Gates – learned that being president, being brilliant, being a public intellectual in your own home, is no protection from being a person of color in America – that whiteness and privilege respected neither authority nor history – that whether in antebellum America, in Jim Crow America or in 21st century America the marginalization of minorities and communities of color is a persistent evil embedded in a nation unable to confront an original sin.

On the other hand, being white often means never having to say you’re sorry – especially if you’re Donald Trump, America’s 45th American president, or his chief of staff, John F. Kelly.

Especially if you represent a constituency in part rooted in accumulated resentments, racism and a self-inflated sense of entitlement based on color.

How else to explain someone who could say, as Kelly said to Laura Ingraham during an interview, “Robert E. Lee was an honorable man.
... But the lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War, and men and women of good faith on both sides made their stand where their conscience had them make their stand.”

Perhaps Kelly should reread Confederate Vice-President Alexander H. Stephens’s 1861 Cornerstone speech, which includes, “Our new government ... (rests)
... upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.”

Slavery: The reason why commander of the Confederate States Army Robert E. Lee led his troops into battle.


I’ve no desire to further challenge Kelly’s distortion of history – others have persuasively made that argument.

As filmmaker Ken Burns tweeted “that while many factors contributed to the conflict, one caused it: slavery.”

Kelly’s unfettered defense of Confederate monuments and praise for the treasonous Lee reveal a man comfortable, like his boss, with exploiting ignorance and bigotry to consolidate power.

“Kelly has been an enabler of Trump’s mission,” Juliette Kayyem, a former DHS assistant secretary, told the New York Times. “Judge him that way.”

Kelly’s “men and women of good faith on both sides” meme mirrors Trump’s Charlottesville statement that there “were very fine people on both sides,” creating false equivalency between the sides and whitewashing the evil racism that drove one side to try to dominate the other.

While certainly there were combatants on both sides who fought with honor alongside their neighbors, let’s not be tempted to extend any thought of honor or patriotism to people like Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, Alexander H. Stephens and all those – including those in the trenches – who were ideologically committed to the preservation of slavery.

And let’s not be tempted to extend any thought of honor or patriotism to people like John F. Kelley, who exploits his service – and the valiant service of those who have fallen before him – to serve a president who has chosen not to serve all Americans as equal.

Kelly, convinced his way is the only way, channels Col. Nathan Jessup (Jack Nicholson) in A Few Good Men: “We follow orders, son. We follow orders or people die. It’s that simple. Are we clear?”

Kelly doesn’t defend Trump – he mirrors him.

Are we clear?

To consolidate their authority Trump and Kelly seem determined to incite and exploit racially based resentments, determined to legitimize the grievances of people who believe that their privilege is being illegitimately challenged by peoples less worthy than they.

Trump’s never apologized for disparaging Sen. John McCain, for disparaging the Gold Star families of Khizr Khan and Myeshia Johnson, for saying, “With the exception of the late, great Abraham Lincoln, I can be more presidential than any president that’s ever held this office.”

Are we clear?

And when Kelly was asked whether he should apologize for derisive, disrespectful and inaccurate comments he made about Congresswoman Frederica Hawkins, he replied: “For something like that, absolutely not. I stand by my comments.”

Are we clear?

“Apologies, once postponed,” Margaret Mitchell wrote in Gone with the Wind, “become harder and harder to make, and finally impossible.”

For Trump and Kelly, for white supremacists and racists alike – impossible.

Always impossible.

Are we clear?

(Robert Azzi is a photographer and writer who lives in Exeter. He can be reached at theother.azzi@gmail.com. His columns are archived at theotherazzi.wordpress.com.)