Us and Them (All White Now)

Us and Them (All White Now) lyrics by Tim Griffin, Saint Patrick’s Day 2021
may be sung to the tune of Both Sides Now by Joni Mitchell

When my grandfather crossed the sea
From Dublin Town to NYC
He blessed the land of liberty
Where all men were the same
But he saw a sign that made him cry
It read, “No Irish Need Apply”
For then the Irish were not white
Enough; so he changed his name.

But Irishmen are all white now
They weren’t, until they were somehow
I’m sorry, I don’t understand
The difference between Us and Them.

A ship that sailed across the sea
With some nine hundred refugees
Was floating just off Miami;
We turned Them all away.
We sent Those People back to France
Where many died in Nazi camps
And some escaped to other lands…
But not the USA.

Good news, the Jews are all white now
At least for some; at least for now
I’m sorry, I don’t understand
The difference between Us and Them.

The Germans and Italians too
Were hated in their turn, it’s true
When They were Them, not Us; though you
Might easily forget.
Asian skin is darker, though
And black is black or brown, you know
And maybe we could let that go…
But it hasn’t happened yet.

But why must we be all white now?
Or could we just be Us somehow?
I’m sorry, I don’t understand
The difference between Us and Them.

And now we hear it all again
How We must live in fear of Them
And watch a man explain again
Which Them we’re hating now
It doesn’t even matter who;
“They’re murderers and rapists too!
“And only I will protect you
“So vote for me again!”

But only whites are Us, it seems
Though we keep changing what it means
I’m sorry, I don’t understand
The difference between Us and Them.

So, which of Us is all white now?
I used to know, but still somehow
I guess I’ll never understand
The difference between Us and Them.

Notes

I was moved to write this the day after yet another racist massacre, as America celebrated another "race" (the Irish) on St. Patrick's Day. Writing about racism and bigotry, especially when writing for children, is tricky; and I urge parents and teachers to consider whether this song or my lengthy comments below are appropriate for their kids. One thing I am sure of, though, is that we have got to have these conversations if we are to have any chance to make things better. I hope this song will help to start some productive conversations, but to whatever extent some of my audience may find my words offensive, inaccurate, or unfair I hope you will find me a willing listener to your feedback. On that note, my deep thanks to Devon Gordon for fact-checking and helping with revisions to the verse about the Jews.

Okay, there’s a lot to unpack here so let’s get started. As a white man born into every kind of privilege in the United States, and having spent more than thirty years as a teacher in mostly immigrant communities, I have noticed some trends in the process of Them becoming Us. I do not claim to be the discoverer of any of the following; but FWIW here’s my two cents.

Since the beginning of the United States (and really, long before there *was* a USA), each new wave of immigrants has started off as Them. We (the “real” Americans) deride their language, accent, food, dress, faith, and pretty much everything else about them. Sometimes it’s genuinely mean, but mostly it serves to remind Us that We are Us, not Them. Think of it as a cruelty-based bonding exercise. Until pretty recently, and to some extent even today, Americans have spoken of each new Them as a separate race, not just as a separate nation. So yeah, there was an Irish race, a German race, and so on; the "real" Americans, of course, were the white race. As a guy who mostly teaches STEM, I will note here that from a biological perspective “race” is and always has been a fiction; more on that later.

In a process that usually takes a few generations, each new Them has gradually become a part of Us, even as We become a little more like Them. Few Americans now reckon we are eating “ethnic” food when we share pizza (Italy), fried potatoes (Ireland), hamburgers (Germany), and so on. The first time a Catholic (and an Irishman too!) was elected president, a lot of Us freaked out; but nowadays few Americans think of Catholicism as a “foreign” religion.

So far so good; this is how assimilation works. But there is a definite, observable, and inverse correlation between melanin in the skin and our ability to accept Them as Us. Regardless of what you may think of president Trump, for example, I do not recall anyone questioning whether we ought to have a German American president. But holy cow, the way some Americans (including many I know and love) completely lost their minds when an African American became president. Several friends and relatives were talking seriously about moving to another country, and I know at least one who would probably have actually done it if only he could find another first-world country without socialized health care.

So, yeah. African Americans, here since the 1600’s; Asian Americans, here since the 1800’s; Mexican Americans, here long before the USA was a thing; even the Native Americans, here for at least 15,000 years; these are the groups who apparently have “trouble” becoming Us. What’s the common factor there?

Three observations on that.

1. The "white race" has been redefined many times over the centuries to meet the political, social, and economic needs of those with the power to define who is white and who is not. The Irish were considered the "N-words" of Europe and barred from respectable places in the United States for a long time; but nowadays we have Americans with names like O’Rourke or Hannity who, regardless of our feelings about them, are very clearly "Us." Likewise the Germans, Italians, and many other "races" who were eventually accepted as part of the white race. Fair-skinned nationalities have historically had a MUCH easier time becoming Us than those with darker skin, so claiming that assimilation is not driven largely by skin color defies observable reality.

2. For fair-skinned people whose social or economic status in the United States is not fully secure, participating in cruelty toward “Them” (whichever Them is the target of the moment) can be appealing as it helps the participants to prove their status as “Us.” This is a fact many privileged progressive-leaning whites (Tim raises hand here) often fail to grasp; it is easy for me to be magnanimous when my place of privilege is not threatened by Them, but harder for those of Us whose status is not so firmly established. This is why demagogues have found it so easy to build a political base solely on fear and hate of Them, whomever They might be at the time.

3. More cynically (and I hate to be classist but there’s just no honest way to avoid it here), the periodic redefinition of the white race benefits the ruling class by keeping the lower classes divided against each other. There is a joke about a rich man, a working man, and an immigrant looking at a table with twenty cookies on it. Long story short, the rich man sweeps nineteen cookies into his pockets and warns the working man that the immigrant is about to steal the last cookie. One of the pillars of Jim Crow was the promise to poor whites that, no matter how badly they might be treated by the rich whites, at least they would always be better off than the blacks. The British used this trick to good effect with the Irish, Welsh, and other “Thems” as need required. As the American president Lyndon Johnson observed, “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket.”

In summary, the white race is not a biological phenomenon but a social construct, malleable to the needs of those who find it a useful tool for keeping their subjects divided against each other. This kind of divide-and-conquer manipulation of our fear (and really, it al comes down to fear) is as old as civilization.
BUT WE DON’T HAVE TO FALL FOR IT. Quick reality check here: if you can identify your party's enemies more readily than you can explain their legislative agenda, you may want to think things over.

We can do better.

We can BE better.

With love and respect,
-Tim 3/24/21