Chris Wallace’s MasterClass in Willful White Ignorance
Wallace’s interview with Nikole Hannah-Jones put white America’s denial of the country’s racist history on full display
My mother had an amazing green thumb. She could turn the sickliest plant into beautiful flora. The wrap-around porch of our Pine Bluff, Arkansas home overflowed with hanging baskets of ferns and various plants in wicker planters.
Standing out from her collection of ferns and philodendrons was a sprout in an unusual container: a World War I-era military helmet painted gold, turned upside down, and filled with dirt. The helmet was a trophy taken from a German soldier my grandfather killed during the Great War.
Before he died, my grandfather told me stories from his time in the European Theatre. He talked about how he spent weeks in a foxhole near the Swiss Alps and survived malaria. He told his stories with great pride, never acknowledging the obvious: the freedom he fought to deliver to Europe was a luxury he didn’t have in his own country.
There are many military veterans throughout my family’s history. One uncle fought in World War II; another served during the Korean War. Like my grandfather, they served a country that considered them second-class citizens, less than human.
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The shadow of America’s Jim Crow system of apartheid didn’t stop at America’s shores. According to my stepfather, who also served during the Korean War, America’s racism followed him to Europe. Fearful that Black soldiers would date German girls, my stepfather’s white countrymen spread rumors that Black American soldiers had tails like monkeys.
But don’t tell stories like those to Chris Wallace, host of the new CNN+ series, Who’s Talking to Chris Wallace, because he probably won’t believe you. Wallace’s interview with Nikole Hannah-Jones, creator of The 1619 Project, is a prime example of the disconnect between what white people like Wallace want to believe and our country’s factual history.
While heated at times, the Wallace/Hannah-Jones interview isn’t the kind of vitriolic shouting match we’ve come to expect. On the contrary, the two had a respectful yet spirited discussion. Despite his years at Fox News, Wallace has a solid reputation as a respectable conservative journalist. Still, his Hannah-Jones interview illustrates how otherwise rational white people sometimes react to challenges to the romanticized version of American history. In this case, the source of Wallace’s ire were these two passages from Hannah-Jones’s essay in The 1619 Project:
Without the idealistic, strenuous and patriotic efforts of black Americans, our democracy today would most likely look very different — it might not be a democracy at all…
…We like to call those who lived during World War II the Greatest Generation, but that allows us to ignore the fact that many of this generation fought for democracy abroad while brutally suppressing democracy for millions of American citizens.
After reading the passages from the essay, Wallace questioned its accuracy. Of course, Hannah-Jones disagreed:
WALLACE: Again, I am in no way minimizing our terrible racial legacy. But in some of these things, aren’t you overstating?
HANNAH-JONES: If you have half of the country, where it’s in some states majorities, in many other states pluralities, 25% of the population, 40% of the population cannot vote, have their vote violently suppressed, where they’re a single one-party, one-race rule in a region where about 30% of the population is Black. Would you consider that democracy?
After a bit of sparring, Wallace honed in on what really bothered him about Hannah-Jones’s essay:
WALLACE: Well…here’s where I take some objection. You’re talking about if you say the country that we were fighting for democracy overseas, and we were not living in, walking the walk, talking the talk at home, I completely agree with you. But you specifically say the Greatest Generation brutally suppress it, many of this generation brutally suppressing democracy for millions of Americans. To me, and I think Tom Brokaw when he originally wrote the book, The Greatest Generation, was talking about 20-year-olds, 30-year-olds who came out of the farm fields of the Midwest, who came out of ethnic neighborhoods in Brooklyn and South Philly and storm the beaches of Normandy and and, you know, fought to defeat the most, the worst regime, I would argue in, in world history. And to say that they were 20, 30 year olds, the country was brutally suppressing Blacks, but the Greatest Generation wasn’t.
HANNAH-JONES: Well, they were.
WALLACE: No, they weren’t, you don’t be telling me that a farm, that a kid coming off a farm in Indiana or a kid who came from Brooklyn, is was [sic] suppressing Black people.
HANNAH-JONES: Indiana has the largest population of the Klan in the United States. The Klan was raised, was reached first in Indiana.
WALLACE: I understand but that wasn’t the 20-year-old kid who —
HANNAH-JONES: You don’t think 20-year olds were in the Klan?
WALLACE: I didn’t think many of them were, no.
HANNAH-JONES: I mean, I don’t know what evidence you have of that.
WALLACE: Well, what evidence do you have that they were, since you wrote it.
HANNAH-JONES: I didn’t argue that they were, you’re saying that they were.
WALLACE: You said many of this generation was brutally suppressing democracy for millions of Americans.
HANNAH-JONES: And that’s factually inaccurate how? Many of that generation work? Do you think that the only people —
WALLACE: You think that —
HANNAH-JONES: Go ahead.
WALLACE: I’m just asking. You think that’s a broad, a broad brush, that you’re willing to paint, the 20- and 30-year-olds who defended democracy, I’m not talking about the leaders. I’m not talking about the laws. I’m not talking about the country. I’m talking about the young people who risked their lives. For instance, on the beaches of Normandy, they were brutally suppressing African-Americans.
Wallace absurdly insists on referring to grown men as “kids,” as if to diminish their participation in a system constructed expressly for them. His attempt to infantilize the era’s white soldiers lies in stark contrast to studies that show white men tend to perceive Black male boys as older and less innocent:
Black boys as young as 10 may not be viewed in the same light of childhood innocence as their white peers, but are instead more likely to be mistaken as older, be perceived as guilty and face police violence if accused of a crime, according to new research published by the American Psychological Association.
Wallace’s ridiculous assertion that “a kid coming off a farm in Indiana” could not have fought against Nazis and also helped perpetuate Jim Crow flies in the face of a mountain of evidence to the contrary. Take the online project launched last December, The American Soldier in World War II. A collaboration funded by Virginia Tech, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), and the National Archives presents 65,000 pages of unfiltered results of Army surveys taken by hundreds of thousands of soldiers during the war.
The project provides a window into the pervasiveness of racism in our military during World War Two. According to The Washington Post, many of the viewpoints of white soldiers regarding African Americans, Hispanic, and Jewish soldiers fly in the face of the prevailing image of the Greatest Generation:
In August 1944, an American soldier finishing up an Army survey was asked whether he had any further remarks. He did.
“White supremacy must be maintained,” he wrote.
“I’ll fight if necessary to prevent racial equality. I’ll never salute a negro officer and I’ll not take orders from a negroe [sic]. I’m sick of the army’s method of treating …[Black soldiers] as if they were human. Segregation of the races must continue.”
Another soldier wrote: “God has placed between us a barrier of color … We must accept this barrier and live, fight, and play separately…”
But a Black soldier wrote: “It is impossible to understand how the brains of the Southern white man works and just what can be the cause of so much … hate that is imposed upon the Negro soldier. With all the patriotic speeches … he takes time out to heap insults and abuse upon the Negro soldier who is doing all that he can to further the war effort,” he wrote.
“Most Southern white people must fear that the rise of the Negro will be of danger to their long vaunted White Supremacy,” he wrote. “For us the saying goes a house or an Army divided against itself will surely fall. Hitler knows this better than we may think.”
Chris Wallace‘s attempt to absolve an entire generational cohort from its role in America’s institutionalized system of anti-Black racism is the nonsense white America asks its Black citizens to accept. Wallace and his ilk begrudging acknowledge America’s racist history while simultaneously refusing to admit who bears responsibility. We see the same delusional logic in the conservative right’s fight against teaching a complete version of Black Americans in the country’s history.
Watching the Wallace/Hannah-Jones interview, civilized as it was, leaves more questions than answers. Who does Chris Wallace think turned violent at the sight of Black soldiers returning home in uniform? Who does he think committed the racism atrocities against of the 40s, 50s, and 60s? Who does he think fought so hard against the Civil Rights movement?
If not the Greatest Generation, then who?