Honky Talk: The Lingua Franca of White Respectability Politics


The one thing the people in power despise and hate the most is to be laughed at. Make sure that your strategy includes demeaning the oppressor, taking the clothes off him or her, making them look like buffoons. Now this is an important strategy because the white American male is very insecure.  

Dhoruba bin-Wahad

First of a Three-Part Series

At first glance, British parliamentarian George Galloway’s 2005 appearance  before the U. S. Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee for Investigations had all the hallmarks of a lamb headed to slaughter. From his lofty perch, Minnesota’s junior Senator, the Republican Norm Coleman, towered over the august chamber like Zeus atop Mount Olympus. Tall and angular with a helmet of sandy brown hair and the telegenic blandness of a morning news anchor, he banged his gavel authoritatively on the desktop to bring the hearing to order, while the balding Galloway– shorter, stouter, and older than the committee chairman–initially appeared ill-at-ease in the dock, his natty suit and smart necktie lending him an almost effeminate air.

A former prosecutor, Coleman didn’t possess anything resembling a smoking gun in alleging that Galloway pocketed millions in kickbacks to help Saddam Hussein circumvent an international embargo, yet delivered his opening statement with the confidence of a man accustomed to holding all the cards.

“We have your name on Iraqi documents, some prepared before the fall of Saddam . . . that identify you as one of the allocation holders.¨ . .  .  another official in talking about another allocation holder said, ‘Of course they made a profit. That’s the whole point.’ Surcharges and oil contracts were given back to the Saddam regime and were the responsibility of the allocation holder. The evidence clearly indicates you, as an allocation beneficiary, who transferred the allocations to Fawaz Zureikat, who became chairman of your (nonprofit) organization Mariam’s Appeal.  Senior Iraqi officials have confirmed that you in fact received oil allocations and that the documents that identify you as an allocation recipient are valid.”

When he was done, Coleman ceded the floor, at which point Galloway proceeded, in plain proletarian English, to rip the chairman a new asshole.

“Senator, I know that standards have slipped in the last few years in Washington, but for a lawyer you are remarkably cavalier with any idea of justice,” Galloway said, according to an edited version of his remarks. “I want to point out areas where there are – let’s be charitable and say errors–you assert that I have had ‘many meetings’ with Saddam Hussein. This is false. I have had two meetings with Saddam Hussein and by no stretch of the English language can that be described as many meetings. As a matter of fact, I have met Saddam Hussein exactly the same number of times as Donald Rumsfeld met him. The difference is Donald Rumsfeld met him to sell him guns and to give him maps the better to target those guns. I met him to try and bring about an end to sanctions, suffering and war, and to try and persuade him to let United Nations weapons inspectors back into the country, a rather better use of two meetings with Saddam Hussein than your own Secretary of Defense made of his.

Now you have nothing on me, Senator, except my name on lists of names from Iraq, many of which have been drawn up after the installation of your puppet government in Baghdad. I gave my heart and soul to try to stop the mass killing of one million Iraqis, most of them children. I told the world that Iraq, contrary to your claims, did not have weapons of mass destruction. I told the world, contrary to your claims, that Iraq had no connection to the atrocity on 9/11 2001. I told the world, contrary to your claims, that the Iraqi people would resist a British and American invasion of their country and that the fall of Baghdad would not be the beginning of the end, but merely the end of the beginning.

Senator, in everything I said about Iraq, I turned out to be right and you turned out to be wrong .”

When Galloway finished, a Senate staffer later told me, there was a deafening silence inside the chamber, as though a live grenade had been tossed into an enemy trench, only to be hurled back in the direction from whence it came.

It was not, however, just the Scotsman’s concussive invective, his defiance of the unwritten protocols that afford Capitol Hill lawmakers a certain deference, or even his exposure of Coleman and the committee’s ranking Democrat, Michigan Senator Carl Levin, as frauds. What was truly remarkable was that in contrast to his accusers’ ineffable torpor, Galloway seemed to be speaking an entirely different language, reveling in the enunciation of colorful phrases such as “schoolboy-howler” or “cock-a-poop,” while Coleman’s monotone was cold and officious, his language measured, and his smile as wan and saccharine as a used car salesman trying to coerce some sucker to sign on the bottom line.

Galloway’s declarations of  solidarity with the Iraqi people transformed the chamber into a pulpit, not testifying so much as bearing witness, his sermon an interrogation of our material reality.
Galloway’s declarations of  solidarity with the Iraqi people transformed the chamber into a pulpit, not testifying so much as bearing witness, his sermon an interrogation of our material reality. Coleman and Levin drily hammered away at esoteric legal points with transactional language so bloodless and pious that it suggested a foreclosure on all possibilities save one: this was their world, and theirs alone.


In the 500 years since Christopher Columbus washed ashore in the Americas, the European settler has never seen his leadership so openly discredited, with a perfect storm of economic, political and environmental catastrophes bearing down on the world.

“It was the rich who were responsible for the crisis,” Brazil’s former President Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva said of the most recent global financial crisis. “It wasn’t the indigenous or the black population who should pay the bill, but those really responsible, the blue-eyed bankers.”

But it’s a Pyrrhic victory: in severing ties with a radical polity that is the motor for history, the white settler has entombed himself in an airless crypt of his own design, denuded the language that is a predicate for liberal democracy, and rendered himself practically mute, like a developmentally disabled child reared by a pack of wolves.
The mostly white men who own the New World have, over the last 45 years, managed to put down a postwar uprising by the mostly nonwhite workers who built it, largely by purging dissenting voices from public life. But it’s a Pyrrhic victory: in severing ties with a radical polity that is the motor for history, the white settler has entombed himself in an airless crypt of his own design, denuded the language that is a predicate for liberal democracy, and rendered himself practically mute, like a developmentally disabled child reared by a pack of wolves.


Wholly bereft of new ideas, deeply insecure, and morally bankrupt, the settler elite has doubled down on its narrative of privilege and power in a dissonant bid to protect the tribal brand, and escape accountability. One black woman journalist described it as “white respectability politics.”

Ours is a ruling class of few serious people. Mediocrity rises like steam, inverting meritocratic values, dissolving democracy, and sealing off a dystopian hell where, “by design, no one’s needs are met¨as Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote.¨

Galloway’s testimony recalls an earlier era when the governed routinely challenged the government, and not always politely, as was the case with Paul Robeson’s 1956 testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee. “I am not being tried for whether I am a communist; I am being tried for fighting for the rights of my people who are still second-class citizens in this United States of America .  .  .  You are the un-Americans, and you ought to be ashamed of yourself.”

Testifying before the same committee four years earlier, Coleman Young, who would go on to become Detroit’s first black mayor, mocked his accusers for mistaking him for a “stool pigeon” when asked to identify black communists, and excoriated a southern lawmaker for his mispronunciation of the word “Negro.”

Robeson and Young bookend a radical black political tradition that is the Rosetta Stone of modern revolution. Between 1865 and 1900, every state below the Mason-Dixon line experimented with integrated political parties that, with varying degrees of success, redistributed wealth downward, creating public education, building hospitals, extending transit lines, and reforming tax laws and the criminal justice system.

Jim Crow disbanded the postbellum rainbow coalitions, but they began to regroup at the Great Depression’s nadir, forming a tripartite alliance between African Americans, Trotskyists and trade unionists who resuscitated a moribund economy, and imbued it with enough buying power to produce the Industrial Age’s most prosperous middle class.

African-Americans’ influence on the body politic is at once mathematical and messianic. With half of white voters typically pitted against the other, the tiebreaker has historically gone to a black electorate that is the nation’s most solidly progressive bloc.  
African-Americans’ influence on the body politic is at once mathematical and messianic. With half of white voters typically pitted against the other, the tiebreaker has historically gone to a black electorate that is the nation’s most solidly progressive bloc.  Just as important, though,  is our use of a political idiom that is grounded in Diasporic oral traditions, which adjudicates the despair and yet ennobles us with its prophetic vision of redemption, like a gospel-choir’s soulful call-and-response, inventing language in a genuine effort to inquire-Where are you? Can you meet me by the creek? Is your pain like mine?-and connect one runaway slave to another on our trek to the promised land.


As irresistible and  improvisational  as the Blues, this narrative has inspired everyone from the Great Liberator, Simon Bolivar, to Ho Chi Minh, Mark Twain to the German cleric and Nazi-fighter Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Beat Poets to the Beatles, and one British MP by the name of George Galloway. Bernardine Dohrn told me a few years ago that she spent her first year at the helm of Students for a Democratic Society touring college campuses nationwide, counseling student organizers to prioritize connecting with their black classmates.

But the political Left began to come undone with the passage of the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, which mandated that trade unions weed out suspected communists, according to the historian Philip Foner, by asking black workers questions such as this:

“Have you ever had dinner with a mixed group?”

And this: Have you ever danced with a white girl?”

Whites, Foner wrote, were asked “have you ever had any conversations that would lead you to believe (the accused) is rather advanced in his thinking on racial matters?”

Taft-Hartley’s pogrom was followed by COINTELPRO, Nixon’s polarizing  Southern Strategy, Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell’s infamous memo to the U.S. business community, the banks’ 1975 takeover of New York City’s budget which provided a blueprint for isolating black trade unionists, and finally, the Democratic Leadership Council’s marginalization of its Left flank.

By January of 2015, organized labor again saw itself in a tripartite alliance, only in league this time with the Democratic Party, and Wall Street. I was starting a communications job at the California Nurses Association–widely regarded as the country’s most progressive labor union–when a cherished San Jose charity hospital went on the auction block. The CNA’s umbrella organization, National Nurses United, or NNU, supported hospital executives’ plan  to sell the facility to a private healthcare provider with a reputation for ripping off Medicaid, its patients, and its workforce. A 2014 federal audit of the hospitals managed by the company, Prime Healthcare, found 217 cases of improperly diagnosed kwashiorkor, a form of malnutrition that is seldom diagnosed in the US, and unsurprisingly, qualifies for relatively high Medicaid reimbursement rates.

Ironically, East San Jose’s working class neighborhoods of Latinos, South Asians, and blacks preferred a bid from Santa Clara County, but the nurses union never bothered to ask their opinion.

Two months later, NNU Director RoseAnn DeMoro called an emergency staff meeting soliciting suggestions from the overwhelmingly white 65 or so attendees.

“If we don’t do something different now, we’re going to die,” she said.

The hand of a young Latina labor organizer shot up. “Why don’t we start to build partnerships with the immigrant rights community that’s politically active and organizing across California,” I recall her saying. “We could really strengthen our own organizing capacity and deepen our roots in a community that is looking to join forces with institutional allies.”

You could’ve heard a gnat piss on cotton in Georgia.

Later, the young organizer would tell me privately me that had she been a white male, and proposed coalescing with some off-brand faction of Silicon Valley white liberals, DeMoro would’ve been positively giddy.

“Everybody knows that RoseAnn loves her white boys,” she said.

Two months later,  I found myself in a half-lit, mildewed, second-floor conference room in the union’s downtown Oakland office, seated among a clutch of maybe 7 or 8 other communications staffers, tasked with identifying “nurses values,” which I had assumed meant that we would pore over completed questionnaires returned by the rank-and-file. Instead, the communications manager, Sarah Cecile, stood astride an easel that leaned like a sprinter at the finish line, her magic marker poised to add to the wan list of nouns that glared accusingly at me, while the mostly-white staff barked out suggestions as if playing a game of charades.

“Wait,” I said, “we’re telling the nurses what their values should be? Shouldn’t we be asking the nurses what their values are, you know, like in a survey, or a poll?”

“That’s a bad word for us,” said a graphic artist. “Polling is frowned upon here.”

“But if we’re telling the rank and file what to do, doesn’t that make the union just another boss that the nurses have to answer to?

I was fired five days later and later wrote about the experience in a blogpost, describing the communications director as a “mediocrity,” and DeMoro as a “monster of staggering charmlessness,” borrowing Richard Burton’s description of Lucille Ball.

In June of this year, the Real News Network’s Executive Producer, Paul Jay, offered me a job heading their Baltimore bureau. I had occasionally watched the left-of-center internet newscast, but similar to Democracy Now, its didactic, top-down, journalism centers whiteness and eschews real reportage and storytelling for a polemical approach that is seldom interesting or impactful, featuring, for example, mostly-white panel discussions about a city whose population is nearly two-thirds African-American, or one reporter interviewing another. Once, their financial crimes expert, Bill Black, was ticking off a series of scandals that have beleaguered recent International Monetary Fund directors, when he dismissed allegations by an African immigrant housekeeper that Dominique Strauss-Kahn had sexually assaulted her in 2011, indicating that  her lies to immigration officials exonerated the banker, parroting the Manhattan District Attorney’s rationale for dismissing the charges.

This narrative raises troubling questions, however. First, aren’t rape shield laws designed to protect sexual assault victims from exactly the kinds of character attacks prosecutors used to qualify dropping the charges? Second, anyone arguing that the sex was consensual would have to ignore the long and sordid history of sexual predation by European men against nonwhite women. And thirdly, the encounter was so brief that it could only have been an assault; to believe otherwise means that a 32-year-old woman saw a middle-aged man emerge naked from the shower, dropped immediately to her knees to perform oral sex, and then left without cleaning the room, risking her union job.

Still, I accepted Jay’s offer, primarily because it would afford me the opportunity to work with Marshall “Eddie” Conway, a former political prisoner who is a hero in Baltimore’s black community; together, I thought we could do quality, narrative journalism that would put viewers in mind of David Simon’s celebrated television series, The Wire.

But Jay rescinded the job offer a week later when he got wind of my CNA blogpost because, he essentially said,  I had been rude to white people.

Since I began working in newsrooms in 1985, I’ve seen journalists describe Hillary Clinton as a “bitch” Serena Williams as a whore, Brazil’s President as a drunk, out an NFL quarterback as gay, and assert that 2Pac deserved to be murdered. None, to my knowledge, suffered any repercussions.

But just as Coleman and Levin had no investment in justice, and DeMoro has none in labor organizing, Jay has no real investment in journalism, only in maintaining a system of white privilege that serves the same purpose as a tariff, protecting whiteness from better-made foreign imports. That white privilege discourages competition and promotes the manufacture of an inferior or mediocre product is of no concern to the vast majority of white Americans, be they reactionaries or liberals.

Language atrophies, democracy rots.

In a sense, communities of color are confronted with the same dilemma that one of Conway’s contemporaries, the slain revolutionary George Jackson, wrote of nearly 50 years ago in his book of prison letters, Blood in My Eye, when he referenced a particular white inmate who could be useful to the black prisoners’ reform movement “when he stops talking honky.”