What White Voters See in Herschel Walker

To be a victim of injustice hurts hard. To be a victim of indifference hurts deeper and longer. And that is what is most gutting about the U.S. Senate runoff in Georgia between Herschel Walker and Senator Raphael Warnock.

How the hell did we get here? I grieve the fact that someone like Mr. Walker actually has a chance at a runoff against the incumbent Senator Warnock. What does it cost us as Black people to see this play out publicly? What does it cost this country?

I mourn what has happened to us as Black people since 2020. With each passing year — whether it was how by 2021 America quickly reneged on its promises of racial progress after the murder of George Floyd or how white people remain protected after an insurrection — we have been reminded that to be Black in America is to live on fragile soil. What keeps and sustains us is never permanent, is often compromised, and besides, is never given freely.

When Mr. Walker announced his campaign in August of last year, I knew that he represented himself less as Black people’s potential representative than white America’s tool. Disgraced former President Donald Trump endorsed Mr. Walker: “Herschel Walker will never let you down.” As the months rolled on, the scandals piled up: the allegation that Mr. Walker, who strongly opposes abortion rights, allegedly paid for his former girlfriend to abort their baby; his son’s rants against his father, and even recent questions about his Georgia residency. Throughout it all, Mr. Walker’s campaign draws from white supremacy’s greatest fantasy and stereotype: using a Black man for white people’s entertainment and consumption.

Mr. Walker is part of a long tradition of Black people willing to distance themselves from the humanity and dreams of their community in exchange for white praise and white power. Black people betraying Black people has a legacy stretching from the plantation to today. Mr. Walker has willingly, as he did in the N.F.L., taken the handoff from the likes of Mr. Trump, Ron DeSantis and Lindsey Graham, shucked and juked and jived over Black people’s real needs, just to hit the end zone and win at the white man’s game.

Despite the ways Senator Warnock in so many ways represents the pinnacle of what white society demands that Black people be in order to be successful — educated and exceptional — 70 percent of white Georgians voted for Mr. Walker, according to exit polls. There is a long history of white Americans trying to pull from the worst of us to destroy the best of what we can become. Senator Warnock, meanwhile, has had to prove his humanity, his leadership and his faith — I’m actually quite tired of seeing ads asking Georgians to declare their trust in Senator Warnock.

No matter how perfect or upstanding we are or how well Black people lead our state, white people seem to always become indifferent when we shout: This is not good for us! Once again Black people have to prove that we are trustworthy and that Senator Warnock is the best choice not just for us, but for America.

Politics aside, positions aside, I have to wonder: what is it that so many white people see as desirable in Herschel? A recent letter to the editor in the Los Angeles Times suggested that it was the power of “celebrity” — that there was something alluring about Mr. Walker dancing his way to the end zone before winning a Heisman Trophy. For others, Mr. Walker is someone who represents Republican exhaustion with what Democrats have to offer. But it is not just celebrity or exhaustion. The race and runoff is a reflection of who white people believe is best for Black people and the nation. Herschel Walker is a very visible and violent symbol of just how far many white people in America will go to preserve a dying world of whiteness they refuse to let go of.

What a sad thing it is to watch a man’s and a people’s desire to destroy even themselves in an attempt to control what America is, means and can become. It is not just white supremacy. It is not just white hatred. It is white ingratitude.

White ingratitude is bent on breaking people’s hearts. It is white ingratitude that refuses to appreciate what Senator Warnock means to Georgia and this country and forces him to prove himself once again. It is white ingratitude that desires the stereotype of the ignorant charismatic Black athlete. It is white ingratitude that disrespects and disregards the Black tradition of faith that wants to both heal the soul and save society. It is white ingratitude that refuses to acknowledge just how deeply racist a vote for Mr. Walker actually is. White ingratitude is not just about open hatred and violence, it is also the everyday ways many white people make life so much harder for those who don’t look like them.

White ingratitude is very real and it is the heart of white power and white supremacy. If you are ungrateful for another person’s humanity and freedom, then you will do all types of things to devalue and disrupt it. Many white people are ungrateful for what Black people mean to America, what we have been, what we have done, what we have given them and what we have endured.

It seems that Reinhold Niebuhr’s words from “Moral Man and Immoral Society,” published in 1932, still ring true: “However large the number of individual white men who do and who will identify themselves completely with the Negro cause, the white race in America will not admit the Negro to equal rights if it is not forced to do so.”

We have done the forcing, again and again. And now what we are left with is not just rage, but the sadness associated with exhaustion. An exhaustion that none of us deserves.

Senator Warnock just might win. The celebration will ensue. A sigh of relief will be had. People will dance and declare how this country “works.” And yet, he just might lose. That is life, American life, American fragility.

No matter what happens the ingratitude and grief will still remain.

And I want America free of both.

Danté Stewart is a writer and speaker on race, religion and politics. He is the author of “Shoutin’ in the Fire: An American Epistle.”

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