Thursday, August 27, 2009

pine for a "great white hope"

Lynn Jenkins (R-Topeka)
"Republicans are struggling right now to find the great white hope."

So was this a Freudian Slip, or was Lynn Jenkins simply being especially honest about Republican strategy these days?

This phrase -- "great white hope" -- reminds me of a phrase I used to hear when I was a kid: "Say, that's mighty white of you!"

For a long time, I didn't realize that that phrase had anything to do with race. And I think it's possible -- unlikely, but possible -- that some of the adults I heard saying "that's mighty white of you!" didn't realize that either.

Is it possible that, despite the racialized context of her remarks, Lynn Jenkins didn't mean that the whiteness of the hope she says Republicans are looking for has anything at all to do with race?

As the Topeka Capital-Journal reports, Lynn Jenkins now claims, of course, that she wasn't talking about race:

U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins offered encouragement to conservatives at a town hall forum that the Republican Party would embrace a "great white hope" capable of thwarting the political agenda endorsed by Democrats who control Congress and President Barack Obama.

Jenkins, a Topeka Republican in her first term in Congress, shared thoughts about the GOP's political future during an Aug. 19 forum at Fisher Community Center in the northeast Kansas community of Hiawatha.

In response to inquiries by The Topeka Capital-Journal, a Jenkins spokeswoman said Wednesday the congresswoman wanted to apologize for her word choice and to emphasize she had no intention of expressing herself in an offensive manner.

Jenkins told people at the Hiawatha forum the nation could benefit from inspired leadership of a group of "really sharp" young Republicans in the House, particularly Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va. Cantor was mentioned as a possible GOP vice presidential candidate in 2008 and is thought to be interested in seeking the Republican nomination for president in 2012.

"Republicans are struggling right now to find the great white hope," Jenkins said to the crowd. "I suggest to any of you who are concerned about that, who are Republican, there are some great young Republican minds in Washington."

A videotape of the presentation contains footage of Jenkins identifying three members of the U.S. House -- Cantor, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis. -- as future movers and shakers in the GOP. All are white, as is Jenkins.

"So don't, you know, lose faith if you are a conservative," Jenkins said in Hiawatha . . .

The Capital-Journal also helpfully explains the term's racist origins:

The phrase "great white hope" is frequently tied to racist attitudes permeating the United States when heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson fought in the early 1900s. Reaction to the first black man to reign as champion was intense enough to build support for a campaign to find a white fighter capable of reclaiming the title from Johnson.

When Lynn Jenkins' use of this phrase raised eyebrows and hackles, she sent out a minion to explain what she really meant:

Mary Geiger, a spokeswoman for Jenkins, said the reference to a great white hope wasn't meant to denote a preference by Jenkins for politicians of a particular "race, creed or any background." Jenkins was expressing faith fellow GOP representatives in the House would be key players in returning Republicans to a leadership role in Washington, Geiger said.

"There may be some misunderstanding there when she talked about the great white hope," Geiger said. "What she meant by it is they have a bright future. They're bright lights within the party."

Jenkins wasn't available to comment personally on her presentation in Hiawatha, Geiger said.

Geiger said she had never previously heard Jenkins use the phrase "great white hope" in a political speech or private conversation.

Yeah, that's it -- by "white" she mean "bright," as in a "blindingly bright, white light."

That works. Doesn't it?

Bright, as in, a "blindingly bright, white political party."

Oh, wait a minute . . .

[thanks to swpd reader AM]

UPDATE (8/28/90): It appears that the phrase "great white hope," and its racist origins, had just recently crossed Jenkins' mind. According to the Ottawa Herald, Jenkins

supported a resolution that included that exact phrase last month when the House approved by unanimous consent a measure urging President Obama to pardon black U.S. boxer Jack Johnson. . . .

Within the resolution passed by the House July 29 was a passage that read, “Whereas the victory by Jack Johnson over Tommy Burns prompted a search for a White boxer who could beat Jack Johnson, a recruitment effort that was dubbed the search for the ‘great white hope.’”


  1. I came over here to tell you about this great white hope story, and you have already posted it. Racism is alive, well and unapologetic. There's nothing like a black president to cause racism to come out and show its face. It could be seen as a good thing - The racism is always there, but it's so blatant now. Maybe we can use this moment to help change our country a little more.

  2. They must think we're stupid.

    All these "slips." It's hilarious.

  3. Kudos to the Capitol-Journal for taking the time to actually explain why her comment was based in racism rather than just reporting it as a poor choice of innocently using the word "white" in the PC/Obama era, as Jenkins tried to claim!

    Yet another public apology that's even more upsetting than the original offense. Just once I'd like to hear a famous person caught saying something insulting make a public apology that not only admits wrong doing but admits WHY their mistake happened (not to be confused with making excuses). Will any celebrity out there ever acknowledge the existence of their privilege? (Donating $ to those poor starving African babies doesn't count.)

  4. I agree with Clarita,it is all above ground now. So lets deal with this in the open..Change in our country is definitly needed, so let the them hang their dirty laundry out for all to see.
    Great Blog Man.

  5. Bright, as in, a "blindingly bright, white political party."
    No, it's dumb, as in, a big stupid post.

    She's either racist or very stupid (and racist).

  6. You know, I'd believe that she didn't know the racial context and that she was ignorant enough to not think that it might seem racially inappropriate (at the least). IF SHE WOULD JUST HAVE SAID SO

    Cause I'm sure she doesn't know crap about Jack Johnson & even less about her white privilege.

    I mean really, how much thought does it take?

  7. @ Clarita - I agree. This has made people come out in the open with their racism, which means it can be confronted and challenged.

    It definitely was no slip. Now, she may not have known the origins of the phrase, but "great white hope" is pretty unambiguous. Especially in reference to the GOP

  8. I work as a journalist in the trade press, and I can't tell you how many times I've had to cut out the phrase "great white hope" from other people's copy, used (seemingly) without an understanding that has anything whatsoever to do with race. You'd think that people would be sensitive enough to at least google and think "does this phrase have some meaning I'm not aware of?", but apparently not so much.

    To that degree, I can kind of believe that it was a slip and not used deliberately or as a racist dog-whistle (although she's a politician, so how credible is it no-one on her staff knew?). But the fact that the phrase is used so commonly without understanding its original context and meaning, says something in and of itself?

  9. Sometimes I don't entirely agree when people complain about the use of 'black' or 'white' in colloquial expressions because they predate the racial use of those terms and don't really have any racial content. Yeah, maybe one should avoid using terms like those in sensitive contexts, but it seems a shame that earlier usages should fall into disrepute because of basically accidental associations with later ones.

    But, well, this one is blatantly about race and always was.

    I still think its not clear whether its conscious racism, unconscious racism, or stupidity at work here though.

    Is there a web-site with a comprehensive list of such faux-pas, differentiating between the accidental (as I would assume 'blackmail' is) and the historically racist (as in this one) expressions?

  10. Well, at least she is honest. Some people will pretend and say things to please everyone. At least she is honest about what she is saying.

    Better the devil you know, as they say.

  11. I'm not going to lie. I didn't know the origins of this phrase. But I also try as much as possible to avoid turns of phrase that I don't know the meaning of, especially if they have any words that do have a cause for pause. And I don't think I've ever said "great white hope" for that reason. It definitely sounds suspicious.
    Plus you don't want to walk around saying things with connotations that you honestly didn't mean to have, and have to explain it's because you were too clueless to google it.

  12. I guess that's the congresswoman's way of saying "I want my country back", except she went straight to the root of the matter.


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