Wednesday’s peculiar YouTube remarks by “Dilbert” cartoonist Scott Adams about Black Americans being a “hate group” have certainly received a lot of attention. Hundreds of newspapers across the U.S. have now dropped Adams’s strip.
What’s gotten almost no notice, however, is how Adams went on at length about his efforts to be “helpful to Black America.” But my ears perked up when I heard this, since the most berserk racial ultraviolence in U.S. history has always been accompanied by this kind of rhetoric from white Americans — i.e., we’ve done our best to help others, only for them to turn around and loathe us rather than respond with the gratitude we deserve for our openhearted kindness.
Here’s some of what Adams said on this subject:
As you know, I’ve been identifying as Black for a while. Years now, because I like to be on the winning team.
And I like to help. And I thought, if you help the Black community, that’s sort of the biggest lever, you can find the biggest benefit. … So I like to focus a lot of my life resources on helping Black Americans. So much so that I started identifying as Black, just to be on the team I was helping. …
I think it makes no sense as a white citizen of America to try to help Black citizens anymore. … That’s no longer a rational impulse. I’m going to back off from being helpful to Black America, because it doesn’t seem like it pays off. I’ve been doing it all my life, and the only outcome is that I’ve been called a racist. It makes no sense to help Black Americans if you’re white. … Don’t even think it’s worth trying.
Now here’s what white Americans have been saying for the past 400 years about Native Americans, African Americans, Vietnamese people, Iraqis, and many, many other people. See if you can spot a pattern.
The first seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, created after King Charles I granted the colony a charter in 1629, portrayed a Native American saying, “Come Over and Help Us.” Just eight years later, during the Pequot massacre, the men of Massachusetts helped about 500 women, children, and other civilians become dead.
By the early 1800s, white America had decided that we had to separate ourselves from the ungrateful wretches surrounding us. President Andrew Jackson began his famous 1830 speech to Congress with the happy news that “the benevolent policy of the government, steadily pursued for nearly 30 years, in relation to the removal of the Indians beyond the white settlements is approaching to a happy consummation.” This was all thanks to how nice we were. “The policy of the general government toward the red man,” said Jackson, “is not only liberal, but generous.”
The government’s benevolent policy had already been enacted by Jackson’s soldiers during the Creek War in 1814, when they removed strips of skin from their defeated enemies and made bridles for their horses out of them. Then, after Jackson’s speech, the government helped about 60,000 Native Americans experience the Trail of Tears.
It wasn’t too much later that President Teddy Roosevelt explained in his book “The Winning of the West” that “no other conquering and colonizing nation has ever treated the original savage owners of the soil with such generosity as has the United States.”
You might ask what the reaction of Indigenous people was to all this help. Sadly, there was just a total lack of appreciation. As the Rocky Mountain News pointed out, they were an “ungrateful race” that “ought to be wiped from the face of the earth.”
And what about slavery? You guessed it: It was also the product of white America’s sincere efforts to help others. One well-known elucidation of this concept was written before the Civil War by William Gilmore Simms, a popular novelist and member of the South Carolina House of Representatives. As he put it, slavery was “not simply within the sanctions of justice and propriety, but constituting one of the most essential agencies … for elevating, to a condition of humanity, a people otherwise barbarous, easily depraved, and needing the help of a superior condition.”
Another South Carolinian, John Calhoun, had similar insights. Slavery, he argued, was a “positive good” for enslaved people and demonstrated the lengths slave owners would go to in their efforts to help others. “In few countries so much is left to the share of the laborer,” Calhoun said in a speech on the floor of the Senate, “and so little exacted from him, or where there is more kind attention paid to him in sickness or infirmities of age.”
This led to a lot of white people getting their feelings hurt when their benevolence wasn’t recognized. Harriet Jacobs escaped a plantation in North Carolina and later wrote about her attempts to persuade her owner — who raped many of the women he enslaved — to sell her to someone else:
On such occasions he would assume the air of a very injured individual, and reproach me for my ingratitude. “Did I not take you into the house, and make you the companion of my own children?” he would say. “And this is the recompense I get, you ungrateful girl!”
U.S. history just goes on from there in exactly the same way. In 1966, the editor of U.S. News & World Report told the publication’s readers that “what the United States is doing in Vietnam is the most significant example of philanthropy extended by one people to another that we have witnessed in our times.” When challenged, he responded that “primitive peoples with savagery in their hearts have to be helped to understand the true basis of a civilized existence.” A recent book on Vietnam records that “in the oral and written accounts, the [American soldiers] in Vietnam constantly register bitter complains about what they consider Vietnamese ingratitude.”
The Iraq War was, of course, all about helping Iraqis. In a speech just before the U.S. and its allies invaded, President George W. Bush proclaimed, “The United States and our coalition stand ready to help the citizens of a liberated Iraq.” Trent Lott of Mississippi, then the top Senate Republican, agreed after the war had started, saying, “We went in there to free those people.”
It was a beautiful moment, but America soon ran into the same problem we’d faced so often before. Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard took a trip to Iraq and reported that “Iraqis want help. Indeed, they demand it and are angry and frustrated when they don’t get it instantly. But they appear to hate being helped.” Barnes said he’d like to see “an outbreak of gratitude for the greatest act of benevolence one country has ever done for another.” Instead, Iraqis were “sullen and suspicious and conspiracy-minded. … Papers obsess on the subject of brutal treatment of innocent Iraqis by American soldiers.” For Lott’s part, by this time, he was musing that “if we have to, we just mow the whole place down, see what happens.”
That brings us up to today and the genuine distress of Scott Adams. People like him have been helping so many others, so vigorously, for so many centuries. It’s no wonder that he’s tired of not getting the least bit of thanks.