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What’s Wrong with White People?

June 26, 2018

White People

“… But the thing is, we treat racism in this country like it’s a style that America went through. Like flared legs and lava lamps. Oh, that crazy thing we did. We were hanging black people. We treat it like a fad instead of a disease that eradicates millions of people. You’ve got to get it at a lab, and study it, and see its origins, and see what it’s immune to and what breaks it down.”  Chris Rock (2014)

If you voted for Donald Trump, the odds are roughly 7 to 1 that you’re white (and, of course, you probably wouldn’t be reading this). Trump got 58 percent of the white vote. Most white women voted for Trump! He won whites with a college degree by 4 points and whites without a degree by 39 points! And now we have the most overtly racist administration since Woodrow Wilson’s. Think of it as an ongoing white riot.

Since the election, a lot of people have tried to analyze how this happened. Most of the theories boil down to two things. One is the systemic loss of decent-paying blue collar jobs–especially in manufacturing–which has fueled anger among working class voters. The other is a heightened cultural clash between religious conservatives and secular elites.

Both explanations sound plausible except for one big thing:  They have produced very different outcomes depending on the race of the voter. The black working class has been hit at least as hard–often much harder–as whites by the the loss of manufacturing jobs and the erosion of blue collar wages. And black churches are usually even more conservative in their theology and social values than most white congregations. And yet black voters overwhelmingly rejected Trump–including in the rust-belt states that made the difference in the electoral college. In Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin, Trump got no more than 7 percent of the black vote in any state.

Clearly something else is going on here, and I think fundamentally that something is resurgent racism. Conservative pundit David Brooks has opined that Republican voters “went for the tribalism of Donald Trump because at least he gave them a sense of social belonging”, which is a genteel way of saying the same thing. Yes, it’s more complex than that, but that’s the bedrock that everything else is piled on top of.

We could see it during the campaign at Trump’s rallies in which brown faces were as rare as hen’s teeth. We could see it in the travel ban imposed on oddly selected Muslim countries (a modified version of which a deeply divided Supreme Court has just upheld). We could see it in Trump’s slanderous characterizations of Mexicans and his greatest-hit demand to “build the Wall”. We could see it in his referring to black communities as dysfunctional “war zones” and his obvious disdain for black political leaders. We could see it in his flirtations with avowed white supremists, the inclusion of white nationalists like Stephen Miller, Steve Bannon, and Sebastian Gorka in the White House staff, and his implied defense of white nationalists in the lethal Charlotteville confrontations. Trump’s supporters ate it up! And the more Democrats and mainstream media criticized him, the more they loved it.

Before the campaign, we saw it in Trump’s “birther” lie and his role in what amounted to a judicial lynching of the five young black and hispanic men convicted of rape (all eventually and definitively exonerated) in the Central Park jogger case. It all goes way back.

And now we have seen the manufactured “crisis” at the southern border created by snatching migrant children away from their parents under a “zero tolerance” policy explicitly designed to show “toughness” on border security in order to rev up enthusiasm among Trump’s base.

There’s no longer any question about where Trump is on the racism spectrum. As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in his book We Were Eight Years in Power,  “His ideology is white supremacy in all of its truculent and sanctimonious power.” The question is why do most white people support him?

The fact is that racism is as American as apple pie and goes back to the country’s earliest roots. Historically, African-Americans have most often borne the brunt of white America’s physical, legal, economic, and cultural abuse intended to keep them from true equality as citizens (which Carol Anderson’s excellent book White Rage documents in unflinching detail), but the same has been true for Latinos, Native Americans, Asians, and other non-whites. Our history (mostly untaught in school) shows that whenever barriers come down allowing people of color to exercise rights they didn’t have before or claim social space that they should be entitled to, there is a virulent white backlash. We saw this latest wave unleashed when Barack Obama was elected president, and Trump has ridden that wave into the White House.

Where does all that hatred come from? Theories abound, but they all basically come down to fear. It can be fear of losing status or of being supplanted. If life is viewed as a zero-sum game, then someone else’s rise means that you have gone down a peg. It’s often fear of something distant and heard about rather than something experienced on a personal level. It’s not an accident that anti-immigration attitudes are greatest in places where there is the least amount of it. An entire media industry is based on fear-mongering. Right-wing radio, Fox News, and social media pound fear into the eyes and ears of millions of people every day, but mainstream media do a lot of the same thing, if less crudely and egregiously.

What seems different now is that we have a president and a Republican party whose operating principle is to exacerbate those fears and are willing–even eager–to tell lies to advance their agendas. The message they’re sending is that it’s okay to be racist, and it’s being heard loud and clear. White people are being told that they’re the real victims, and they believe it with cult-like immunity to reason or facts. Images of Honduran toddlers wailing for their mothers have no emotional impact because they are told that these people are here to “infest” the country with crime and drugs, and rural white communities dying from self-inflicted opioid addiction lap it up like gospel. There’s no sympathy for people fleeing far worse horrors. These are people ripe for a fascist demagogue and they’re getting one.

Let’s be real. The future of democracy in America rests in the hands of African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans, and other people of color, because they are the ones that still have the American dream that too many white Americans have corrupted or abandoned. That’s why I, for one, will not be sad to see the day when whites are no longer the demographic majority. If you’re white like me and hate what you see happening to this country, it’s time to embrace that future before it’s too late.

If you want a little empathy, listen to Dave Chapelle, whose comedy specials have perhaps the most incisive social commentary available anywhere today:

“I’ve never had a problem with white people ever in my life. But full disclosure: The poor whites are my least favorite. We’ve got a lot of trouble out of them. I looked them right in their coal-smeared faces. I didn’t see one deplorable face in that group. They felt like decent folk. I felt sorry for them….I know the game now. I know that rich people call poor white people ‘trash.’ And the only reason I know that is I made so much money last year that the rich whites told me they say it at a cocktail party…I stood in line–nobody skips the line to vote–and I listened to them say naive poor white people things–‘my man Donald Trump is going to go to Washington and he’s gonna fight for us.’ I’m standing there thinking, ‘you dumb motherfuckers… you are poor. He’s fighting for [rich people like] me!”

Watch the whole clip here.

 

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