Sunday, February 21, 2016

Donald Trump and the Crisis of White Identity

As Donald Trump has gone from a bad joke to a potential president, we need to think more seriously about the nature of his appeal. One school of thought says that White working class voters (more on this problematic label later) are supporting Trump because they have seen their economic prospects decline. Wages have stagnated for over a decade. Jobs were lost in the great recession that are never coming back. The hardship is real. But the way the media talks about Trump's supporters has the unintended effect of making excuses for White racism. Trump's followers have "economic anxiety" the pundits intone, as if this explains why they would find racism and bigotry appealing, as if economic setbacks are naturally greeted with cultural resentment and wild cheering for a mean-spirited demagogue. The unstated assumption is that when Whites face economic hardship much less severe than what people of color have faced decade upon decade, it is understandable--perhaps even reasonable!-- for them to lash out.

Measured by standards of White economic prosperity, Black Americans have faced an economic depression for...several centuries. Why have Black Americans failed to build large political movements in support of demagogues? Imagine a Black demagogue winning primary elections while calling Whites rapists, demanding a ban on White immigration, and excusing his supporters as they beat up White protesters. I ask you to seriously imagine it, because it's a revealing counterfactual. Would the media chalk it up to "economic anxiety" and "controversial" talk? The media framing of Trump's racism as a "tell it like it is brashness" reflects our basic familiarity and comfort with White racism. Trump doesn't necessarily strike fear into the heart of the White mainstream because it is not, after all, his target. And we who are White know this. We are in the majority. If Trump becomes president, we know we will not be in the firing line. Trump's supporters love him because he validates their Whiteness. Ironically, his detractors unconsciously draw on that same Whiteness as we fail to denounce him with the moral urgency his rise demands. 

To be clear, the economic anxiety narrative makes a lot of sense on its face. After all, the economic problems are real enough. Not only that, Trump has substantive differences with GOP orthodoxy that may draw voters to him. There are lots of Republicans who favor more protectionist trade policy, less immigration, and robust welfare programs for the elderly. Trump offers them this policy mix, while other Republican politicians traditionally do not. But it is irresponsible to discuss these factors without accounting for the crucial--indeed, decisive--way White identity intersects with and animates these issues. The economic anxiety narrative actually fails to explain what is most in need of explanation: why should stagnant wages make racism, bigotry, and plain mean-spiritedness more appealing? Many people, myself included, have marveled at the stickiness of Trump's support. It seems as though he can say almost anything and retain the allegiance of nearly a third of Republican voters. This is because Trump's campaign is at bottom an appeal to identity.
Characteristically conflating nationalism and White supremacy, Klan members march in the nation's capital. 1925.
What Trump's ascendance reveals, and the economic anxiety narrative fails to grapple with, is the underlying crisis of White American identity. Forged in conquest and enslavement of others, fortified in exclusionary campaigns for political, economic, and social supremacy, White identity retains implicitly many of the assumptions of its creation. Implicit in White identity is an entitlement to success. Yet many White Americans are not successful. And the oppression that created the entitlement is no longer socially acceptable. Even the currency of the "psychological wage" of Whiteness that Du Bois famously wrote about seems to have depreciated in value. For most of American history, even the poorest Whites could act out their sense of superiority over Black Americans, from the commonplace--calling a Black man "boy"--to the extraordinary spectacle of lynchings attended by thousands. In a post-civil rights movement society where equality and freedom for all is our publicly-avowed ethic, White identity is unmoored from its founding logic. Yet no coherent mass White identity has emerged to take its place. Perhaps more than ever before, we don't know how to understand a society where two things at once are true: Whiteness is advantaged, and millions of White people live in poverty and despair.

There are nineteen million poor White Americans, the census bureau estimates. Yet our popular media and cultural narratives have no room for them. We can't even talk about them. Poor Whites are "working class" or "blue collar." They are not poor. Why? Because to be poor is to contradict the basic narrative of Whiteness. To be poor and Black is to be a stereotype. To be poor and White is to be beneath one's (entitled) station. To be poor and White is to be ridiculed, yes; but more than that it is to be ignored altogether. When the anthropologist Kirby Moss launched a project to study poor Whites in a Midwestern city, people encountered him with surprise and confusion. Not only did they assume he would be White, they assumed that an anthropologist studying urban poverty must be studying Black people. Revealing, isn't it?

In his book, The Color of Class: Poor Whites and the Paradox of Privilege, Moss argued that poor whites are basically invisible in the public representation of Whiteness. They exist in an anomalous position: while their material lives are shaped by poverty, their identities are tied to Whiteness, which is not associated with poverty (except in certain specific tropes tied especially to the South and Appalachia). We desperately need a Whiteness that has room for them, a Whiteness in which success is not a birthright, where solidarity is more important than hierarchy, where poverty is not stigma, and where the self-serving fables of the rich are not accepted as sober economic analysis. In short, we need nothing less than the abolition of Whiteness as we have known it. Instead, the political mobilization around Donald Trump is encouraging Whites to double-down on our legacy of exclusionary political movements. It invites us to return to that great White myth: that success is a zero-sum game, that greater opportunities for others mean less opportunity for us.

We must be honest about the history by which we became White. The peoples who became White in the United States forged their collective identity in contexts of supremacy. One of our nation's first laws, the Naturalization Act of 1790, declared that only White persons could become naturalized as citizens. Whiteness became associated with so-called civilization, with manliness, with the ability to deploy the labor of others, to own land, to prosper, with American nationalism itself. Even if one did not own land or employ others, one could hope in the boundless potential of free White labor. According to civil war-era Republican ideology, the common (White) man would rise by the fruits of his labor, untainted by Black slavery. Southern White Democrats, demanding a Whiteness that used rather than excluded Black labor, fought back against Reconstruction with paramilitary violence and terrorism. Whites on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line came to believe that Reconstruction had been a disastrous experiment in Black empowerment. Driven in part by their shared commitment to White supremacy, they reconciled after the bitterness of civil war. The decades around the turn of the century saw Whites mobilizing in nativist campaigns against the mass immigration from Eastern Europe of people of questionable Whiteness. In the first decades of the twentieth century, White middle class progressives sought to remake the country in their image, offering assimilation for some and racist eugenics for others. In the 1920s the Ku Klux Klan was reborn as a national organization with millions of members. Mixing White supremacy, American nationalism, and Protestant Christianity the 1920s Klan exemplified the powerful conflation of Whiteness with other values that has characterized much of American history. White political movements have run the gamut from exclusionary to assimilationist. They have seldom been liberatory.

In contrast, the various peoples who became Black in the United States forged their collective identity in contexts of oppression. It was and is an identity characterized by narratives of resistance, resilience, and solidarity. We're all in this together. Even if these tropes operated at the level of myth more often than not, they became powerful tools of cultural and political mobilization. Black political movements have been rooted in the specific challenges African Americans face, but they have tended to promise enduring benefits to the entirety of America. From Reconstruction to the Great Migration, the civil rights struggle, and Black Lives Matter, movements grounded in the particular problems of Black Americans have offered visions of greater justice and opportunity for all Americans.*

The meanings of race, and the boundaries it imposes, have always been unstable. Whiteness has grown to encompass more groups and what it means to be White has continually changed. We are not doomed to endlessly repeat our legacy of exclusionary political movements. We can learn from the Black political tradition. And we can remember the minority of Whites at every historical moment who resisted the dominant investment in Whiteness in their time. As the meaning of race and racism transform once again in our own time, we have the opportunity and the responsibility to build a new Whiteness. As George Lipsitz has written, if we do not actively cultivate an anti-racist White identity, we will be consumed by our investment in a White identity that is inherently destructive.

*Black nationalist and radical traditions, from Henry McNeal Turner to Marcus Garvey to Black Power, might at a glance seem to defy the narrative of an inclusive Black political tradition. But we must draw a sharp line of distinction between political mobilizations designed to oppress a minority group, and those minority groups' efforts to respond to their exclusion from the dominant society. Black nationalism has played an important and necessary role in resisting oppression.

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