20 October 2017

America, White Racism and Donald Trump

Ta-Nehisi Coates on America, white racism and Donald Trump:

• With one immediate exception, Trump's predecessors made their way to high office through the passive power of whiteness — that bloody heirloom which cannot ensure mastery of all events but can conjure a tailwind for most of them.

• It is often said that Trump has no real ideology, which is not true — his ideology is white supremacy, in all its truculent and sanctimonious power.

• But whereas his forebears carried whiteness like an ancestral talisman, Trump cracked the glowing amulet open, releasing its eldritch energies.

• But that is the point of white supremacy — to ensure that that which all others achieve with maximal effort, white people (particularly white men) achieve with minimal qualification. Barack Obama delivered to black people the hoary message that if they work twice as hard as white people, anything is possible. But Trump's counter is persuasive: Work half as hard as black people, and even more is possible.

• Trump truly is something new — the first President whose entire political existence hinges on the fact of a black President. And so it will not suffice to say that Trump is a white man like all the others who rose to become President. He must be called by his rightful honorific — America's first white President.

• The scope of Trump's commitment to whiteness is matched only by the depth of popular disbelief in the power of whiteness.

• The collective verdict holds that the Democratic Party lost its way when it abandoned everyday economic issues like job creation for the softer fare of social justice. The indictment continues: To their neo-liberal economics, Democrats and liberals have married a condescending elitist affect that sneers at blue-collar culture and mocks the white man as history's greatest monster and prime-time television's biggest doofus. In this rendition, Donald Trump is not the product of white supremacy so much as the product of a backlash against contempt for white working-class people.

• That black people, who have lived for centuries under such derision and condescension, have not yet been driven into the arms of Trump does not trouble these theoreticians.

• Ostensibly assaulted by campus protests, battered by arguments about intersectionality, and oppressed by new bathroom rights, a blameless white working class did the only thing any reasonable polity might: elect an orcish reality-television star who insists on taking his intelligence briefings in picture-book form.

• Trump's white support was not determined by income. He assembled a broad white coalition that ran the gamut from Joe the Dishwasher to Joe the Plumber to Joe the Banker. So when white pundits cast the elevation of Trump as the handiwork of an inscrutable white working class, they are being too modest, declining to claim credit for their own economic class.

• If you tallied the popular vote of only white America to derive 2016 electoral votes, Trump would have defeated Clinton 389 to 81.

• The focus on one subsector of Trump voters — the white working class — is puzzling, given the breadth of his white coalition. Indeed, there is a kind of theatre at work in which Trump's Presidency is pawned off as a product of the white working class as opposed to a product of an entire whiteness that includes the very authors doing the pawning. The motive is clear: escapism. To accept that the bloody heirloom remains potent even now, some five decades after Martin Luther King was gunned down on a Memphis balcony — even after a black President; indeed, strengthened by the fact of that black President — is to accept that racism remains, as it has since 1776, at the heart of this country's political life.

• But if the broad and remarkable white support for Donald Trump can be reduced to the righteous anger of a noble class of smallville firefighters and evangelicals, mocked by Brooklyn hipsters and womanist professors into voting against their interests, then the threat of racism and whiteness, the threat of the heirloom, can be dismissed. Consciences can be eased; no deeper existential reckoning is required.

• In law and economics and then in custom, a racist distinction not limited to the household emerged between the 'help' (the 'freemen', the white workers) and the 'servants' (the 'negers', the slaves). The former were virtuous and just, worthy of citizenship, progeny of Jefferson and, later, Jackson. The latter were servile and parasitic, dim-witted and lazy, the children of African savagery.

• Black workers suffer because it was and is our lot. But when white workers suffer, something in nature has gone awry. And so an opioid epidemic among mostly white people is greeted with calls for compassion and treatment, as all epidemics should be, while a crack epidemic among mostly black people is greeted with scorn and mandatory minimums. Sympathetic op‑ed columns and articles are devoted to the plight of working-class whites when their life expectancy plummets to levels that, for blacks, society has simply accepted as normal. White slavery is sin. Nigger slavery is natural.

• Speaking in 1848, Senator John C Calhoun: "With us the two great divisions of society are not the rich and poor, but white and black; and all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals."

• On the eve of secession, Jefferson Davis, the eventual President of the Confederacy, pushed the idea further, arguing that such equality between the white working class and white oligarchs could not exist at all without black slavery: "I say that the lower race of human beings that constitute the substratum of what is termed the slave population of the South, elevates every white man in our community. It is the presence of a lower caste, those lower by their mental and physical organisation, controlled by the higher intellect of the white man, that gives this superiority to the white labourer."

• "These days, what ails working-class and middle-class blacks and Latinos is not fundamentally different from what ails their white counterparts", Senator Barack Obama wrote in 2006: "Downsizing, outsourcing, automation, wage stagnation, the dismantling of employer-based health-care and pension plans, and schools that fail to teach young people the skills they need to compete in a global economy". Obama allowed that "blacks in particular have been vulnerable to these trends" — but less because of racism than for reasons of geography and job-sector distribution. This notion — raceless anti-racism — marks the modern left, from the New Democrat Bill Clinton to the socialist Bernie Sanders. Few national liberal politicians have shown any recognition that there is something systemic and particular in the relationship between black people and their country that might require specific policy solutions.

• If anyone should be angered by the devastation wreaked by the financial sector and a government that declined to prosecute the perpetrators, it is African Americans — the housing crisis was one of the primary drivers in the past 20 years of the wealth gap between black families and the rest of the country. But the cultural condescension toward and economic anxiety of black people is not news. Toiling blacks are in their proper state; toiling whites raise the specter of white slavery.

• A narrative of long-neglected working-class black voters, injured by globalisation and the financial crisis, and forsaken by out-of-touch politicians, does not serve to cleanse the conscience of white people for having elected Donald Trump. Only the idea of a long-suffering white working class can do that.

• "You can't eat equality", asserts Joe Biden — a statement worthy of someone unthreatened by the loss of wages brought on by an unwanted pregnancy, a background-check box at the bottom of a job application, or the deportation of a breadwinner.

• Certainly not every Trump voter is a white supremacist, just as not every white person in the Jim Crow South was a white supremacist. But every Trump voter felt it acceptable to hand the fate of the country over to one.

• The white working class functions rhetorically not as a real community of people so much as a tool to quiet the demands of those who want a more inclusive America.

• What appeals to the white working class is ennobled. What appeals to black workers, and all others outside the tribe, is dastardly identitarianism. All politics are identity politics — except the politics of white people, the politics of the bloody heirloom.

• Any empirical evaluation of the relationship between Trump and the white working class would reveal that one adjective in that phrase is doing more work than the other. In 2016, Trump enjoyed majority or plurality support among every economic branch of whites.

• The real problem is that Democrats aren't the party of white people — working or otherwise. White workers are not divided by the fact of labour from other white demographics; they are divided from all other labourers by the fact of their whiteness.

• Packer concludes that Obama was leaving the country "more divided and angrier than most Americans can remember", a statement that is likely true only because most Americans identify as white. Certainly the men and women forced to live in the wake of the beating of John Lewis, the lynching of Emmett Till, the firebombing of Percy Julian's home, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers would disagree.

• The triumph of Trump's campaign of bigotry presented the problematic spectacle of an American President succeeding at best in spite of his racism and possibly because of it. Trump moved racism from the euphemistic and plausibly deniable to the overt and freely claimed.

• The implications — that systemic bigotry is still central to our politics; that the country is susceptible to such bigotry; that the salt-of-the-earth Americans whom we lionise in our culture and politics are not so different from those same Americans who grin back at us in lynching photos — were just too dark.

• Incorporating all of this into an analysis of America and the path forward proved too much to ask. Instead, the response has largely been an argument aimed at emotion — the summoning of the white working class, emblem of America's hardscrabble roots, inheritor of its pioneer spirit, as a shield against the horrific and empirical evidence of trenchant bigotry.

• The inference is that the Democratic Party has forgotten how to speak on hard economic issues and prefers discussing presumably softer cultural issues such as "diversity". It's worth unpacking what, precisely, falls under this rubric of "diversity" — resistance to the monstrous incarceration of legions of black men, resistance to the destruction of health providers for poor women, resistance to the effort to deport parents, resistance to a policing whose sole legitimacy is rooted in brute force, resistance to a theory of education that preaches "no excuses" to black and brown children, even as excuses are proffered for mendacious corporate executives "too big to jail".

• The first black President found that he was personally toxic to the GOP base. It was thought by Obama and some of his allies that this toxicity was the result of a relentless assault waged by Fox News and right-wing talk radio. Trump's genius was to see that it was something more, that it was a hunger for revanche so strong that a political novice and accused rapist could topple the leadership of one major party and throttle the heavily favoured nominee of the other.

• Trump, more than any other politician, understood the valence of the bloody heirloom and the great power in not being a nigger.

• In a recent 'New Yorker' article, a former Russian military officer pointed out that interference in an election could succeed only where "necessary conditions" and an "existing background" were present. In America, that "existing background" was a persistent racism, and the "necessary condition" was a black President.

• And so the most powerful country in the world has handed over all its affairs — the prosperity of its entire economy; the security of its 300 million citizens; the purity of its water, the viability of its air, the safety of its food; the future of its vast system of education; the soundness of its national highways, airways, and railways; the apocalyptic potential of its nuclear arsenal — to a carnival barker who introduced the phrase "grab 'em by the pussy" into the national lexicon. It is as if the white tribe united in demonstration to say, "If a black man can be President, then any white man — no matter how fallen — can be President". And in that perverse way, the democratic dreams of Jefferson and Jackson were fulfilled.

• Trump's legacy will be exposing the patina of decency for what it is and revealing just how much a demagogue can get away with. It does not take much to imagine another politician, wiser in the ways of Washington and better schooled in the methodology of governance — and now liberated from the pretence of anti-racist civility — doing a much more effective job than Trump.

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