Congratulations White people. We really did it this time! Until two in the morning I retained some hope that, despite our historical shortsightedness (see: slavery, Jim Crow, The Gap), we might avoid electing an openly racist authoritarian as president this year. But we just did that, White people.
Why do I address this to White people? Well, the results are stark. Almost two-thirds of us voted for Trump, while at least two-thirds of every other racial community rejected him. The president-elect has a racial mandate that Van Jones of CNN called a "Whitelash." If we are going to continue a fight for justice and equity in this country, we have to be honest about what just happened. We cannot explain the results of the presidential election of 2016 without two words: White supremacy.
I’m about to go on a rant, but before we have this conversation, I want to apologize in advance, to White people. Unless you are a rare bird indeed, you’re about to have an emotional reaction. Many of you will be annoyed by this conversation about White supremacy and reach for other ways to explain what happened last night. (Misogyny! Yes, but not alone. Economic anxiety! Yes, but rich White people, though.) You cannot explain Trump’s victory without discussing White supremacy. If you’re like me, this conversation tap dances on the most sensitive parts of your identity, so I want to be clear about something: I am not saying all White people are White supremacists, or even that all Donald Trump supporters are. Did that help ease the stress a little? Maybe we can all grab a can of sparkling water to chill out, too. Perhaps a delicious LaCroix? Yeah. That's nice, isn't it?
Ok, are we settled? Great. Now, we can probably agree on the fact that White supremacy was a bedrock of American culture for hundreds of years. The Constitution literally said that White men were worth more as humans than all other kinds of people; the founders were not ambivalent on this topic. If today’s politics seem rough, we fought a war over folks’ desire to preserve this idea in law, and only after the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people did our country change the Constitution to reflect slightly more progressive mores.
I say “slightly,” because it’s not like everything after the 1860s has been unicorns shitting butterflies, but we know that, right? Even though we abolished slavery and made it harder to dehumanize Black people, the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments did not eradicate White supremacy. Think of all of the shitty racist things that happened after that: the post-reconstruction era, lynching, Paula Deen, de facto segregation throughout the North, and racialized police violence, to name a few.
So, if White supremacy didn’t die when we ctrl-X’d the most noxious parts of the Constitution, when did it go away?
This is where I have some bad news, White folks. I’m about to let you in on a little secret that our friends of color have always known:
*Whispers* White supremacy never went away. It’s everywhere.
Look around. Throughout this presidential contest, we saw a lot of legitimate White supremacy on display. When @HeilHilter on twitter says “Kill the blacks!” we can all agree that the person behind the account is a White supremacist, probably living in a remodeled basement. When the KKK endorses a candidate, and in the process says, “America was founded as a White Christian Republic. And as a White Christian Republic it became great,” that’s White supremacy.
This overt rhetoric might be called “personal White supremacy.” As with personal racism, we’re all comfortable repudiating the individuals who express blatant prejudice. It’s convenient to hate on them, not just because their expressions of racist beliefs are so objectionable, but because in the process of dismissing them, we cleanse our own shame over what lies below their ideas.
Unfortunately, White supremacy no longer depends on personal White supremacists, or even a legal framework, to support its existence. White dominance is so ingrained in our culture that White supremacy does not need a formal system to survive.
If you’re skeptical about this idea, think about power and influence, of which White people still wield a disproportionate amount. Remember #OscarsSoWhite, the twitter hashtag that April Reign created to call attention to the fact that almost all of the Oscar nominees were White last year? That hashtag, and the movement behind it, gained traction because it told a simple, and true, demographic story about a group of people: film actors, as a whole, are a Whiter group than the population at large; among that already lopsided group, the group of honorees was even more disproportionately White.
Guess what else in America is “so White,” though? Like, literally everything. The House of Representatives, editorial boards, The National Hockey League, police, teachers, baristas, folk singers, the cast of every show on CBS, and just about every power-wielding corner of American culture. We can pat ourselves on the back for not enshrining White supremacy in our country’s founding documents anymore, but on a de facto basis, the power structure of the United States is still White. Ridiculously White. Whiter than a nonprofit executive at a Phish concert in rural Maine drinking a Pumpkin Spice Latte.
While the country’s power structure remains super White, the demographic composition of America is becoming much less White. Less than half of all public school children in America are White, and by 2050, White people will no longer constitute a majority of Americans. In light of these demographic trends, I once thought that the personal displays of White supremacy on display during this election, while detestable, represented the inevitable last gasps of White supremacy. I thought the ugliness unleashed by the Trump campaign might be one final rebel yell before a truly plural America ushered itself into existence. Sort of like Mel Gibson screaming as his entrails fall out at the end of Braveheart.
After the election, I no longer believe this version of the story. There’s another scenario which I now believe to be true.
Before I discuss that scenario, I want to congratulate the White readers who have not yet abandoned this argument. If you’re White and still reading this, bravo for not having a total meltdown from seeing the words “White supremacy” so many times. In making it this far, you’ve realized that I’m not calling all White people White supremacists and are open to a new way of thinking. I’m pretty sure I couldn’t have handled this conversation a few years ago either, so I feel your pain. Unfortunately, the story gets worse, so grab another LaCroix.
See, Given Trump’s victory, what we saw last night was not the death rattle of White supremacy, but something more like the beginning of a Racism Renaissance. The truth is that White supremacy will not go away with a whimper, because it is really hard to abdicate. Whether we like it or not, White supremacy is a really convenient thing for all White people to preserve, even the progressive ones who hate White supremacists. If you are White, you benefit from White supremacy every day. Seriously. Everyday.
I know this idea is hard to swallow for White people, but you are a beneficiary of White supremacy every time you:
- drive past a police officer without arousing suspicion
- enter a classroom without having teachers making assumptions about your home life and intelligence
- go a whole week without having to explain something that Lil Wayne or Cam Newton said
- walk through Banana Republic without being tailed, or
- speak at a meeting without having every error in judgment attributed to your race.
The aggregate accumulation of all these things over the course of a lifetime is like having a compounding mutual fund of racial advantage. If you’re White, our inequitable culture has been making deposits in your invisible IRA of supremacy for an entire lifetime. If White supremacy goes away, your account gets liquidated.
What does that mean in practice? On the one hand, nothing. Dude, we’re talking about a fictional bank account full of intangible racial advantages. You shouldn’t be THAT worried about it. Right?
On the other hand, what if that account is more real than you’re willing to admit? What if it isn’t imaginary at all, but rather a stand-in for tangible, real life advantages that led to concrete manifestations, affecting the quality of your upbringing, education, professional status, and wealth? That would be a lot worse, wouldn’t it? If that’s all true (NB: it is) it would be a lot harder to liquidate the account.
Extrapolated at a national level, the imaginary IRA of racial advantage manifests as a United States Senate that is 80% White, and 80% male, while the country is only 60% White and less than 50% male. The private sector is even more lopsided, where a full 75% of directors on corporate boards are White men. Should there be a perfect reflection of racial, ethnic, and gender diversity in every corner of public and private life? I’m not sure, but it’s hard to argue that the current imbalance is anything close to the right ratio.
The fact of contemporary White supremacy, and the power structure it upholds, is the dilemma that White Americans must deal with, right now. Trump won, in part, because most of White America is not ready to let go of unearned racial advantage. The hardships of working class White voters are real, but their frustrations alone did not win Trump the presidency. White voters of all income levels voted for Trump at surprising levels, and we need to reckon with the fact that the president elect of our hyper-diverse country has a mandate from just a single racial group, and one whose relative size is in decline, at that.
In light of this, the Racism Renaissance needs to be understood as a sustained, perhaps inevitable, power struggle. In order for our formal institutions, and informal power structures, to become more reflective of the country’s diversity, many fewer White people, particularly White men, are going to have to hold positions of power in the next generation. Maybe Trump’s election was a blip and his presidency will be remembered as a small speed-bump in the process of White America’s gentle transition to sharing power. Maybe this generation of white people is more enlightened and self-effacing than those in past generations, in which case, this whole screed was an overreaction, and the next generation is ready to pursue a glide path towards a more plural future.
[INSERT PAUSE FOR THE LAUGHTER OF ALL THE PEOPLE OF COLOR WHO ARE READING THIS]
While our friends of color are laughing, now would be a good time to do some soul-searching, White readers. The skepticism of our friends is supported by a shit-ton of evidence. See:
- President-elect Trump
- voter suppression
- police violence
- the existence of Peter Thiel
- Reddit, and
- the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan.
The counter-evidence, which supports a smooth transition away from White supremacy, is scant. We have:
- Matt McGorry,
- One male non-White president in 240 years, and
- The FX network.
In short, despite clear demographic transition away from a “majority White” America, the shift in our country’s formal and informal power structures will not happen without active work. The White community in America, and White men in particular, will have to decide how to behave in the coming generation. One version involves clinging to power as long as possible. If that’s the case, we should steel ourselves for a decades-long version of the worst moments of the 2016 presidential campaign.
The alternative to a prolonged struggle requires that White people become active in combatting both the worst inclinations of our basest selves, and the White supremacy all around us. White people can decide to pursue the more revolutionary path. I know which course I’m choosing.