The Long Shadow of Slavery

A friend from graduate school posted a link to a lengthy article in The Atlantic on Facebook recently. Written by Adam Serwer, the piece examines white nationalism in the age of our current president, and how the gap between personal prejudices and state-sponsored racism is not a new thing, but rather a legacy of slavery in the U.S.

There are a number of explanations about why someone like Donald Trump appealed to so many (largely) white voters. Some view Trump’s supporters as having suffered economic hardships and being “forgotten” by politicians in Washington D.C.  However, Serwer takes the economic argument put forth to show how that’s not really the case. Some highlights:

David Duke (center) came close to winning a U.S. Senate seat in 1990
  • In 1990, former Ku Klux Klan so-called “grand wizard,” David Duke won 60 percent of the white vote in a senate race in Louisiana. He lost the general election, but he came close to becoming a U.S. Senator.
  • Duke ran during a recession and stoked the economic anxiety of whites to create an angry voting base pissed off about the lack of jobs and “feeling left out.”
  • After Duke’s loss, Donald Trump on CNN said that anger is what motivated people to vote for a former KKK member. Now Trump says he has no idea who David Duke is — even though in 1990 he did, and understood how someone so repugnant could get a sizable number of votes.
  • In 2016, Trump won every single income group among whites — except for very poor whites and some wealthy and highly educated whites.
  • All ethnic groups lost about 30 percent of their wealth during The Great Recession, but Latinos and blacks lost an extra 20 percent between 2010-2013. The recession fed into a “Calamity Thesis” that posits economic crises like the recession manifest themselves in increased opioid addiction, decreases in life expectancy, and downward mobility — but only for whites.
  • Whites get angry at the slow pace of economic recovery and start to blame “The System” as “broken” and how society at large is riven with political correctness imposed on “us” by “them.”
  • Trump taps into that anger, just as David Duke did, by pointing at corrupting forces that are ruining the country — which are the sources of white people’s problems. Mexicans are rapists. Muslims need to be banned from the country. Black Lives Matter are declaring a “War on Police.” To solve these problems, a wall needs to be built on the U.S./Mexico border, a Muslim Ban needs to be enacted, and blacks need to “stopped and frisked” by police because they may be criminals.  Liberals have failed “real Americans” through immigration policies, allowing rampant crime in cities to thrive, off-shoring “your job,” and declaring a “War on Coal.”
  • Only through Trump will the traditional boundaries of race, gender, and sexuality be restored.
  • This is very close to how David Duke ran his campaign in 1990.

This is also white identity politics at its most vicious — because it is racist, sexist, and anti-gay at its core. When state power is used to deliberately disadvantage, punish, and deny the constitutional rights of groups because of racial, gender or sexual orientation, it’s not only illegal, but immoral as well. But that’s never stopped racists from going down that road — and then complain it is they who are being persecuted.

When NFL players take a knee to protest the killing of unarmed black men, Trump and his political spinners like to say that the players are disrespecting the military and flag, and should be fired. That fact that they military or the flag has nothing to do with the protests doesn’t matter. What matters is revving up white rage at black athletes exercising their constitutional rights to protest.

When Barack Obama and Democrats were able to make good on the campaign promise to provide affordable health care — and used a right-wing organization’s blueprint for a plan that Mitt Romney signed into law in Massachusetts as a way to do just that — he was derided both as a communist and pilloried with images of him as a witch doctor. And after the implementation of the Affordable Care Act and Patient Protection Act, the GOP voted countless times to repeal it saying it was unconstitutional, it didn’t work, it was too expensive, etc. 

Then, after a contentious election, along comes Donald Trump as president, and he goes on national TV with Scott Pelley on “60 Minutes” and says the following:

Scott Pelley: What’s your plan for Obamacare?

Donald Trump: Obamacare’s going to be repealed and replaced. Obamacare is a disaster if you look at what’s going on with premiums where they’re up 45, 50, 55 percent.

Scott Pelley: How do you fix it?

Donald Trump: There’s many different ways, by the way. Everybody’s got to be covered. This is an un-Republican thing for me to say because a lot of times they say, “No, no, the lower 25 percent that can’t afford private.” But–

Scott Pelley: Universal health care?

Donald Trump: I am going to take care of everybody. I don’t care if it costs me votes or not. Everybody’s going to be taken care of much better than they’re taken care of now.

Well, if the current tax plan gets to Trump’s desk, people are going to lose healthcare coverage, taxes will go up for the middle and lower middle class after seven years, but corporations and the wealthy will see permanent tax cuts that will transfer even more money to them.

This a term for this state of mind…

To smooth out the contradictions (and the feeling that one has been duped by liars), nationalism of the Trump variety relies on paying whites who are being screwed a “psychological wage.” To put it bluntly, it means that no matter how bad things get, whites (no matter their socioeconomic status) will always be better than blacks, browns, or gays — because those groups are not Americans. And who better exemplifies the use of “otherness” to delegitimize a president than Trump did against Obama:

The obsession with Obama’s birth certificate was not only about delegitimizing Obama’s presidency because Birthers believed he was a foreigner, but they also believed that Muslims were a fifth column waiting to impose Sharia Law upon the country. As Serwer writes, “Birtherism was not simply racism, but nationalism — a statement of values and a definition of who belongs in America…Trumpism used all three rising strains of prejudice on the right in opposition to the man who had become the sum of their fears” (i.e., Obama).

So, to sum up on how the white backlash of Trumpism goes back to slavery is simple:  At bottom, blacks were not thought of as human by whites. And because they were not human, they could be denied universal human rights, enslaved, and exploited for their labor. The legacy of the slave master ideology has mutated through the decades into a strain of nationalism where whites don’t think of themselves as racists, but support racist polices in the name of making American great again — but only for them.

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