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How racist white people are pissing away what little political power the working class has left

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It is inevitable that during any discussion of systemic racism in the United States, at some point, the discussion will turn from a critique of racism to attempts to soothe white feelings. Whether it’s dealing with the butthurt who insist that #Blacklivesmatter somehow really means “only Black lives matter,” (it doesn’t), or that when people start talking about the ways that white racism operates and immediately have to qualify that it’s #notallwhitepeople, the insistence that the discussion has to become about making white people feel okay about all of this becomes an enormous drain of energy that could otherwise be moving things forward.

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We are now living in a decade with such gross levels of income disparity that the 99% believe that the 1% that has been left to them is something literal, as if it were a sliver of an apple pie, for example. Therefore, if a group — such as Black Lives Matter — comes along at this moment and says that it wants access to the pie, rather than welcoming allies who will help challenge everyone’s ability to access what the top 1% has, it becomes seen as one more group that is going to need to share the scraps that are left. Further, because working class Republicans have been convinced that “no new taxes” and “no big government” — policies that best serve the interests of the super wealthy — are the way to go, again, that panic about how little that’s left gets stoked even higher. The resentment pyres are fanned. The irony, of course, is that if the working class could unite as a political bloc, they could perhaps change the structure so that some of the income disparity that separates us from the super-rich would be re-released back into the economy, which would benefit us all. White working class racism hinders the progress of white working class economic progress. 

Black Lives Matter started out as a Twitter hashtag in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the gunning down of Trayvon Martin. It arose from statements by founders Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi as an affirmation that despite a jury’s decision that Trayvon Martin’s life hadn’t mattered, black lives did. The movement gained impetus after Michael Brown was killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri. The Department of Justice uncovered a systemic abuse of power in the policing of black neighborhoods in Ferguson. Among the DOJ’s findings were entrenched patterns of:

“Officers expect and demand compliance even when they lack legal authority. They are inclined to interpret the exercise of free-speech rights as unlawful disobedience, innocent movements as physical threats, indications of mental or physical illness as belligerence … The result is a pattern of stops without reasonable suspicion and arrests without probable cause in violation of the Fourth Amendment; infringement on free expression, as well as retaliation for protected expression, in violation of the First Amendment; and excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment.”

In Ferguson and other communities, black lives were, and continue to be, under direct threat. As Jeff Chang writes in WE GON’ BE ALRIGHT, a new book that examines the process of “resegregation” that is taking place in American culture, “the fragility of Black life was not the same as the fragility of white privilege.” When real black lives are at stake, having to stop to attend to white hurt feelings slows down a process that is already working against time during an emergency period.

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The media has flailed in its attempts to explain Donald Trump’s appeal. After months of dismissing Trump as the clown prince, the media began to take him seriously when it became apparent that none of the Republican favorites were going to be the nominee. At some point in the spring, various writers proclaimed that Trump had captured the vote of something they termed the “white working class,” and the variety of markers, which showed that without manufacturing times were tough for working class whites, were correlated to the “solutions” to those problems that Trump offered.

But, when the Republican National Convention convened in late July in Cleveland, the media reported on the events there with a mixture of revulsion and fascination at the naked misogyny, homophobia, and racism that was not only on display, but which was crowed about from the podium as a point of pride. Disguised as an attack on “political correctness,” various Republican speakers stood before the mostly white crowd to denounce a nation of criminals and moral reprobates that needed the strong hand of Donald Trump to put everything to right.

In addition, the combination of factions united under the banner of white racist nationalism, who use their own “politically correct” name of the “alt-right,” flexed in front of the media mirrors and couldn’t take their eyes off what was reflected back at them. This combination — of a predominantly white convention crowd plus the white supremacist gaggle who posed for cameras — complicated the idea that Trump’s appeal to these individuals was economic. Racism and resentment had been the order of the day in Cleveland, especially when one considers that another contingent of the traditional working class — its black members — were not going near the Trump candidacy.

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But as Chang does a masterful job of exploring, the wedge that separates the working class by racism is a policy of divide and conquer that keeps the working class from recognizing its common economic interests with others who seek the same benefits of the American Dream. Trump stokes the fears of white people, and “fear is the enemy of truth and division the master key of demagogues.” White working class racism best serves the masters of capitalism who benefit from a fractured workforce.

For example, Chang shows that “Affirmative Action,” a program perceived by resentful whites as giving people of color an unfair boost above them when applying to college or getting a job, started out as a program that primarily benefitted white workers. Affirmative action were actions taken to protect workers from bosses who wanted to punish them for organizing, for example, and “were effectively affirmative action programs for protected classes composed predominantly of whites.”

When looking at the objections to affirmative action, as an historian, it is difficult for me not to think of medieval concepts that there was a “limited good,” and that there were only so many shares of it to go around. Those who oppose affirmative action now seem to do so on the notion that there is only so much quantity of “the good life” to be divided among the many. If I see someone else succeeding, the politics of resentment has taught me that it can only happen because of some benefit that I’m not getting and which is going to come out of my piece of the pie.

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The working class tendency to abandon its best interests in order to serve some abstract — meaningless, really — concept was demonstrated during World War I in Europe. The working classes had been fulminating for change prior to the war, and it came as a shock when many went off to fight for the nations that had exploited their labor.  Except that it wasn’t as simple as that. Many of those workers were quickly disillusioned by their experiences in the military, where the same structures of power were replicated in military hierarchy, but that military training did not spark revolution.

“But if the war polarised society, it did not simply engender revolution. Ex-soldiers were not uniformly revolutionary­, the Croix de Feu, a far right veterans’ organisation, fought the workers’ movement in France in 1936. Hitler was a young soldier in the war. People who lost faith in the war, or became weary with the sheer numbers of dead, experienced conflicting emotions: confusion and fear as well as anger. It is not a surprise that some retreated into suspicion of the foreign, and blind clinging to jingoism. In some cases­Germany, Austria, Hungary, Italy ­nationalism re-emerged not as a milder substitute for social revolution, but as the mobilisation of ex-officers, lower middle and middle class civilians for counter-revolution. It emerged as the matrix of fascism.”

As an example of this larger tendency, during my own “discussion” with an interlocutor who objected to the idea of systemic racism in America, I was told that pursuing “social justice” is a Marxist idea and the history of Marxism shows what a bad idea Marxism itself is. No “facts” were offered as justification for this assertion; in fact, I was told that it was simply “common sense” that should make that obvious to me. The resentment of the foreign crept into my discussion as it has in the white nationalist conversation: fear of the internal “outsider” who is stealing jobs and assets, and the paranoia about immigrants who will come in with their radical philosophies and “swamp” white workers. Thus economic justice and equal access to the pie — which would seem an obvious goal for Trump’s working class — become the markers by which to identify feminists and people of color who threaten what little dignity the white working man still has left.

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The “re-segregation” that is taking place across America is as much due to economic disparity as it is racial disparity, according to Chang. Citing a study by Sean Reardon and Kendra Bischoff, Chang quotes the following: “Segregation of affluence not only concentrates income and wealth in a small number of communities, but also concentrates capital and political power.” This in turn allows for the erosion of “the social empathy that might lead to support for broader public investment in social programs to help the poor and the middle class.” Segregation means that people stop seeing each other’s humanity, thus making it much easier to regard people in other neighborhoods as criminals, or perpetual victims, or as parasites on the system. White privilege comes into play when those same behaviours within one’s own neighborhood are explained away with knowledge of the exigent or exculpatory circumstances which can only come through familiarity. Familiarity, in this case, does not breed contempt; it breeds acceptance of human frailty.

Economic disparity and racism re-enforce one another. While the white working class rail against people of color who wish to “secure the blessings of liberty to themselves and their posterity,” they dig themselves further into Harlow’s pit of despair. Their insistence that it is their hurt feelings that must be attended to, rather than amplifying the black voices calling for economic justice that would also cause their boats to rise, is the self-inflicted mortal wound that Donald Trump has his tiny baby hand jammed into.

 

Jeff Chang, We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation (Picador: 2016)


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