The Unbearable Whiteness Of Trumpistan Illuminates Half-truths Of 'Racial Realism'

12/15/2016 10:20 am ET Updated Dec 15, 2016
On March 19, 2016, a Trump supporter attends the presidential candidate’s rally in which he addressed immigration issues.
Flickr / CC / Johnny Silvercloud
On March 19, 2016, a Trump supporter attends the presidential candidate’s rally in which he addressed immigration issues.

Balancing between demagoguery of white supremacy on right, failures of PC politics

If there were ever any illusions during many months of intense race-baiting, there is no doubt left that the victorious ascent of Donald Trump to the presidency is largely a racial phenomenon.

Sure there are other highly important factors behind his electoral success. But the clear and present reality has reared its unsightly head: our nation was never truly post-racial, and many seemingly deracialized areas of society have again become racialized.

Rival yet complementary ideological systems that had served to sublimate racial animosities -- political correctness on the liberal left and colorblind meritocracy on the conservative right -- have both been thrown to the curb.

Although each made us more comfortable with our identities, PC culture and the myth of race-neutral treatment now seem mere shadows of their former selves.

Droves of angry European-descended voters stormed the polls on November 8, seizing back their power from yesteryear and blasting away at any pretense of multiculturalism in favor of white ethnic identity. While not all Trump voters are supporters of separation and supremacy, the result was a resounding defeat of inclusiveness.

America is a white country in terms of its rooted historical identity,” Richard Spencer, director of the National Policy Institute, told Al Jazeera last week.

Spencer said the real issue is not building a wall to keep out undocumented immigrants, but preventing profound demographic change due to legal immigration. “This is ours. It’s not yours,” he claimed. “We respect you, but you’re not going to live here.”

How do we reconcile such illiberal racialist ideology with the democratic privilege of peddling politics, no matter how intolerant and loathsome? And how do we know if “average” Trump voters back such an ethnocentric approach?

‘False gods of political correctness’

The prospect of whites eventually becoming a minority not long after an “un-American” half-black president ruled for eight whole years is frightful to the populist, nativist, and paleoconservative right. This was the intellectual foundation of Trumpist racialism, which has heralded the return of a cabinet reminiscent (minus the conspicuous policy inexperience) of the 1950’s -- mostly older white men of corporate and military backgrounds.

The new cabinet picks are set to roll back the Obama administration’s progressive actions across a wide spectrum of issues. On the racial front, the early appointees earned the eager and resounding approval of America’s most famous former KKK leader. “Americans are on the way to taking back our government, our nation and our children's future!” exclaimed David Duke on social media.

Views espoused by the incoming leadership range from rabidly anti-immigration sentiment to Islamophobic zealotry and staunch opposition to civil rights legislation. “Race realism” is the term often used to describe the ostensibly scientific and ingrained truth of racial politics and has been embraced by the Alt-Right as a way to mobilize the subjective narratives of the white nationalist movement.

At the core of their critique is the notion that nonwhite minority groups do not make America better and therefore should live elsewhere. On a moral level this is repugnant, but also on a practical level, the argument is at best absurd. If you want to know the “truth” about Mexicans or Muslims, their positive contributions should be highlighted too. Calling sufficient attention to criminals and terrorists is understandable, but it’s an insult to intelligent Americans to assert that Mexican immigrants disproportionately commit crimes or that there aren’t millions of hard-working Muslims who enrich the economic and social fabric of U.S. society.

Trump’s clique was labeled “a group of marauding conservatives who reject both the failures of establishment conservatism and the false gods of political correctness” by James Edwards, a far-right radio commentator. But this characterization simply whitewashes the agenda of promoting one-sided theories, a culture of pointless racial insensitivity, and fear-mongering of the Other. And if we want realism, then let’s just admit that, while not all Trump voters are racist, a significant percentage are.

On the one hand, maybe it’s natural to want the best for your racial group and be honest about emerging from behind a traditional conservative colorblind veneer to acknowledge clear preferences. But undergirding allegations about who’s responsible for white under-achievement and victimization are new code words that use “Americanness” and “greatness,” or lack thereof, as proxies for whiteness.

Meanwhile, as our first black president gives way to our first billionaire authoritarian, Barack Obama has been clarifying his own identity politics and experiences with racism.

“Barack Obama’s victories in 2008 and 2012 were dismissed by some of his critics as merely symbolic,” wrote Ta-Nehisi Coates in his recent essay My President Was Black. “But there is nothing ‘mere’ about symbols.” And to that end, the Hawaii-born multiracial president has offered up candid reflections on the meaning of race.

“The concept of race is not just genetic,” Obama said in an interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, explaining that race exists in multiple ways. “It’s cultural. This notion of people who look different than the mainstream, suffering terrible oppression but somehow being able to make out of that a music and a language and a faith and a patriotism.”

In a rational, liberal, and pragmatic context, the 44th President acknowledges his firm intellectual belief in race being both scientific and societal. In some contexts, this is also referred to as race realism, and is contrasted with his racial idealism from 8 years back.

Explicit attention on groups’ relative strengths and weaknesses may not be comfortable ground for most liberals, but plenty of employers in diverse states are placing high value on racial differences -- actually using ethnic identity as a positive discriminatory qualification for jobs. Despite legal and cultural barriers, affirmative action can be refashioned as good for business, whether making certain customers more comfortable or simply because particular demographic groups are better fits for some roles. Equal opportunity believers may be skeptical. However, this sort of functional diversity can transcend the limitations of identity politics by focusing on mutual economic benefits.

Negating ‘race denialism’

White nationalists most certainly reject the virtues of diversity, even absent the PC parameters. But they have even less interest in so-called race denialists: those who either believe race doesn’t exist at all or scholars who say the key elements of race are socially constructed.

Critical race theorists, who fall under the latter category, hold that structural constraints intrinsic to the American legal and economic system prevent individual members of oppressed racial groups from attaining justice. Blacks and Hispanics, among others, face entrenched racism dealing with urban housing, allocation of government benefits, and court rulings. From microaggressions and a lack of safe spaces to police brutality and racial profiling, the Black Lives Matter narrative reflects the same sort of subjectivity that the Alt-Right, at the opposite ideological pole, has now co-opted from liberal identity politics.

But of course, white nationalists would be happy to claim the white privilege of walking down the street or into a corner store without being monitored. They also would obviously not be upset with the fact that African-Americans -- across the ever-growing black class and status divides -- disproportionately experience the vagaries of the criminal justice system.

One wonders whether the first big racial controversy of the Trump presidency will revolve around some new instance of a young black male being unfairly targeted by the police, with conservatives defending how law enforcement are merely doing their job.

Or will a huge conflagration arise with the next major act of Islamic radicalism that threatens to engulf the whole of America's Arab and Muslim populations?

The third, quite likely possibility is a fresh iteration of immigration crisis in which a large group of Hispanics is swept up in the fervor over whether we need so many immigrants. Their advocates will ask, “Who else will do those jobs?” And economists will wonder how to attain higher growth without continued immigration -- from raising the retirement age or overnight productivity gains?

The debate continues over whether low-skilled immigration does harm to native-born American workers, especially white men, who are increasingly dropping out of the labor force. At the same time, irrespective of the political rhetoric, about two-thirds of Americans have expressed support for permanent legal status of undocumented immigrants already in the country.

Race, class, and power

In the aftermath of a presidential election that trashed conventional wisdom, the fiscal-electoral complex (as measured by the disenfranchisement index topped by blue states) will continue to favor rural, white voters in less populous states.

During November, the mirage of populism wafted over America, but the election was a tangible victory for corporate elites and the hardline conservative movement across the board. Yes, there are nonwhite Trump supporters, but explicit and implicit appeals to re-assert white dominance are undeniable.

Instead of merely parroting identity politics for white people, will class-based critiques suffice going forward?

Bernie Sanders, the populist leftist senator from Vermont who nearly defeated Hillary Clinton on the coattails of white rage, continues to insist that identity politics is not the answer. He recognizes the intersectionality of race, poverty, and injustice. But for him, discarding political correctness means elevating criticism of trade deals that corporations have cherished. Sanders even attributes Trump’s win to this strategy: “I think [Donald] said some outrageous and painful things, but I think people are tired of the same old [PC] rhetoric.”

Adam Burgos, a postdoctoral fellow at Bucknell University who studies the politics of race, said that economic and racial experiences are inextricably linked in a complex nexus.

“You can’t pull those two apart,” Burgos said. “The cultural changes that have enabled more nonwhite people to make at least a modicum of progress reflect this interdependence.”

“White ‘economic anxiety’ is only understandable though the relationship between economics and race.”

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