America is a Burning House
The Nation’s Failure to Confront White Supremacy is Its Greatest Vulnerability
There’s a lot of talk about Vladimir Putin, Russian hackers, and a disastrous press conference in Helsinki. The word “traitor” is ringing out all over social media and the airwaves. I’ve decided that I’ll leave writing in depth about The Russia Conspiracy and all its Manchurian Candidate parallels to others. It’s getting wall-to-wall coverage, and I’d rather focus on what’s getting left out of the discussion, what’s nearly always left out of mainstream reporting of American political issues: the role of White supremacy.
“Does [insert name of politician] share your values?” is a common question in polls of voters. Donald Trump is the President of the United States — his values and how he acts them out are of paramount importance. His behavior, actions, and relationships must be scrutinized. There is something incredibly shady about his ties to Russia and his genuflection to Vladimir Putin, and most of it will eventually come to light. Trump’s character must also be examined. And it has been, over decades of public life and even more intensely during the campaign. He’s not a decent person. He’s a dishonorable, mendacious, thin-skinned bully who is unfit to lead. He’s also a White supremacist.
That last one. It gets tip-toed around on the news, doesn’t it? And that “shares your values” question is why.
What is getting left out of the conversation about the direction of Donald Trump’s presidency and the policies he’s enacting is that plenty of Americans share his values. They voted for him. They’re defending him. They’ll defend him to the bitter end. These people share his values.
Only White Americans (62% of White men and 52% of White women) fell for Donald Trump’s swindle. If White men had been the only voters, the entire map would have been red. On the other hand, 94% of Black women voted for Hillary Clinton. Some people saw right through the bamboozle; others fell for it hook, line, and sinker. Why?
A while ago, I came across a tweet I wish I had bookmarked. To paraphrase, it said, “Black Americans asked that police stop killing them, and if they did they be held accountable, and America lost its mind.”
Black Lives Matter.
It’s a simple statement. It should be a non-controversial one. That it isn’t goes to the heart of the values those political polls are trying to understand.
Trayvon Martin’s killing was a dividing line in America. Some people angrily mourned the murder of a child carrying iced tea and Skittles, and thought the armed adult who had stalked him on his way home should be held accountable. Others saw a dead “thug” whose killing was justified. As other police killings of Black people were protested, it became clear that as vociferous as the protestors were that the videotaped slayings were an affront to human rights, others saw nothing wrong with them. The two groups did not share the same values. Barack Obama unwittingly stepped into the breach when he said that if he had a son, he would have looked like Trayvon Martin. That simple statement of empathy for a dead child and the mouth-frothing blowback it received may get closer to answering the question of what happened on November 8, 2016 than anything else.
Following the 2016 Presidential election, many post-mortems about the unexpected result were written. Among the most interesting was Nikole Hannah-Jones’s piece for The New York Times. She traveled back to her home state of Iowa to examine the phenomenon of the Obama-Trump voter. Why had they voted for Obama? Why did they switch to Trump?
I think we’ve forgotten how terrifying 2008 was. It really seemed like the global economy might collapse into another Great Depression. It didn’t, but the recession came pretty close. In the wake of the destruction, Barack Obama was able to stitch together an unexpected coalition of voters. His Trayvon Martin statement reminded some that no, America wasn’t post-racial, and yes, he was still Black. In Iowa, Jones found people who “felt as if Obama was choosing a side in the racial divide, stirring up tensions.” They no longer felt welcome, and the Obama coalition disintegrated.
White racial resentment drove Trump voters, including the 41% of White millennials who voted for him. It wasn’t “economic anxiety” or “working class angst” or whatever hollow excuse keeps cropping up. How does this play into Russiagate?
If it does come out that Russian agents altered voter rolls, whose names were purged? Did they come up with their own design or did they follow the immensely detailed playbook the Republicans have written on this subject over the course of decades? If they did hack the voting machines, which bloc did they vote with? If they broke out vodka and caviar when the election was called, who was cheering along with them?
There is a lot of talk about what the Russians are alleged to have done and not much about why it would have worked. A man running for President of the United States came down an escalator and launched his campaign by deriding Mexicans as rapists and drug dealers. In response, White America said, “That’s our guy!” Vladimir Putin isn’t to blame for that, no matter how much people want him to be. While the allegations of election-tampering are serious and must be addressed, passing the buck for all this to the Russians is America letting White supremacy off the hook. Again.
Martin Luther King, Jr. said of his struggle, “We have fought hard and long for integration, as I believe we should have, and I know that we will win. But I’ve come to believe we’re integrating into a burning house.” He was right. Part of what we’re seeing with Trump, the rising tide of White nationalism in America, and the excuses being made for him and this ideology is that propping up White mediocrity, making sure Whiteness remains the ultimate participation trophy is all that matters to some people. There is a certain portion of White America that will utterly degrade themselves morally and hurl themselves and their own children into a conflagration of economic and social injustice as long as they get to watch Black and Brown people burn to a crisp first. It is dangerous fanaticism. It is what makes people think it’s all right to snatch children from their parents and send them to internment camps where they’re not allowed to hug each other when they’re scared.
White supremacy is stupid and wicked, and it shouldn’t be coddled, negotiated with, or excused as “economic anxiety.” This seems to be the lesson America cannot learn, no matter the cost. It is a dangerous vulnerability. I don’t think the nation will address it, though. I think it would rather wrap all this up in a bow and hang it around Vladimir Putin’s neck. That means the source of the White nationalist furore, the fascistic impulse won’t be addressed. If it isn’t, America will eat itself, if not now, then soon.