Vibha Pinglé, one of my friends, challenged the white men in her FB audience to take the same responsibility for white nationalists as so many Americans demanded “good Muslims” challenge those who killed the innocent in the name of Islam.
Other friends asked the white men in their FB communities to explain how it was that their demographic could justify embracing such a violent message against women, LGBTQ folks, people of color. They challenged us to explain the whiteness fueling such hate.
Interest in explaining whiteness has been surging. Even before Trump was elected, the work of J.D.Vance, Arlie Hochschild, and others was being discussed in earnest, knowing that Trump was mobilizing a sense of whiteness that the “liberal media” overlooked.
Sociology, history and other disciplines have long been interested in the history and constitution of whiteness, but more typically as an expression of power, not as an invitation to empathy. While I appreciate that latter disposition, a more critical take on whiteness feels even more important with white nationalists so close to power.
Whiteness as power, however, is not just evident in the extreme; it is embedded in the political system. Look, for example at how the electoral college enhanced white power despite the majority of the electorate voting against Trump.
We thus need to see white nationalists as an extension of everyday whiteness too. Resurgent whiteness rests on recurrent whiteness. But that is not easy for white liberals to embrace.
Even for those white folks who acknowledge that there can be racism without racists, white privilege enables us to believe that we good whites are not part of that racist system. We resent the notion that we are somehow connected to the vile, to the fascist, to the misogynist wrapped up in a white power and privilege of which we are part.
We take offense when we are reminded of this by people of color. We easily retreat from engagement with genuinely hurt feelings.
That pain is hard for people of color, and especially folks at risk of real injury as the undocumented are, to accept as meaningful. Even for the white anti-racist, then, solidarity demands a certain kind of emotional resilience to carry on in terms that mark the salience of white supremacy. It’s much easier to hang with Bernie Sanders.
The campaign Bernie Sanders ran shows the promise of a class-based, progressive, populist movement, a political revolution as he called it. Remember, we are told, he beat Clinton in Michigan and Wisconsin, two of the states Clinton lost to Trump.
His campaign, and his more recent statements, also show the limits of such an approach to America however. He lost the primary, in part, because he could not talk about class and racial injustices with equal facility. We might anticipate younger political activists and public intellectuals to manage that more readily, especially with folks like Heather McGhee and Ian Haney-Lopez providing the frame. But I’m afraid that is not the lesson recurrent whiteness is developing in response to resurgent whiteness.
So many of my white friends, as well as prominent white folks who enjoy a conversation with an Ivy League professor, tell me to read Mark Lilla’s piece. While Clinton may have been lacking in a variety of ways, they say, it was the Democratic Party’s embrace of identity politics that fueled the white identity politics behind Trump’s victory. Let’s get back to the politics that unite us, and stop the politics that divide us and fuel racism, they imply.
I’m still white enough to be surprised by this implicit politics of blaming people of color for Trump’s election. Most folks without this whiteness are not so surprised, however. They are likely to resonate with the disgust Shaun King and others have for this assignment as just more of the same.
It’s easy for white liberals to be outraged by Trump’s justifications for appointing folks associated with manifest racism to positions of authority; in this solidarity across racial divides is easily found. But when we argue so much against identity politics, when we emphasize just how much empathy we need for those white folks who supported Trump, resurgent whiteness and recurrent whiteness find common ground. When we define the assault on Native Americans at Standing Rock as a riot, when we overlook the power of sanctuary as an expression of decency and mutuality, whiteness shows its true color.
Solidarity around liberal democratic values is not enough to transcend the weight of whiteness in defining power and privilege in these times. Transformative solidarity demands a vision and practice of racial justice in the articulation of that future we wish to see. That solidarity demands a variety of forms of resilience, just as it demands a new politics of inclusion unburdened by whiteness but with white folks there too.
That transformative solidarity movement won’t happen if the color line continues to define democracy, and especially if it divides the democratic opposition to this authoritarianism cresting on white supremacy’s wave.