Tag Archives: white Americans

Two Problems, Inter-related

Conversations with friends keep returning to a question I’ve been unable to answer: who are the Trump voters? Who are the Americans who lived through the last four years and marched to the polls wanting more of the same?

The answer is emerging. Votes for Trump are almost all attributable to two things: racial resentment and the rightwing media ecosystem.

Right now–thanks to years of Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, Breitbart and literally thousands of internet sites–it is perfectly possible to reside in an alternate reality, to live in a world that confirms your every preferred bias. When that world is at odds with the reality the rest of us inhabit, it absolutely precludes rational discussion and debate.

As I often tell my students, if I say this piece of furniture is a table and you say, why no, it’s a chair–we are not going to agree on how to use it.

As Jennifer Rubin recently wrote at The Washington Post,

The greatest challenge to our democracy is not that we hold deeply polarized beliefs, but that one party refuses to operate in a fact-based world that might challenge its beliefs. Whether it is Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) propounding Russian propaganda, or the Wall Street Journal editorial page fanning Hunter Biden laptop conspiracy theories, or right-wing websites circulating falsehoods about crime and immigrants, we are awash with conservatives seeking to exploit the fears, ignorance and prejudices of many Americans

Rubin attributes the right-wing hysteria over “socialism” to that media bubble–she suggests rightwing media is “marooned in a weird time warp in which the ‘other side’ is some Cold War-era Marxist caricature.” Until very recently, I would have agreed with her analysis–I’ve frequently engaged in efforts to point out that the things that usually get labeled “socialism” are simply elements of the (necessarily) mixed economies of all modern nations, the public goods that markets cannot provide.

What I have finally understood–it takes me a long time, I’m dense–is that when the typical Trump voter hears “socialism,” that voter doesn’t think of an economic system. (Most couldn’t define the term accurately if they were asked.) What today’s Republican hears when an opposing candidate is labeled a “socialist” is: “this candidate wants the government to take your hard-earned tax dollars and use them for the benefit of ‘those people.'” (And we all know who “those people” are.)

Fear of “socialism” is where rightwing media and racism intersect.

Recently, a friend sent me an essay that laid it all out. Its central thesis is that more than half a century of white hostility to any kind of social progress has taken the country to a place that is dangerously close to social collapse,  culminating in Trumpism.

The author, Umair Haque, writes that “white Americans, as a group, have never, as a group, voted for a Democratic President. Never in modern history…. This trend goes back to JFK and perhaps before.”

Furthermore, Haque says that “Liberal, sane, thoughtful White Americans often overestimate how many of them there are,” and he backs that observation up with data showing that a majority of White Americans have approved of segregation, endless wars, inequality– and have made guns and religion primary social values. Majorities of White Americans have voted against most of what we think of as public goods–and against desegregation, civil rights laws, access to healthcare, retirement programs, and childcare.

The article is filled with depressing data. You really need to click through and read it in its entirety. (If you are White, you might want to pour a stiff drink first.)

I vaguely remember an old song titled “Two Different Worlds.” It ended, as I recall, with a promise that the “two different worlds” that the lovers inhabited would someday be one. Our task is a lot harder than the one in that sappy love song–we must somehow get a handle on the disinformation and propaganda and conspiracy theories–the media ecosystem that blocks out inconvenient realities and sustains White Supremacy. Then we have to have a White version of “the talk.”

Until we all see the same furniture, we aren’t going to agree on how to use it.

Remember The Kerner Report?

In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson constituted the Kerner Commission, and asked its members to identify and analyze the social forces and dysfunctions that had triggered a national epidemic of inner-city riots in the 1960s.

Their findings weren’t what Johnson had anticipated or wanted.

Unhappy with the findings and the flaws they revealed in his “Great Society” agenda, Johnson ultimately distanced himself from the Kerner Report, even refusing to sign thank you cards to the commissioners.

The most famous paragraph, of course, was the one that warned “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.”

The report was an indictment of white America:

What white Americans have never fully understood but what the Negro can never forget — is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.

As an article from the Smithsonian recently put it, the Commission’s inquiry identified those “white institutions”: bad policing practices, a flawed justice system, unscrupulous consumer credit practices, poor or inadequate housing, high unemployment, voter suppression, and other “culturally embedded forms of racial discrimination” that had converged and triggered violent upheavals, primarily in African-American neighborhoods of American cities.

And as black unrest arose, inadequately trained police officers and National Guard troops entered affected neighborhoods, often worsening the violence.

Rereading the report, it is stunning to realize how much hasn’t changed, especially the escalation of violence caused by policing practices. 

Far too many of the “institutions” the Kerner Report identified still persist, half a century later. Thanks to cell phone cameras, America has almost daily evidence of bad policing. A robust academic criminal justice literature documents the flaws in our justice system. Redlining and other discriminatory banking practices continue, although somewhat abated. Housing issues persist. And vote suppression has become more sophisticated and–if anything–more widespread.

That said, there are some striking and hopeful differences in the eruptions we are currently experiencing. For one thing, the crowds on the streets are multi-cultural and largely peaceful. For another, polling reflects widespread public support for Black Lives Matter and for measures to (finally) address the issues first identified by the Kerner Commission.

Also hopeful (yes, I know–hope “springs eternal”) is growing recognition of the structural nature of racism. The Kerner Report was prescient in its use of the term “institutions.”

Racism isn’t just Neo-Nazi rioters chanting “they shall not replace us,”  or the KKK burning a cross, or the refusal of a business to hire or serve “those people.” It isn’t confined to overt bad behaviors or bigoted personal attitudes. 

Racism is implicated in our acceptance of mass incarceration, our failure to notice, let alone protest, social stereotypes, the widespread trust in– and easy acceptance of– official versions of police interactions that turned violent or deadly. It’s reflected in acceptance of the way we  finance public education–methods that ensure that affluent areas will have well-resourced schools while schools in poorer areas will struggle. It’s the reason for the persistent animus and political pushback against efforts to strengthen the social safety net–the reason Americans sneer at poor people, especially poor people of color, who accept “welfare,” while applauding the real recipients of welfare– the “captains of industry” who lobby for and profit from obscenely large subsidies.

In a particularly pertinent observation, the Kerner Report deplored the practice of arming police officers with more deadly weapons. Instead, it recommended “a policy which combines ghetto enrichment with programs designed to encourage integration of substantial numbers of Negroes into the society outside the ghetto.” 

It wasn’t just President Johnson who rejected the findings. Overall white response to the Kerner Report was hostile. According to the Smithsonian article,

White response to the Kerner Commission helped to lay the foundation for the law-and-order campaign that elected Richard Nixon to the presidency later that year. Instead of considering the full weight of white prejudice, Americans endorsed rhetoric that called for arming police officers like soldiers and cracking down on crime in inner cities.

Fifty years later, white America cannot afford to make the same mistake.