A recent post described a confrontation between the author of a book on American “whiteness” and a group of Neo-Nazis who attended his book signing in order to let him know that “Christian” white guys intend to remain in charge of America.
Jonathan Metzl, the author whose book signing was crashed had a column in the Washington Post referencing the intrusion; in it, he insisted that America needs to have a genuine discussion about whiteness.
It’s time to talk about what it means to be white in the United States.
That’s what I was trying to do Saturday afternoon at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Northwest Washington when I was interruptedby a group of white nationalists. Ironically, the protesters’ chant — “This land is our land” — served only to reinforce my point.
For too long, many white Americans have avoided this conversation, and we’ve done so for a reason: We don’t have to see the color white. Race scholarsoften arguethat white privilege broadly means not needing to reflect on whiteness. White is the default setting, the assumed norm. A white American does not have to think about being white when walking down the street — while people marked as not-white are often noticedand surveilled. White people have the superpower of invisibility.
Metzl noted that the rhetoric employed by Trump focuses on a white identity characterized by shared resentments. In researching his book, Metzl spent eight years studying how what he calls the “politics of racial resentment” have harmed working-class white communities.
I traveled across southern and midwestern states to track the everyday effects of anti-government, anti-immigrant politics and policies. Time and again, I found that the material realities of working-class white lives are made worse not by immigrants and citizens of color — but by GOP policies that promise greatness but deliver despair.
Metzl isn’t the only researcher who has come to this conclusion–far from it. And when an article or book documents the harms done to the white working class by the policies of the GOP, when researchers and pundits point out that Trump’s base will be those most negatively affected by his sabotage of the ACA, or the idiocy of his tariffs, etc. etc.–the conversation will veer to a predictable lament and question: why are these people voting against their own interests?
Metzl’s book–and his experience at the bookstore–should provide the answer. These people aren’t voting against their interests. They’re voting against what reasonable people believe their interests should be. They should base their votes on policies affecting their incomes, their access to healthcare, the education of their children… policies that have a direct effect on the quality of their lives.
But that isn’t how the people in Trump’s base define their interests.
The “heartland” folks that Metzl interviewed define their interest as maintaining the fiction of white superiority. Their overriding interest is in preventing erosion of their privilege. They believe passionately in what Metzl calls “zero sum” formulations of race relations — in a world where there’s only a finite amount of power, and a finite supply of resources, and where having to share either means there will be less for them.
Fortunately, not all white working class people define their interests in this way. It’s doubtful that even a majority are “zero sum” voters, although far too many are.
As Metzl writes,
During my research, I saw countless examples of white Americans in the reddest of red counties who were proud of their conservative values but also understood their moral obligation to immigrants and citizens of color. In other words, they were willing to see their privilege and to begin the work of dismantling it.
The others–the voters whose entire self-image is invested in the importance of their white skin–are a big problem. But the problem isn’t that they aren’t “voting their interests.”
The problem is, they are.