White Supremacy/Identity Politics

Against the Current, No. 191, November/December 2017

Malik Miah

“According to Edison Research, Trump won whites making less than $50,000 by 20 points, whites making $50,000 to $99,999 by 28 points, and whites making $100,000 or more by 14 points. This shows that Trump assembled a broad white coalition that ran the gamut from Joe the Dishwasher to Joe the Plumber to Joe the Banker. So, when white pundits cast the elevation of Trump as the handiwork of an inscrutable white working class, they are being too modest, declining to claim credit for their own economic class. Trump’s dominance among whites across class lines is of a piece with his larger dominance across nearly every white demographic. Trump won white women (+9) and white men (+31). He won white people with college degrees (+3) and white people without them (+37). He won whites ages 18–29 (+4), 30–44 (+17), 45–64 (+28), and 65 and older (+19).”

—Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The First White President. The foundation of Donald Trump’s presidency is the negation of Barack Obama’s legacy” The Atlantic, October 2017, http://theatln.tc/2eJOTeb

“AMERICA HAS NEVER been great. It’s always been racist,” said protesters in the streets of St. Louis, Missouri. White cop James Stockley planted a gun and claimed fear for his life, after he murdered a young Black man in 2011. The judge issued his acquittal in September 2017.

What happened in St. Louis is so common it is “normal.” It is why Black lives don’t matter to cops and the courts. It is not new. It looks like Detroit 1967.

Resistance to police violence is rising among Blacks and others as social media exposes the truth quicker than ever before. The demands in 1967 and 2017 are the same — Justice and Freedom.

In 1967 Detroit, the National Guard and tanks rolled down the streets of the Black community. Courts and white juries ultimately sided with killer cops committing terror against African Americans.

Today’s federal government and the neo-Confederate Attorney General Jeff Sessions see protesters as breaking “law and order,” and they’re rearming police departments with military hardware.

It poses a simple question: Can cop violence and anti-Black racism be permanently defeated so long as white supremacist ideology permeates the ruling class and society?

White Supremacy and Whiteness

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a prominent African-American intellectual and writer. His article in The Atlantic is part of a forthcoming new book soon to be published. Coates’ argument that Donald J. Trump is “the first white president” is jarring and thought-provoking.

Every president until Barack Obama in 2009 has been a white man. Yet Coates’ point that Trump’s election indicates a rejection of the first African-American president (Trump gained political traction with his promotion of the “birther” lies about Obama) is likely valid.

Trump has made it his mission to dismantle every policy that Obama made law by legislation or executive order.

The issue of white supremacy has come to center stage, particularly when Trump declared an equivalence between white supremacists and anti-racists in Charlottesville, Virginia.

The far right and its most racist elements have been emboldened. Trump’s personal bias is not relevant. He uses white identity politics to give momentum to white supremacist supporters. It doesn’t matter if white nationalism is not identical to “economic nationalism,” as Trump’s former national political strategist Steve Bannon claims.

The whiteness issue is real for Black Americans since discrimination based on skin color is the root of what some call “white skin privilege” — where skin color can lead a cop to ask questions of a white person, but to shoot a Black person assuming they represent an inherent “danger.” (A white cop in Georgia told a white woman after a traffic stop that her fear was unfounded since cops only shoot Blacks.)

“Whiteness” is an issue of solidarity and superiority for many, no matter one’s class. Across class lines, white workers like white employers believe that their whiteness is fundamental to their citizenship. Trump used blatant racism (to woo white supremacists) and white identity politics (attracting white voters of all classes) to win.

Whites as “Victims”

There’s an important distinction to be made between white supremacy and white identity. The latter represents a kind of group emotional false consciousness. It includes people who could be won to multi-ethnic and working-class solidarity.

White supremacist ideology today, on the other hand, is more sophisticated than the past when it openly argued for a United States based on whiteness. Immigration policy was designed to keep out nonwhites (e.g. the Chinese exclusion laws). Former slaves were to be denied voting rights and used as cheap labor.

As that model of white America is now unviable in view of changing demographics, today’s ideological white supremacists seek (unrealistically) a separate white country. These groups such as neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan are a minority among the milieu of white identity supporters.

These extreme ideologues, however, wield broader influence, like a tail that wags the dog, promoting myths of “white genocide” and victimhood. Trump’s base of support comes from a broad layer of whites seeing themselves “victims” of so-called reverse racism and a global economy beyond their control.

Although not supporting the more extreme white supremacist ideology — even backing smart Blacks in high offices if this helps them economically, as many white workers did in voting for Barack Obama — they view a white demagogue like Trump as making their lives better.

Rightwing politicians understand this dynamic, which is why their focus since Obama’s first election is to suppress the rights of African Americans, Latinos and Asians. It was amplified by Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell, who said his goal in 2009 was to make Obama a one-term president. He pledged to not work with the first African-American president before he was even sworn into office.

Trump plans to get reelected by using the race card again. He set up a bogus “Electoral Integrity Commission” to look for nonexistent vote fraud and to limit voting. This is what happened in the South after 1877 when the defeated Confederates retook power by organizing white terrorism to take away basic rights from freed slaves.

The white so-called victims of Black civil rights always demand “justice” from the state against Blacks who call out the ideology of white supremacy. The attempts at forcing corporations like ESPN to fire Black female host Jemele Hill, who used her personal Twitter account to call Trump and his circle of friend’s white supremacists, is one example.

When Trump called President Obama a foreigner from Africa and an ignorant person who did not get into Ivy League colleges or write his bestselling books  — saying a white ghost writer must have done so (as in fact Trump’s own The Art of the Deal was ghostwritten) — his followers cheered.

The double standard goes back to the founding fathers. Even those who opposed slavery did not see freed Black slaves as equal to whites. President Lincoln raised the idea of having former slaves go back to Africa — where none of them had ever lived — to keep the Union together during the middle of the Civil War.

Obama and a New Wave of Racism

Many socialists during the Jim Crow period believed the best way to end discrimination was to argue for a class approach (focused on “bread and butter” issues) and not to take on the racism of white union leaders and white workers. It is why segregated union locals could exist in the South.

When Obama was first elected president in 2008 many thought a “nonracial” era was beginning. Even liberals generally accepted this false reasoning.

No one believes that now. The parallel that Ta-Nehisi Coates suggests is that it feels more like the end of the Reconstruction era, when the defeated Southern rulers asserted themselves after Union troops were withdrawn. They took back total power, and those Blacks elected to office and running state governments were pushed back to third-class citizenship.

The irony is that the U.S. Constitution had given white property owners extra votes by counting slaves as three-fifths of a human being. After Reconstruction was crushed, Blacks were “free” citizens but without voting rights, yet each counted as a full-person vote for the southern states’ representation in Washington.

The lesson for today is to learn that history, and fight the new white supremacists and their enablers like Trump at every turn. A repeat of history is not inevitable. The country could be a majority nonwhite by 2050. But political and economic power could still be primarily white.

The white power structures will never give up their control without a revolution. To resist and defeat the racists — both active and complicit by silence — it’s necessary to understand how history can indeed repeat itself. Even if it would be different from the first time, the outcomes can be worse. The first Black president could be the last one under the original Constitution.

In 1776 the founders were white men who assumed a new war would occur if the southern rulers did not give up slaves freely. They had expected it would happened as it did in England and its colonies in the 1830s.

The Southern slave owners made clear that it was their wealth. Slaves would never be freed peacefully. It’s why the Civil War was so bloody and violent, and inevitable. And it’s why as Karl Marx explained at the outset of the war, the North would win with its not so secret weapon — freed slaves turning on their former masters.

A Second Civil War?

The clear majority will have to recognize reactionary forces for what they are and take whatever necessary actions to stop them.

The African-American columnist of The New York Times, Charles Blow, wrote in the September 18, 2017 issue, “Is Trump a white supremacist?”

How can you take comfort among and make common cause with white supremacists and not assimilate to their sensibilities?

I say that it can’t be done. If you are not completely opposed to white supremacy, you are quietly supporting it. If you continue to draw equivalencies between white supremacists and the people who oppose them — as Trump did once again last week — you have crossed the racial Rubicon and moved beyond quiet support to vocal support. You have made an allegiance and dug a trench in the war of racial hostilities.

Either Trump is himself a white supremacist or he is a fan and defender of white supremacists, and I quite honestly am unable to separate the two designations.

The Trump legacy may quicken the social conflicts and struggle for full equality and freedom. Is a new civil war likely the only way to create a genuine nonracial country that the Obama illusion could only pretend to bring?

November-December 2017, ATC 191