Excerpts from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ forthcoming We Were Eight Years In Power: An American Tragedy. The first unpacks the misleading notion that un- and under-employment were the primary issues lifting Mr. Trump to the presidency – The Atlantic:
Asserting that Trump’s rise was primarily powered by cultural resentment and economic reversal has become de rigueur among white pundits and thought leaders. But evidence for this is, at best, mixed.
(Gallup researchers Jonathan Rothwell and Pablo Diego-Rosell):
Those who approved of Trump were “less likely to be unemployed and less likely to be employed part-time” than those who did not. They also tended to be from areas that were very white: “The racial and ethnic isolation of whites at the zip code level is one of the strongest predictors of Trump support.”
Why would this be so?
The left would much rather have a discussion about class struggles, which might entice the white working masses, instead of about the racist struggles that those same masses have historically been the agents and beneficiaries of. Moreover, to accept that whiteness brought us Donald Trump is to accept whiteness as an existential danger to the country and the world. But if the broad and remarkable white support for Donald Trump can be reduced to the righteous anger of a noble class of smallville firefighters and evangelicals, mocked by Brooklyn hipsters and womanist professors into voting against their interests, then the threat of racism and whiteness, the threat of the heirloom, can be dismissed. Consciences can be eased; no deeper existential reckoning is required.
Coates’ references to “whiteness” and the “heirloom” allude not to the color of one’s skin, but the state of one’s mind. Quoting historian Nell Irvin Painter, “race is an idea, not a fact.” In other words, we (of all ethnicities) create the world we fantasize, we put those around us in the boxes we inherit as cultural baggage, and as the majority, white Americans have created a culture tilted strongly in their own favor. Heirs to this baggage have enjoyed benefits since the founding of our country. There has never been any other way. Ethnic struggle is a product of the majority living in a sort of dream of the way things ought to be, by their reckoning.
Conveniently, then, much of white America prefers to see the rise of Trump not in terms of race, but as the product of disheartened, unemployed, and left-behind workers, and voters seeking change. The change these voters sought, though, is from the reforms brought by Trump’s recently departed black predecessor. Trump’s strong white turnout was the mechanism of “whiteness” attempting to return the reality of America to the phantasy they live in.
These voters were a minority within a majority, though, a more palatable explanation for how this preposterous, bigoted, misogynist of a man without a shred of political or elected experience could gain the White House. A truer picture shows Trump dog-whistling his way to victory on the backs of majority white voters as a sort of angry shriek from a declining demographic seeing itself subside to just another minority group.
In another excerpt, Coates notes the unequal response to crises within varying ethnic communities:
Black workers suffer because it was and is our lot. But when white workers suffer, something in nature has gone awry. And so an opioid epidemic among mostly white people is greeted with calls for compassion and treatment, as all epidemics should be, while a crack epidemic among mostly black people is greeted with scorn and mandatory minimums.
Coates’ example of the current opioid epidemic is borne out by recent reporting on the rise in suicides among whites, attributed to oxy- and hydrocodone, and later, fentanyl addictions (Brookings):
Dividing the country into 1,000-plus regions, the authors find that the rate of “deaths of despair” (deaths by drugs, alcohol, and suicide) in midlife for white non-Hispanics rose in nearly every part of the country and at every level of urbanization—from deep rural areas to large central cities—hitting men and women similarly.
I’ve been around five-plus decades. I don’t recall social alarm about the crack epidemic, which struck the black community disproportionately to their population. I do remember that mandatory sentencing guidelines for those convicted of possession or distribution were significantly higher than for those found with the powdered form of the same drug.
Reaction to the crack epidemic was largely of the “lock ‘em up” variety. The powdered stuff was greeted with less urgency among the population, if not among law enforcement. It sold at a higher price, and was accordingly found mainly among the white population.
And the coup de grâce (Coates, referring to an LA Times story from 1990):
“There is a tremendous amount of anger and frustration among working-class whites, particularly where there is an economic downturn,” a researcher told the Los Angeles Times. “These people feel left out; they feel government is not responsive to them.” By this logic, postwar America—with its booming economy and low unemployment—should have been an egalitarian utopia and not the violently segregated country it actually was.
Feeling left out doesn’t explain away enough of the 2016 election. Dig deeper. Once you see it, you can’t un-see it.
Coates’ book arrives in October.
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