The Unbearable Whiteness of Being

“The First White President,” an Atlantic essay (https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/10/the-first-white-president-ta-nehisi-coates/537909/) by Ta-Nehisi Coates, is a must read for progressives.  Coates argues that Donald Trump was elected for one reason: his unapologetic whiteness.  “It is often said that Trump has no real ideology, which is not true—his ideology is white supremacy, in all its truculent and sanctimonious power.”

Coates contends that excuses for Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton should be set aside: Trump didn’t win because the Russians hacked the election or because Democrats forgot how to talk to working-class white voters or because Hillary was more hated than Donald.  Coates believes Trump won because he championed whiteness. “To Trump, whiteness is neither notional nor symbolic but is the very core of his power. In this, Trump is not singular. But whereas his forebears carried whiteness like an ancestral talisman, Trump cracked the glowing amulet open, releasing its [supernatural] energies.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates makes three arguments to support his contention.  The first is statistical: “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)…. From the beer track to the wine track, from soccer moms to nascar dads, Trump’s performance among whites was dominant.

Coates’ second point is that political observers have chosen to ignore the central role of race and instead have focused on Trump’s appeal to working-class whites. “There is a kind of theater at work in which Trump’s presidency is pawned off as a product of the white working class as opposed to a product of an entire whiteness that includes the very authors doing the pawning. The motive is clear: escapism. To accept that the bloody heirloom remains potent even now, some five decades after Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down on a Memphis balcony—even after a black president; indeed, strengthened by the fact of that black president—is to accept that racism remains, as it has since 1776, at the heart of this country’s political life.”

Finally, Coates argues the emphasis on working-class-white malaise was a tactic formulated by white progressives:  “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… This notion—raceless antiracism—marks the modern left, from the New Democrat Bill Clinton to the socialist Bernie Sanders.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates is correct.  “Raceless antiracism” does distinguish the modern left.  A failed attempt by progressives to deemphasize racism, to keep it in the shadows, where — because of political correctness — it won’t be discussed.  And Coates is correct asserting that Donald Trump harnessed racist energy to capture the presidency.  As a consequence: “Democrats [are no longer] the party of white people—working or otherwise. White workers are not divided by the fact of labor from other white demographics; they are divided from all other laborers by the fact of their whiteness.”

Nonetheless, Coates conflates “racism,” “white supremacy,” and “whiteness.” That muddies already troubled waters.

Trump was elected because of his white supremacist perspective, not just his racism.  Many of us know Trump voters who pulled the lever for Donald because they hated Hillary Clinton.  Sexism was an important aspect of Trump’s appeal.

However, not every white person who voted for Trump is a racist or white supremacist.  Many of us know Trump voters who held their noses and voted for Donald.  They had poor judgement.  That’s a consequence of their whiteness.  They are tacit supporters of white supremacy.

“Racism” is a subset of “white supremacy”, which is full-service bigotry.  In contrast, “whiteness” is synonymous with “supporting the system of white male privilege;” a larger and less distinct concept that incorporates racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, anti-semitism and dominionism.  In essence, white male privilege is the notion that straight white Anglo-Saxon men should dominate the social order because that is the “natural” hierarchy.

Full disclosure: I am a privileged white male.

Ta-Nehisi Coates recognizes that Donald Trump garnered the presidency because of his brazen white supremacy.  During the election, the Trump base was more energized than the Clinton base because Trump voters saw Donald defending the “natural order.”  That’s the power behind “Make America great again;” it’s a call to restore white male privilege.

America faces four challenges in this era of renewed white supremacy.  First, the President is an unbalanced bigot.  Trump has peppered his Administration with other white supremacists, such as Jeff Sessions and Scott Pruitt.  Progressives need to fight off multiple assaults on democracy.

Second, white supremacists don’t have the numbers to hold power long term.  Hillary Clinton won the 2016 popular vote by 2.9 million.  Furthermore, by 2040 whites will be a minority in the United States where 52 percent of the population will be asian, black, or hispanic.  White supremacists are running out of time and that fuels their desperation.

Third, white supremacy is detrimental to the economy.  Societal stability depends upon the health of the middle class; bigotry damages it.  Inevitably the economy will crash.

Finally, the United States is a Christian nation and white supremacy is inconsistent with Christian values.  Trump, and many Republicans, do not practice Christianity but instead an offshoot of Calvinism — with its emphasis on worldly success as a measure of goodliness.  Real Christians follow the teachings of Jesus, whose second commandment was “love thy neighbor as thyself.”  Trump’s white supremacy is leading America into a moral abyss.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The First White President” should be considered by all progressives.  It’s an accurate assessment of the state of American society and an indication of what it will take to restore democracy.