WHO ELECTED THIS WHITE MAN?

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Who elected this white man to the office of the POTUS?

In her much discussed book The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker, political scientist Katherine Cramer locates voters’ discontent in the disconnect between rural and urban worlds.

She says very little about racial resentment, focusing instead on rural citizens’ perceived lack of power and resources (those goodies flow to the larger cities of Madison and Milwaukee) and their perceived lack of respect from the elites in power.

No doubt her research has some explanatory power but the data from the last election shows that the majority of urban whites, including the majority of those very elites (see college-educated whites) who presumably do not respect rural folk, also voted for Trump.

So, we have a problem. White people, through no fault of our own, understand the world through the frame (way of seeing) into which we have been born. And our framing is inevitably filtered through a pervasive whiteness we cannot see directly.

In “Peering Through White-Rimmed Glasses: A Letter to My Fellow White Americans,” my sister Fran Kaplan observes: “Over our lifetimes, we humans develop a frame of reference – a particular way of seeing the world. Our habits of seeing are based on the cultural norms we learn at our parents’ knees, at school and work, from the media, and in the social circles where we spend the most time.

Our personal frames shape how we behave, but they tend to operate outside of our awareness, without our having to think about them.” If you are a white American, you operate in a largely invisible “white racial frame.” Notice that it is not a RACIST frame. It’s just a white way of seeing and knowing the world.

We glimpse it most directly during moments of high national drama: when Rodney King is beaten half to death and some people riot; when the OJ Simpson trial produces a shock of recognition that black and white citizens don’t see the world the same way; when Treyvon Martin and Michael Brown and Eric Gardner and Dontre Hamilton and all the other innocent people are killed for no reason and with no consequences for the killers and people take to the streets to protest. During those moments it’s easy to see that the world really is different for people of color. But it’s hard to keep that insight operative in our day-to-day concerns.

Jamele Hill, sports analyst for ESPN, calls Donald Trump a racist. His press secretary urges her employer to fire her (and many people concur!). But Trump can say “Black guys counting my money! I hate it. The only kind of people I want counting my money are short guys that wear yarmulkes every day.” He’s elected president for all that.

If we read the data right, our still majority-white country has a problem. “A new Reuters/Ipsos poll … finds that while there is relatively little national endorsement of neo-Nazis and white supremacists, there are troubling levels of support for certain racially-charged ideas and attitudes frequently expressed by extremist groups” (New Poll: Some Americans Express Troubling Racial Attitudes Even as Majority Oppose White Supremacists, University of Virginia Center for Politics, Sept. 14, 2017). Have your eyes opened to the extent of the problem: read the entire analysis of the survey.

As progressives and the Democratic Party wrestle with our future direction, I want to make my own position clear. This is no time to ignore identity politics. As Coates reminds us, whiteness is also an identity in the political sense. Unlike black or LGBTQ or female identity, it does not have to be named or overtly recognized to be powerful. Coates ends with this insight:

It has long been an axiom among certain black writers and thinkers that while whiteness endangers the bodies of black people in the immediate sense, the larger threat is to white people themselves, the shared country, and even the whole world. There is an impulse to blanch at this sort of grandiosity.

When W. E. B. Du Bois claims that slavery was “singularly disastrous for modern civilization” or James Baldwin claims that whites “have brought humanity to the edge of oblivion: because they think they are white,” the instinct is to cry exaggeration.

But there really is no other way to read the presidency of Donald Trump. The first white president in American history is also the most dangerous president—and he is made more dangerous still by the fact that those charged with analyzing him cannot name his essential nature, because they too are implicated in it.

I long for a satisfactory understanding of how to tackle this problem — head-on, effectively, and immediately. The only thing I know for sure is that acknowledging that we (white people) have a systemic problem is an essential, first tiny step toward revising the frame.