The Politics of Race

America is failing. America is a rich country that no longer can deliver the mail in a timely fashion, cannot hold elections in an orderly manner, and cannot tame a pandemic. It cannot control wild fires, and its infrastructure lags far behind the developed countries of Europe and such rapidly industrializing countries as China and India. America spends more on healthcare than any other country with poorer health outcomes. This list could be expanded, but the conclusion would not change: By almost any conceivable index — others include education, happiness, and quality of life — the United States is failing.

Why is this? No doubt the American emphasis on rugged individualism has precluded finding communitarian solutions for the pooling of resources to provide benefits for all. The availability of cheap land — the Homestead Act, passed in 1862, offered 160-acre plots for only a small filing fee — drained the discontented from American cities, preventing the development of an urban underclass agitating for a better life. The uniquely American Federal system of government — the division of power between the central government and 50 regional governments — means there is no one central point where collective action can be applied successfully. These analyses and others have merit as explanations for America’s current failures, but underlaying them all is the persistence of racism in American political life. 

The constant appeal throughout our history to racial unity and identity by social, economic, and political elites discouraged unity among poor and middle class Blacks and Whites. Farmers, urban laborers, and white collar workers failed to develop common interests because emphasis on racial differences undermined appeals to class. This was, of course, most obvious in the American South, where antebellum planters stoked the racial resentments of poor Whites by constantly harping that emancipation would mean four-million free Blacks competing for jobs and social status. After the Civil War, the status of Blacks changed — free, but circumscribed by sharecropping and Jim Crow — but the appeals to White solidarity remained the same. Upper class Whites convinced poor Whites that they had more in common with the rich than Whites had with Blacks. A sense of a shared “whiteness” assured poor Whites of their racial superiority and trumped appeals to class solidarity cutting across racial lines.

Such appeals to racial identity worked. In the 1890s, a vibrant protest movement called Populism (not to be confused with the use of the term today to describe nationalist movements around the world and Trumpism in the United States) united, for a time, the poor in the South across racial lines. In the end, Populism was defeated because the wealthy — industrialists and the landed elite — stoked racial fears to divide the lower class along the Black-White axis. Race-baiting provided the mechanism to disenfranchise African Americans and unite Whites — poor and rich — behind one-party Democratic rule for decades. 

Northern industrialists first divided the urban poor and the working class by asserting immigrants were a threat. The upper classes pointed to German and Irish immigrants before the Civil War; later, the well-born claimed Jews and Catholics from Eastern and Southern Europe were an economic threat to “real” Americans. During and after World War I, race became a dividing line with the Great Migration of southern Blacks to northern cities. The constant litany of allegations that immigrants and Blacks would take jobs from native-born Whites and depress wages undermined class consciousness and weakened labor unions.

To be sure, for some, America worked well. Wealthy planters, owners of thousands of acres of land and hundreds of slaves, knew the system benefited them, and they agitated for secession when convinced that abolition was imminent. Northern industrialists and those who traveled in their orbit succeeded fantastically, giving rise to a nascent American aristocracy. But, the division of society along racial rather than class lines meant America lacked the class-conscious labor and social democratic movements common in Europe that placed enormous pressure on entrenched elites and led to the development of the welfare state.

The election of Barack Obama as president in 2008 suggested America was entering a post-racial era. It was a comforting thought, and while no one would deny the election of a Black president meant progress, too much can be, and was, made of Obama’s ascent. It will take decades to understand truly the role of Obama’s presidency in the racial history of the United States, but in the short run, one thing is clear: The reaction to the first Black president led to the election of a White supremacist as president.

Donald Trump stoked many resentments: Against Muslims, immigrants, Blacks, Latinxs, sexual orientation, and so on. Racial resentment and identity politics fueled Trumpism from the moment Trump descended the escalator at Trump Tower in 2015 to the storming of the Capitol on January 6, 2021. Whether it was Trump’s waffling on the White supremacists at Charlottesville, or his comment about “shithole” countries, or his attack on the congressional “squad,” Trump’s followers always knew where he stood on race and racial politics. Trumpism — and January 6 — inevitably flow from America’s long and sorry history of racial politics. 

Trump fed and benefitted from the fears of many Whites that they are losing control of the country. (“Take back your country,” is Trump’s rallying cry, repeated on January 6.) Demographic trends show that in a few decades whites will no longer be a majority in America. White response to this “minority majority” shift gave impetus to the rise of Trumpism and the intensification of right-wing White extremist attacks on people of color, Jews, and immigrants during Trump’s presidency. MAGA always stood for making America great for White people.

Trump’s refusal to accept the results of the November 3 election meant disenfranchising thousands of African Americans in large cities in the battleground states, one more instance in a long history of the suppression of Black voting rights. The outgoing president’s need to overturn Joe Biden’s election as president led Trump to invite his MAGA followers to Washington, D.C., for a “wild” protest. Given the nature of the support for Trump and his actions over the last four years, and in the context of the long history of racial politics in America, it is no surprise that some of the symbols on display on January 6 included a Confederate flag paraded through the Capitol and a gallows on the lawn.

The past may or may not be prologue, but Trumpism and January 6 flow ineluctably from centuries of American racial history. Trump’s leaving office this week hopefully will temper the politics of racial resentment but will not eliminate that ugly habit in American history.

Posted January 19, 2021

Comments are closed.