The Distemper of White Spite

While the snarling rabid minions of the mobilized alt-right seek to cloak themselves in the mantle of “free speech,” their provocative marches are, instead, the most extreme recrudescence of a white nationalist distemper. Emboldened by the white supremacist Trump Administration and the constant racist tweeting of its ersatz Führer, other “aggrieved” whites look to the White House to operationalize their racial resentments.

Of course, those racial resentments are deeply rooted in the political culture of the United States, especially as expressions of state and vigilante violence against people of color. When white Europeans invaded the American continent in the 15thand 16thcenturies, they either sought to plunder the wealth of the indigenous population or to establish colonies as an extension of the war capitalism practiced by their competing nation states. To satisfy the need for labor, European settlers imported African slaves in the 17thcentury, enacting, in the process, a harsh regime of exploitation throughout the colonies.  Once these North American colonies achieved their independence through the formation of the United States in the late 18thcentury, those states continued to engage in war and expansion against the indigenous populations and to enslave people of African descent.

Indeed, the foundational document of these United States, the Constitution, was a perfect reflection of a slave republic, built on empire, expansion, and exclusion. The Second Amendment to that Constitution inscribed militias as a vehicle of state violence against both the indigenous and slave populations.  As William Appleman Williams asserts in Empire as a Way of Life, “the routine lust for land, markets, or security became justifications for noble rhetoric about prosperity, liberty, and security” (62). Hence, hiding beneath the ideological veil of liberty and security was an iron fist of state violence, especially against people of color, whether red, black, or brown.

When state militias became less reliable in the 19thcentury as a consequence of class conflict, private security agencies, like the Pinkertons, vigilantes, and eventually police forces were the new vehicles to control and repress any resistance, whatever its color.  On the other hand, white supremacy as the dominant ideological order through the 19thand 20thcenturies consigned to the police the role of patrolling and brutalizing African-Americans.  In the southern states in particular, right through the 1960’s, police were part of a terror network that punished any black person who violated the rules of white supremacy.

White supremacy did not disappear with the overcoming of segregation and second-class citizenship. If it no longer relied on white sheets to promulgate its terror, it could always find blue uniforms to hide behind whenever travesties were committed against the African-American community.  With cries for “law and order” and the pointed use of drug and criminal justice policies, the African-American community faced renewed state violence and police brutality in the late 20thand early 21stcenturies.

Therefore, the unending and vicious murders of unarmed black people by white police and white vigilantes are not an anomaly or the work of a few “bad apples.” It is inherent in the nature of white supremacist social order that inscribes disadvantage and oppression against people of color.  Indeed, “supporting heavily racialized investments in policing, prisons, and the military,” “aggrieved whiteness,” as argued by Mike King, constitutes an effort to “maintain white socio-political hegemony” (Abolition Journal, May 4, 2017). The passage of “Stand-Your-Ground” legislation in numerous states has been a cover for white vigilantes like George Zimmerman and others who feel empowered to execute unarmed African-Americans.

These examples of lethal white spite manifest a direct correlation with the political fortunes of Donald Trump. As noted by Sasha Abramsky in his important book, Jumping at Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream: “Primed to fear a long list of despised ‘others’ by endless exposure to sensational cable television news reports, to social media, and to talk radio, a critical mass of voters in such an anxious age will throw their lot in with demagogic figures who pander to their anxieties” (15).  From the outrageous racist claims about Mexicans to the Gestapo-like tactics of ICE to the kidnapping of brown children and their detention or deportation of their parents, Trump relies on racial fears and resentments of whites to advance and institutionalize such white spite.

Certainly, the very real decline of living standards and the attendant rise in morbidity statistics among some white workers, especially those in rural areas, has created an environment where racism and xenophobia can be mobilized. “Perceived threats to national security and/or unemployment” are breeding grounds for “anti-immigrant attitudes” (Michele Lamont, The Dignity of Working Men, 92).  Hence, it is not surprising that Trump’s 2016 electoral victory owed much to the “dwindling proportion of traditionally high-status Americans (i.e., whites. Christians, and men), as well as those who perceived America’s global dominance as threatened.…(They inevitably gave) support for the candidate who emphasized establishing status hierarchies of the past” (Diana C. Mutz, PNAS, April 23, 2018).

In the next few decades people of color will become a majority of the American working class. Attacks by Trump and the Republican Party on people of color represent desperate attempts to mobilize whites and divide the working class for their own political benefits.  Unfortunately, for the fortunes of the working class as a whole, the appeals to white spite go beyond the fringe extremist elements of the alt-right.  They go to the core of persistent white supremacy – a core that needs to be confronted and removed if there is any hope for transformative change in the United States.

Fran Shor is a Michigan-based retired teacher, author, and political activist.