Cruel Optimism and the Settler-Colonial Roots of White Grievance

Photograph Source: Portrait by Ralph E. W. Earl, c. 1837 – Public Domain

This past summer I was camping in rural Wisconsin with my partner and son when a huge thunderstorm forced us to seek out the closest local pub for dinner one evening. Our four-year old had been going through some kind of cranky asshole phase all summer and our options for feeding him in the middle of a torrential downpour were either to stay put in our tent and make the best of the water crackers and dried fruit we had lying around—and in the process, risk another epic toddler meltdown—or put on our rain gear and head out into town where our always gregarious kid would at least find someone or something to distract him from feeling too hungry before we got some hot food in front of him.

Yelp did not pull up many options for restaurants close to where we had pitched our tent. There was some fancy steak house that had a fair number of good reviews about a fifteen minute drive in the next town over and a local bar serving pub food that had only a handful of comments but which was a much closer five-minute drive away. We chose the latter after reasoning that a) pub food means fried and fried means toddler-friendly and b) though there were only a few Yelp reviews for this place, they were generally positive about the decent food and authentic “local” vibe of the establishment.

On the surface, our situation might seem rather cut and dry. We were a party of three, two adults and a child, coming in to this bar with the expectation of getting a table and a hot meal. We certainly could not pass for “locals.” But there were other out-of-town campers, including people with kids, already seated and being served. The waitress could not have missed us since this place was tiny and she walked passed us multiple times as we stood just inside the entrance waiting for seating. The people who work there studiously avoided making eye contact with us. There were no conventional physical or verbal cues we could use to get them to give us a table, let alone a menu and the promise of food.

After standing around for a good ten minutes, we finally decided to commandeer a table on our own in hopes of signaling our eagerness for service. When we still failed to wrangle any attention besides passive-aggressive hostility for another fifteen minutes, we finally gave up and left. As I dragged my confused kid out of that place, it hit me what was the distinguishing factor between our party and all the other people being served. Everyone else was white.

I regret muttering “racists!” as I stomped out of the bar since I then had to try to explain to my four-year old just what this deeply engrained and pernicious American condition of discrimination and structural violence meant to our lives at that moment and place. “Don’t worry, mama,” he said to me as we waited for a table at the steak house in the next town over. “I got a good feeling here because that lady at the counter smiled at us,” he noted of the young blonde hostess who took down our party’s name. They were, indeed, quite nice at the steak house and deserved their fine Yelp reviews. We left them a giant tip at the end of our meal.

This was not the first time I’d been caught in a situation where white hostility reared its ugly head. I belong to the “Send her back” demographic as a migrant woman of color and first-generation hyphenated American. And well before this Trumpian moment renewed the visibility of such antagonisms against migrants, women and minorities, I remember living as a young adult through the distinct racialized terrors accompanying California Governor Pete Wilson’s “They Keep Coming” campaign against immigrants in the mid-1990s, not to mention the subsequent post-9/11 national expansion of the security state and its many proliferating forms of racial profiling and policing against potential “foreign” enemies within. There’s nothing quite like having someone on the street punch the glass window next to your head while you’re inside a restaurant having a quiet lunch with a friend in a hijab to convey the deep-seated sentiment of “send her back” that could flare up anywhere, anytime, well before the Trumpian crowds made it into an eventful slogan.

It’s one thing to encounter white hostility yet again as a woman of color looking for a place to have dinner in rural Wisconsin. Like many others in my demographic—my family, many of my friends—I’m somewhat used to it. It’s another matter, however, when you have to induct your young child into this world as a parent. I think I did a rather poor job with my initial gut reaction of “racists!” If anything, my son turned out to be much more attuned to the complex and nuanced landscape of whiteness that shaped our trek out of the campsite in search of a hot meal that night. He was the one, after all, trying to soothe me with his “good feeling” in the steak house and in turn, to help me see the broader range of white response to a non-local, non-white party seeking table service at these local establishments. Granted, only one of these places was explicitly praised on Yelp as a “local” kind of place—and that was the distinctly grungy bar with the strong working-class vibe. The steak house, in contrast, with its showy chandelier and wrap-around oak bar gave off more chamber-of-commerce, country club airs as a place where polite society was expected to reign and with it, all the niceties of unmarked whiteness.

There’s an easy story to tell about our contrasting experiences across these two establishments in rural Wisconsin. The overarching and obvious moral lesson to draw from all of this is that whiteness is hardly a homogenous category. Not all white people we encountered that night exuded clear racial hostility. Only the “local” working class place—with its concentration of those seemingly stereotypical “deplorables” of lowly white origins—proved to be most unwelcoming. The steakhouse with its higher class clientele talking business and sharing social graces over fancy drinks turned out to be perfectly nice and accommodating. Yet by now, we also know from the preponderance of polling data and clear electoral results that the kinds of xenophobic and anti-people of color agendas that power Trumpian politics could not have won the day without the majority support of all whites, regardless of class, gender or educational status in this country. White supremacy weds together the elite and working-class populations that operate through and benefit from its name and its underlying social structures. And it’s a mistake to think that it’s only the scuzzy “local” bar of blue-collar whites that’s to blame for the racial hostilities that erupted that night and ultimately, soured our camping trip.

The story I want to tell my son about all the racial tensions clouding our quest for a hot meal that stormy Wisconsin evening requires a deeper dive into the intersectional politics of class, region and religion that go into the making of American “whiteness” itself. You can’t appreciate the “good feeling” among the privileged whites in that fancy steakhouse without also understanding how it powerfully insulates itself off from and yet successful feeds off those darker, uglier feelings of racial resentment simmering among those other poorer whites too easily parochialized as “locals” in that working-class bar across town.

Many observers over the years have, of course, opined the incapacity of mostly middling and especially working poor whites to recognize how their experiences of vulnerability and suffering might actually resonate more with the interests of various people of color and migrants in this country rather than with elites like Trump and his corporate-cum-political sponsors pushing their particular brand of white grievance. Fifteen years ago Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas was already making this argument of misrecognized economic interests among working-class whites to great popularity and critical acclaim.

Frank’s book spent 18 weeks on the New York Times bestselling list and would go on to be the touchstone for a certain kind of recurring liberal political reckoning with the ascendancy and continual traction of a distinctive angry and macho form of conservative white populism alternately traced back to the Republican “Southern Strategy” crystallized by Nixon’s “Silent Majority” or its 19th century roots in the Jacksonian charismatic politics of the aggrieved “common man.”

In Frank’s estimation, Democrats have been just as much to blame as Republicans for centering contemporary political discourse increasingly around emotionally manipulative “cultural” wedge issues like abortion and gay marriage at the expense of a more sober rational consideration of underlying economic problems. Additionally, the problem, as this line of argument goes, is that certain people (read: the vulnerable unwashed masses of white marginality and minoritized status) are too susceptible to “fake” cultural arguments and in turn, subject to cynical manipulation of their feelings by politicking elites of both liberal and conservative persuasions. If only they could be schooled properly in the dismal science of rational interest and come to see, as Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign once put it in strikingly condescending populist terms: it’s the economy, stupid.

More recently, analysts of white America from academic researchers like John Hartigan Jr., Arlie Hochschild, and Robin Diangelo to professed “native” insiders like J.D. Vance and Jim Webb have all tried to complicate this reductive popular narrative of non-rational misrecognition by lowly white folks too “stupid” to grasp what actually serves their best interests (aka, the hillbillies, white “trash” or “deplorables”). As Hochschild discovered deep in the Tea Party stronghold of Lake Charles in southwest Louisiana, the seemingly cold, hard facts of “economic interest” could never be separated out cleanly and rationally from political passions of a “cultural” sort rooted in historically situated formations of what she described as tacit “feeling rules”—that is, the deep-seated and largely pre-cognitive world of affect which prefigure and guide ongoing social interactions and political imaginations.

Trump, as she reminds us, is at his core “a emotions candidate” who successfully captured and channeled the passions—and not just instrumental “interest”—of his mainly white electorate in the last presidential election. Specifically, against a distinctly hopeful politics of recognition and sympathy for marginalized Others—which was most recently and iconically linked to the Obama administration—conservative whites in places like Lake Charles came to embody a countervailing affect of nostalgic anger and resentment directed at the elite imposition of “liberal feeling rules of whom to feel sorry for” via the heavy-handed threat of “big government.”

Ultimately, Hochschild reports that this resentment is aimed not just at “liberal elites” and “big government” but also most visibly and viscerally at those racialized Others—POC, refugees, migrants—whom they decry as undeserving “linecutters” in the queue for the American Dream. To understand the underlying logics of this racial resentment, many observers of White America, including Hochschild, asks us to consider our longstanding amnesia about the historic diversity, as well as ongoing structural inequalities, among all “those who think they are white” as the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates so aptly tagged this motley crew of Americans.

Of the original settler-colonial strains of American whiteness—the New England WASPs, the Pennsylvania Quakers, the Virginian Cavaliers and the Fighting Scots-Irish—the one that emerges at the emotional core of this tale of white racial resentment is the last group—those distinctly non-Anglo but very Calvinist Scots-Irish—who have long served as the shock troops of English colonization. Starting with their conquest and occupation of the Northern Irish plantation of Ulster, these soldier-settlers would eventually end up migrating across the Atlantic to do the frontline dirty work of clearing and populating the mountainous Appalachian frontier and other border zones across the Northwest Territories in the region we now call the Midwest Rust Belt stretching from Pennsylvania into Illinois, where I live, and yes, through Wisconsin too.

Jim Webb’s insider account of the Scots-Irish makes an especially persuasive case for how these mostly non-elite Celtic “borderers” straddling the impoverished Scottish lowlands and a decimated Northern Ireland came to shape American political culture as the dynamic emotional center of unmarked whiteness. A former marine, lawyer, writer and Virginia Senator, Webb is a self-professed Scots-Irish booster and heir to what he describes as the “bottoms-up” tradition of American populist democracy powered by the nonconformist Presbyterians, colonizing foot soldiers and yeoman farmers who made up some of the largest waves of migration from Britain to the American colonies throughout the 18th century.

The most iconic Scots-Irish figure of American populism just happens to be the president that Trump loves and models himself after the most: the combative Andrew Jackson. Since Jackson made this non-Anglo strain of American whiteness visible on the national political map, more than one third of U.S. presidents can claim these same Scots-Irish roots: from Polk and Grant through Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson to Nixon, Carter, the Bushes, Clinton, and even Obama. In fact, in his speech for the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Obama made a big show of his Scots-Irish roots to argue for certain American “heartland” values that were antithetical to Trump’s candidacy. The “hearty, small town folks” whose ethos he inherited, Obama explained, were quintessential (white) Americans who “didn’t like showoffs” and “didn’t like bullies and braggarts.”

Yet reading Webb’s 2004 account of the Scots-Irish is like encountering the prescient checklist of all the qualities that constitute the core marketing profile or psychographics of Trumpian politics. Here is a group who see themselves as unapologetic and uncomplaining “rugged individuals” who disavow their group-ness as ethnic whites (in a deliberate FU to “identity politics”) but who nonetheless remain extremely loyal and clannish along family and religious lines, not to mention proud of their longstanding association with the military where they are overrepresented as frontline fighters shedding “patriotic” blood from the earliest British colonization campaigns for removing natives through the various 20th century wars, both hot and cold, marking U.S. global ascendancy.

These are people, Webb tells us, who are suspicious of “outsider” incursions on their way of life, particularly of those associated with elite cosmopolitanism and big government. From the outset as the soldier-settlers holding down the forts and frontier zones, they embraced a battle-ready isolationism where military virtues and the right to self-defense culminate in a love of charismatic strongmen and a macho “culture of guns.” They are an “emotional and combative people” who have long been suspicious of any form of aristocracy and in turn, stood as the “poor but proud” antithesis of the elite colonists across New England, Virginia and even Pennsylvania who belittled them for their backward, nonintellectual ways and regularly pushed them into the wild peripheries of more “civilized” settlements to continue the violent expansionist drive across Indian territories.

One result of their non-elite positioning in early colonial America is that Scots-Irish often found themselves at once celebrated as the frontline heroes of settler expansionism (think: Daniel Boone or Andrew Jackson) and yet marginalized as the perennial “cannon fodder” for buffering and clearing out the remnants of native resistance. As historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz points out, the Ulster Scots who powered the violent settler-colonial drives across Northern Ireland and the American continent ended up mainly as the landless losers of white English expansionism, sacrificing their lives and various resources so that more privileged and enterprising “Yankee” settlers could swoop in later from already established colonies to consolidate their growing landholding and extractive fortunes. It’s no wonder that all the well-known pejoratives for white folks—redneck, cracker, hillbilly, white trash—were coined for the Scots-Irish as the perennial losers of the economic sweepstakes of settler-colonial extraction and land grabs through early American history.

Jim Webb tells us that “Yankee colonialism” bred a paradoxical mixture of militaristic patriotism and deep-seated resentments among the Scots-Irish towards white elites and their related state and corporate entities who benefited the most from the fruits of American expansionism. These non-Anglo, lower-class whites, he suggests, were both key agents and inadvertent victims of English colonization, though they themselves would only prefer to see themselves as proud vanguards of the American Dream while shrugging off any whiff of “poor me” claims to socioeconomic dispossession in the service of spreading white supremacy across native North America.

It is of some irony, then, that of all those who think they are white, it’s this group of relatively disadvantaged Scots-Irish who are often blamed the most for the virulent racisms associated with white America, particularly in the post-Civil War, Jim Crow South. Taking stock of whiteness as an uneven relation of power, as opposed to a given category of group-ness, can help us rethink how racism can operate not only through the visible working-class resentments of hostile “rednecks” but also via the “innocent” ignorance of their more privileged white counterparts who can enjoy the structural advantages of “good feelings” that come from being buffered against the worst fallout of America’s settler-colonial legacy and its ongoing and unequal racial entailments. In so far as patriarchy and its associated structures of toxic masculinity can be bad for some men, observers of white America like Hochschild and Webb suggests that white supremacy can also be bad for some of the folks who think they are white like these non-elite Scots-Irish who make the easiest scapegoats as the most visibly uncouth and often loud-mouthed “racists.”

“White America,” Jim Webb argues, “is so variegated that it is an ethnic fairy tale.” And this is a tale, he concludes, that’s told at the expense of some people like the Scots-Irish who, in turn, cannot help but bear certain deep grievances and resentments. What Webb and others cited here have a harder time explaining is why these grievances of lower-class whites are directed not only at “Yankee” elites and their related institutions of privileged whiteness but most publicly and fiercely at migrants and people of color.

In surveying some of this literature on white America in hopes of better explaining racism to my son, ultimately I am struck by how little most of these authors actually dig into the deep historic amnesia about race relations and its perduring traumas in the U.S. We get plenty of 1830s Jacksonian populism and the plight of landless poor whites struggling alongside African-Americans in the 1860s post-Civil War south. But there is shockingly little about the early settler-colonial era when the Scots-Irish emerged as the key agents of the ground game for the widespread removal and outright extermination of indigenous populations. This starts with the recruitment of the lowland Scots to sweep out the native Irish population in the formation of the Ulster plantation. It extends through the frontiersman legends of Daniel Boone and Andrew Jackson and all the way to the already half-forgotten Standing Rock resistance against the Dakota Access Pipeline that unfolded over the last presidential election.

In the end, I want to suggest that it is not enough to simply name and dismantle this “ethnic fairy tale” of whiteness by pointing to the relative disadvantages of a certain subset of white America. This move often works as little more than a sympathetic alibi and obfuscating form of whataboutism rather than lead to a more serious reckoning with the deep-seated settler-colonial legacy and ongoing fallout of white supremacy in this country. The Scots-Irish may have drawn the short straw as agents of English colonization. Nonetheless they couldn’t help from being complicit and ever more stubbornly attached to the aspirational project of whiteness, even when chasing this American Dream has not worked out as well for them as for others who think they are white.

Why they remain so committed to this losing fantasy is surely a sign of whiteness’s durable effective hold as what the cultural theorist Lauren Berlant termed “cruel optimism”—that is, as a kind of stubborn attachment to some scenario or object of desire that is bad for you, seems impossible to reach, and brings all sorts of harm but which nonetheless, you cannot give up on without losing some foundational sense of your own self and your world which you’ve already ordered and staked so optimistically to this attachment. For those who think they are white but have yet to achieve or fully embody all the signs of aspirational whiteness, racial resentment is a key symptom of this most American psychodrama of cruel optimism.

Julie Y. Chu is a sociocultural anthropologist with interests in mobility and migration, economy and value, ritual life, material culture, media and technology, and state regulatory regimes. Her book, Cosmologies of Credit: Transnational Mobility and the Politics of Destination in China (Duke University Press, 2010), received the 2011 Sharon Stephens Prize from the American Ethnological Society and the 2012 Clifford Geertz Prize from the Society for the Anthropology of Religion.