Everything I bring to the table of discussion here is informed by more than thirty years of living and working in an east side, inner city Detroit neighborhood, which was part of the poorest congressional district in the country when I moved there in 1974. Over time, in slow motion, all of my presuppositions about race were “broken down” by lower income African American neighbors and I gradually assimilated a quite different point of view than I had grown up with. What happened on those streets was my “real” education; my time at the University of Chicago getting the PhD was largely a matter of gaining greater theoretical fluency by which to talk about my formation at the corner of East Grand Blvd and Lafayette. I now teach Social Ethics at an inner city predominantly African American seminary, located in Brush Park just outside downtown Detroit, as well as lecture at Oakland University in courses I invented called Race and Communication and Hip-Hop, Race, and the City.
I was not shocked or surprised by the election outcome, but certainly depressed. But I would have been depressed either way—because the Powers doing massive damage in our world remain largely impervious to our current political processes.
- Ever-morphing wars (in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Columbia ,and elsewhere are windfalls, not “problems” for defense contractors.
- Fossil fuel industry commitments to shareholder earnings virtually require the kind of drilling and pumping over the next forty years that will release an amount of CO2 five times greater than our biosphere can process with any hope of regenerating
- Wall Street and finance capital shenanigans plundering economies local and abroad and privatizing an ever-greater share of our commons (such as water and rain forest) are simply realizing the logic of “winning at all costs” that Western culture enshrines.
- A US-geo-political dominance that forcibly funnels 25-40% of the world’s resources into our hands (even though we are only 4% of the world’s population) is actually carrying out the mandate of all of us addicted to the “American Dream” (that is—the profligate lifestyle of “American Exceptionalism” that is filling the oceans with islands of carcinogenic plastic and garbage larger than the continental USA)
None of these are the result of evil individuals. These Powers are systemic and structural, embedded in every major institution in our society and deeply internalized in our psyches and our cultural patterns. And they are racialized. Race has probably been the single most effective tool for organizing who has access to resources and opportunities over the last five hundred years and who labors to supply them and who gives up their land and their lives to enable such.
At its core is this shape-shifting phenomenon called whiteness. I call it “shape-shifting” because it is elusive. What is whiteness? Not my skin color. Not any biological feature you can specify. My genes? Go back a little way in my line and you get to Ireland and England and Holland and Germany. Go further and you get to Celtic folk in Turkey and the Alans of Iran and the Saka of Afghanistan. Keep going and you end up in Africa. I am finally—as everyone else on the planet—an African in my family tree. For the moment, I just happened to be “passing.”
So what is whiteness? A social idea, a fiction, a construct—that has been made to be real and to have real consequence by drawing a line in the sand and saying: I belong and you don’t and I have the right to your land (if you are Native), to your labor (if black), to your minerals and oil (if “Oriental” or Latino or Middle Eastern or African), etc.
Obviously, it is a complex history to sort through. But very, very clearly—as a “dog-whistle idea”—whiteness has worked very well for people who look like me. I can walk you through every institutional arrangement in our society and show you the reality of vast racial disparity, whether dealing with income, wealth, health, educational opportunity, housing equity, job prospects, incarceral rates, etc. Whiteness on average—compared to someone black—grants me:
- thirteen times the assets,
- twice the income,
- half the poverty rate,
- half the unemployment rate,
- much less likelihood of being suspended from school for breaking the rules or imprisoned if caught blowing a joint.
So what did race mean in relationship to the election? There are many layers to what happened. It was a Gordian knot of white supremacy, blunt misogyny, rabid homophobia, and shrill hatred of immigrants. But I want to talk about it on the largest scale possible: the Big Future we are headed into. That future is stark. Climate change will continue to roll in now for as far out as we can see. It doesn’t matter whether you deny it or not. The laws of nature don’t particularly care whether you believe in them or not. The science is clear. We are causing it. The Pentagon is planning for it. Finance capital is trying to figure out how to exploit it. Insurance companies are trying to figure out how to protect against it.
As the climate alters, the planet heats, the ice melts, seas rise, tsunamis increase because of melt-water pulses, wild fires rage, the amount of resources available to meet emergencies will come under ever-growing stress and competition. In response, global elites will clearly enforce their control of such by ever-more repressive responses of militarized police and electronic surveillance. In consequence, the overwhelming majority of populations globally will become ever-more desperate and the political remedy offered them by those elites will most often be the most convenient scapegoats.
US political history is witness to a recurrent calamity that pits disaffected whites against marginalized people of color in order to obfuscate what is going on. Whether we can finally learn to overcome this easy manipulation is an open question.
Closer to home and the present, the majority whiteness that “went Trump” has at least three major components. Most immediately and obviously, Trump supporters
- Are not only the so-called Alt-Right of ideologically committed white nationalists, free now to convene public gatherings in Washington, demand militant action toward securing a white homeland, and literally salute “heil whiteness” and “hail Trump” in response.
- They are also a disaffected white working class and lower middle class, who have real economic grievances under globalization, but whose legitimate rage was fragmented and directed against only one head of the two-headed dragon consuming them—fatuously hoping Big Business rep Trump will save them from the Big Government menace which is actually only the former’s (Big Business’) well-lobbied lackey
- But it is also now clear that a large chunk of support comes from a segment of the (formerly) Obama-supporting white middle class, who were convinced that the election of a black president certified the country as post-racial and thus unconcerned that Trump bellows in racist bluster with regularity (since “race no longer matters”!)
It is the latter, silent, “color-blind” whiteness that is perhaps most dangerous and deadly, in supporting political policy and economic practice that continues to advantage whites and put black and brown bodies in stark cells and early graves.
But then what to do in the face of this sudden eruption of our deepest national delusion? What does “taking responsibility for whiteness” mean? In a word:
- learning to listen to people of color here and people of color abroad—really listen to what they say about what they experience without pretending to be able to second guess their reports;
- learning the history of what has actually happened in our national history, rather than the fantasy we are typically offered, and what we in fact owe the rest of the globe;
- working—in social movements led by people of color—for a more just distribution of resources and power as the most effective deterrent to terror;
- grasping that weather does not recognize walls.
At the level of a climate now “speaking” to us on a global scale—with respect to the oceans that create and circulate the waters we drink and the trees that create and cleanse the air we breathe—the world is not a Disney-Bubble of Whites-Only Privilege and Opportunity, but a Commons that we either respect in common or kiss goodbye as it votes us off the planet.