In the wake of the Trump electoral victory this past Tuesday, we are witness already to a major interpretive theme that purports to explain the surprising outcome: “a whitelash,” Van Jones called it. The “it was all about race” argument is coming from understandably frustrated and worried African Americans, but also from the generic Left.
This argument is a classic example, in somewhat abstract form, of what cognitive psychologists call the evoked set—a fancy locution for the phenomenon of people seeing what they expect or want to see. Adversary culture conviction that America is basically evil has always rested to a considerable degree on the premise that American society is irredeemably racist. Sometimes this view takes on a relatively moderate, academic tone, such as in anything Eric Foner writes. And sometimes it takes on a shrill and only clingingly rational tone. But no matter what tone it takes, it is wrong, just as the “race” explanation for the election outcome is wrong.
It is wrong, first of all, because several other factors are more important. The déclassé economics of globalized turmoil is certainly one of them, although of course there is no one-to-one correspondence politically. Plenty of union members voted for Hillary Clinton, and plenty of wealthier people voted for Trump on other grounds. But the tendency of those feeling the downward-pushing pressures of a changing economic environment to shift from voting Democratic to voting Republican clearly mattered—for example in places like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. Those three states combine 54 electoral votes; had they gone Democratic instead of Republican, Clinton would have won the election.
But the “it was about race” argument is also wrong, even as a supplementary argument, because it invariably conflates race with culture/class (or subcultural, if you like) characteristics. No doubt there are old-fashioned skin-color haters in America; David Duke is happy these days, and that’s why. But most social-capital poor and semi-educated white people are made uncomfortable not by skin hues darker than their own, but by an array of behavioral characteristics common to urban lower-class blacks, and to yet unacculturated Latinos, that are not their ways. (We return to these characteristics in a moment.)
The fact is, as Richard Thompson Ford has so brilliantly explained, there is no such thing anymore as a socially monolithic African American minority in the United States. There are instead increasingly striated class differences among African Americans, a development already many decades in the making that points both to remarkable progress in race relations and to unanticipated discomforts among blacks. The roughly 8 percent of black voters who cast a ballot for Donald Trump—a higher percentage than Mitt Romney got, probably because Romney was running against a black man—likely came from the precincts of the expanding black middle class. And no doubt many blacks who are not yet there are scratching their heads trying to figure out how a black man could vote that way.
But the fact is that, as far as white voters are concerned, well-known individuals like Colin Powell, Condi Rice, Susan Rice, Robert Lewis Gates, Randall Kennedy, and many tens of thousands of others who are not household names, speak, think, dress, and act well within or above the American cultural mainstream. The argument that vast numbers of Americans who voted for Donald Trump hate all these people because of their skin color is patent nonsense.
But lots of non-black Latinos who are relatively new to the country do not act or appear to rest comfortably within the mainstream culture, and the attitudinal crossing points between immigration and race show that it is not skin color that matters most politically but behaviors that stir discomfort and anxiety (whether justifiably or not is an interesting subject, but one that has nothing to do with cold analytics). Thus, in the mid- to northwestern parts of the United States, where Trump won every state—even including Wisconsin—the presence of African Americans is small outside of large cities compared to the spreading presence of relatively recent-arrival Latinos. And one detects more anxiety in such places among whites than in areas where more established and acculturated Latinos are concentrated—for example, southern California, Colorado, and New Mexico, and even to a considerable extent in Texas and Arizona—precisely because such established and acculturated populations do not stir similar levels of anxiety. The two latter states went for Trump, yes, but not mainly because of immigration concerns.
This is not the place—a relatively short blog post—to delve in detail into one of the most fraught and complex phenomena affecting contemporary American society. Saying anything even remotely unconventional about the subject is also an emotional minefield right now, to say the least. That said, truth demands a hearing.
What behaviors that unsettle the modal white, mainly non-big-city voter am I talking about? It’s a big and still regionally varied country, so reasonable generalizations are difficult to come by. But a few may be ventured.
First is boisterous, emotionally “out there” conduct—raised and raucous voices, even in mirth, in public conveyances, on sidewalks and street corners, and so on. The same goes for loud music projected into common public space, particularly these days music with salacious or outright obscene lyrics. Many Protestant-stock whites, especially those still possessed of a traditional religious sensibility, visibly cringe when exposed to these forms of exhibitionism. To them, rightly or wrongly, such expressions suggest present-orientation and a basic lack of moral self-discipline. It casts a shadow, too—again, fairly or not—on assessments of work ethics. Such people, in the eyes of modal American gothic figures, appear to be neither prudential nor humble, as good and wise people ought to be.
There is no distinction of significance here between African-Americans and Latinos, or, for that matter back in the day, with newly arrived Italians, Irish, and Jews. As to the latter, remember what Henry James once had to say, in his 1907 book The American Scene, about the “whole spectacle” of “swarming” immigrant Jews in the Lower East Side:
It was as if we had been thus, in the crowded, hustled roadway, where multiplication, multiplication of everything, was the dominant note, at the bottom of some vast sallow aquarium in which innumerable fish, of over-developed proboscis, were to bump together, for ever, amid heaped spoils of the sea. . . . There are small strange animals, known to natural history, snakes or worms, I believe, who, when cut into pieces, wriggle away contentedly and live in the snippet as completely as in the whole. So the denizens of the New York Ghetto, heaped as thick as the splinters on the table of a glass-blower, had each, like the fine glass particle, his or her individual share of the whole hard glitter of Israel.
A few paragraphs later, James wrote of the fire escapes of tenement buildings that they are like “the spaciously organized cage for the nimbler class of animals in some great zoological garden. This general analogy is irresistible—it seems to offer . . . a little world of bars and perches and swings for human squirrels and monkeys.” And compared to many of his peers, James wasn’t even anti-Semitic!
So the anxiety of the dominant culture in the face of immigrants who differ from the established cultural mean is nothing new. In 1753, after all, Benjamin Franklin famously complained about German immigration into Pennsylvania in terms so extreme as to make us ashamed for his otherwise marvelous sake—and these immigrants were, obviously, as white as Franklin. But new or old, this anxiety was and remains something politically salient, whether we like it or not.
A second behavior, a subset of the first in a way, concerns sex. Boisterous behavior in public, particularly in male group displays, can suggest a certain lasciviousness. Gone are the days, mainly (Italianate South Philly may be the last holdout), where groups of white construction workers would pause in their labors to issue what they thought were complimentary catcalls to passing females. Truth be told, this behavior usually constituted coded communication understood by all concerned. When men did this, egged on by their informal leaders, they communicated to each other that they were sexually normal and to the woman in question that she was entirely safe: By honoring her femininity publicly—ignoring her could and probably would be taken as an insult—they ritually assured her that she was untouchable, even that they would defend her as necessary against genuine low-life. When she expressed mild disdain, as expected, they knew they had communicated accurately. The ritual bracket closed, everyone could get back to work.
Macho displays of this sort constituted an ordered ritual so long as the catcallers and the catcalled came from the same social group. But when today a bunch of Latino workers in, say, some town in Wyoming or Idaho catcalls an Anglo woman, that’s a threat as viewed by the Anglo men who are in, or want to be in, that woman’s life. And the woman, knowing that, senses an ambient threat, too. Even in the context of our outrageously lascivious popular entertainment culture, public face-to-face displays of male sexual interest toward female strangers strike socialized-to-be-protective working-class white males, in particular, as somewhere between unseemly and barbaric.
Third and last for the moment—though it seems profoundly trivial compared to sex—is litter. For several reasons that need not detain us now, communities or neighborhoods in working-class white America (as well as middle and upper-middle class America) have a sense of public space for which everyone shares some responsibility. Throwing empty bottles and fast-food refuse on the street or in someone’s yard, out of car windows or in any other manner, is something decent people just don’t do.
Why? It has something to do with the late James Q. Wilson’s concept of “broken windows.” Orderliness in one’s visual field, especially on one’s own residential turf, conveys a symbolism of predictability, and hence of security. Being able to count on certain reciprocal standards of ordinary behavior, in other words, has wider cognitive/psychic implications than one might think. That’s why working class whites in their neighborhoods usually put something of a premium on not allowing trash and dog shit and what-have-you to accumulate in public spaces—and it’s partly because the wider context of their lives is not as secure as it might be, so one controls what one can control.
And indeed, one way to distinguish a self-controlled “middle class” urban black neighborhood from a lower-class one is just by observing how picked up or how filthy the curb space is. African Americans who traverse such neighborhoods here in Washington, DC, or in inner-city Baltimore, or anywhere like it in the country really, are consummate experts in distinguishing one kind of space from another.
Again, for reasons we don’t have space to elaborate, not every culture and subculture possess the same sense of public space. Not every culture possesses the same degree of social trust, which presupposes a sense of common responsibility for public spaces. There are many places in the Arab world, for example, where immaculate private property outside and inside closed doors juxtaposes with “unowned” public spaces filled with litter and trash—and no one seems to much care or even notice. When American soldiers began cleaning up garbage in Iraqi cities after the collapse of the Ba‘ath regime in the spring of 2003, typical Iraqis were baffled. Soldiers are macho; they don’t collect garbage—some Iraqis actually entertained theories that we were up to something very stealthy and mysterious, or else thought we were simply mad.
And, again for whatever reasons, there are lots of places in Mexico and Central America—from whence most of the recently arrived Latinos in the United States have come—that also fit this general description. Littering for such people is often simply a non-category; they are mostly oblivious to it. It is as the great anthropologist Mary Douglas said: “Dirt is matter out of place,” so if garbage tossed on the ground does not strike people as out of place, then in that culture it isn’t dirty.
To the extent that people become not oblivious to litter once they are living in the United States for a while, littering can be an act of defiance against a society perceived to be pressuring them to “act white.” There is a tremendous amount of natural pressure on new immigrants; even any “white” American who has lived for an extended period abroad amid a different culture knows that. It’s exhausting, because glancing cannot as readily reassure you that all is in order and hence safe; nearly everything pulls cognitive energy because vastly less can be taken for granted. But most working-class white Americans don’t know this, for they have little chance of any experience of it. And so they do not empathize with the pressures new arrivals feel, but rather see such behavior as an ambient threat to the orderliness of their community, particularly so when the demographic changes, and the behavioral differences that come with them, rise too fast for them to comfortably assimilate.
Public displays of emotion-driven behavior, behavior seen to be sexually unseemly or threatening, and behavior that subconsciously suggests a subversion of social orderliness, are not mere. Over time all of this adds up for many people, particularly older people who were not socialized in and have not since gotten used to it, to a serious source of anxiety. And the anxiety, in turn, is magnified though what George Gerbner called the “mean world” syndrome: the tendency of those who watch a lot of television to believe that actual incidences of murder, rape, infidelity, child abduction and pedophilia, and incest are vastly higher than they actually are. This is partly why a lot of people actually believed Trump’s wild and irresponsible exaggerations about hordes of murderous Mexican immigrants roaming north of the Rio Grande.
Anyone who thinks none of this really matters, or that it has not lately expressed itself politically, has either not been honest with himself, has not been paying attention, or else is so rich and insulated from contact with any of this as to not understand it (upper-middle class “gated” Americans, I’m talking to you). This is precisely the kind of culture-clash ambient insecurity that Richard Nixon’s “law and order” campaign of 1968 harvested, and it is exactly what Donald Trump harvested last week. (Is it any wonder that Roger Stone, one of the original Nixon-era “ratfuckers,” has been deeply involved in the Trump campaign?)
Anyone who thinks this complex of perceptions is vastly less important to explaining the election results than old-fashioned skin-color racism is either a hopeless ideologue, or else has been fixated by the self-flagellating salon Left meme of the moment. And that meme is the presumption of eternally undiminished American racism, which manages to surface in those rare moments lately when members of this tribe are not to be found contemplating the true meaning of their own or someone else’s genitalia. Trivial but symptomatic case in point: The headline attached to Charles Isherwood’s theater review on the first page of the New York Times Arts section of November 8: “A Tender Bond Confronts Racism. Racism Wins.”
Since we are back to the subject of racism, I might as well conclude with a personal meditation.
I’m old enough to have grown up in segregation, but not so old that I don’t remember it. I vividly remember the two drinking fountains and the three bathrooms at the People’s Drug Store not far from my Virginia home, and those of you, dear readers, who are not sure what I am describing here should count yourselves immensely fortunate. I have witnessed the vocabulary shift from “colored” to “Negro” to “black” to “African American,” with the background ubiquity of “nigger” diminishing all the while, save for its special reimported use among African Americans themselves—and no one explains that better than the aforementioned Randall Kennedy. The belief that American race relations remain unimproved since Brown v. Board of Education is absurd. Very few Americans who experienced the key historical window of change from the mid-1950s to the early 1970s as sentient adults can possibly believe that. Does anyone really think that the election, twice, of a black President means nothing in this regard?
That said, American society is not yet colorblind, and may never be. Alas, the advent of the Obama presidency accelerated our hopes of yet more progress beyond what reality could bear in destabilized economic times, and so produced a deflating irony. But if American society may never be fully colorblind, it is not because visible racial differences will always produce supposedly natural psychic cleavages. It is because of the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. And that, in turn, is why the minority status of African Americans cannot be compared usefully to that of any other American minority group—not Latinos, not Asians, not Jews, not anyone.
There is an old scholarly debate about American slavery, featuring the likes of such hoary and esteemed figures as Eugene Genovese, Nathan Glazer, and many others. Was American slavery the most abominable form of chattel slavery in history, or instead was it a relatively benign form distorted by posterity to justify the sacrifices of a horrible Civil War? It was and remains an interesting debate, but in a sense it doesn’t matter: Any situation in which people are kept ignorant, are humiliated and systematically demeaned by design, are murdered without penalty and split asunder from parents and siblings, will generate a level of trauma that must take multiple generations to heal. It is a popular view among conservatives, and one not entirely without empirical foundation, that some “war on poverty” programs inadvertently contributed to the decay of solid African American families, and left far too many children without the day-to-day emotional support of loving fathers. But does anyone really believe that the relentless emasculation of black males, and the tearing apart of families for century after century after century, have nothing to do with the more than occasional fragility of black family life?
Human communities process and embody their pain in cultural forms that tend to stick and harden over time. The less historically fortunate of human communities don’t thicken their shells over successive generations only to cast them off when the sun of a dawning new history just begins to shine upon them. The sin of American slavery accumulated over 350 years, its maddening echo continuing another century in legal and virtual segregation. The idea that a couple of postwar court decisions, a series of 1960s-era laws, and a smattering of affirmative action since can suffice to expunge this legacy is very close to crazy.
America has come a long way in the past fifty years. We have, then, about another 300 years to go before we can hope to finally put things truly right among us. But by denying the progress that has been achieved—and that is in effect what the “race” explanation for the Trump victory does—the “race” argument only makes the task ahead harder for everyone. It also insults the sacrifices, heroism, courage, and steadfastness of generations of Americans, black and white, who have struggled for a better America. The “race” explanation is not only wrong analytically, but it is counterproductive and dangerous politically. This is not a time to exacerbate our divisions; it is a time to do what we can to mend them.