The racist right has been in ascendency. The presidential candidacy -- and victory -- of Donald Trump, presaged as it was on the language of hate, anger, and violence, has emboldened the white nationalists. Richard Spencer of the National Policy Institute -- who has called for
"an ethno-state that would be a gathering point for all Europeans," and has called for "peaceful ethnic cleansing"-- made the television rounds in the weeks after the election, and people like Steve Bannon, who at the very least has made use of and helped normalize the most virulent strains of this white identity politics, is the soon-to-be president's chief political strategist.
Race has remained a central driver of our politics. It is too easy to blame Trump's victory on working class whites -- Hillary Clinton was among the weaker national candidates run by Democrats, despite her resume and perhaps because of it. Bernie Sanders' surprising success in the primaries was the obvious indication -- but so was Clinton's historical inability to inspire at the polls, which dates back to her first run in 2000 when she ran well behind ticket-topper Al Gore statewide and behind Republican opponent Rick Lazio outside of New York City. And a general malaise has overtaken many outside of the professional classes that is expressing itself in an anti-institutuionalism (Obama and Clinton are both institutionalists).
But race cannot be ignored, even if we may need to look at it a little differently than we have in the past. Racism -- expressed as race hatred -- remains a cornerstone of American society and expressed in policy in numerous ways. But a secondary component is also in play, and may help explain why many former Obama voters abandoned Clinton's for Trump. Whiteness historically has been the default category in the United States, one that did not need to be proclaimed, but always hung above the discussion like a portrait of Stalin in the Soviet Union. Whiteness and Americanness were interchangeable, which raised the stakes for new groups as they came to the United States and attempted to assimilate. The Irish, the Italians, Eastern and Central Europeans, all were at one time or another considered non-white and then subsumed within a larger definition of whiteness that helped maintain a racial hierarchy. Some groups -- Jews, Muslims, South and East Asians, darker Latinos, American Indians -- were forced to jump through a greater number of hoops, and have remained at the periphery of polite white society, but they have been granted varying degrees of access. Blacks, as well, have been granted limited access, though racist policies continue to make it difficult at best for large swaths of black America to escape the ghettos created for them by American history.
And while things are better for African Americans -- and other minorities -- in many ways, this improvement has occurred within a meritocratic system (to use Chris Hayes' formulation). It is about barrier-breaking -- getting the few into the boardroom or the council chambers -- rather than making life demonstrably better for the many. So, we focus on Obama but do little to address the structural racism that allows for poverty to concentrate in black and brown neighborhoods, that has prevented reforms that could make police allies in the community rather than occupying forces, and so on.
There is a strain of contemporary America identity politics that, as Shula Haider writes in The Jacobin, places a premium on identity at the expense of other factors. We can be more concerned with who is speaking, for instance, than with the points the speaker is making. We often spend more time on easy symbolism (safety pins, pink ribbons, red hearts) than actual political work. We silo issues -- Sanders' difficulty during the campaign in seeing that his economic arguments would not fully address issues of structural racism, or Clinton's focus on breaking the "highest glass ceiling" and incremental and compartmentalized policy prescriptions failed to speak to those who find themselves on the fringe of the economy. This makes the racist right's job easier.
I know I'm simplifying, but my basic argument is that by underscoring the primacy of identity rather than challenging it and making sure we connect structural racism, sexism, trans- and homophobia, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, etc, to our economic and environmental arguments helps foster the sense that we are all members of narrow identity groups in competition with each other.
That is how the racist right wants us to see the world. Richard Spencer's organization, the NPI, is mostly a fringe group but the ideas it espouses are not so fringe. It has dressed racism up as simple identity politics -- as a defense of a whiteness under siege (which is absurd and ahistorical).
NPI is an independent organization dedicated to the heritage, identity, and future of people of European descent in the United States, and around the world.This stuff is all over Facebook -- not just the paeans to the Confederate flag, but those equating movements dedicated to shared history, equal rights and the redressing of wrongs to some vague notion of pride in skin color.
This glosses over the policies actually advocated by groups like NPI -- as made clear by Spencer in November:
"America was until this past generation a white country designed for ourselves and our posterity," Spencer said. "It is our creation, it is our inheritance, and it belongs to us."This is the subtext for much of Donald Trump's platform, for much of his support. I'm not saying that Trump supporters are racist -- most are not and, in any case, I can't look into a person's heart or mind to see what they truly believe. But much of his appeal is to a racial nationalism that is backward looking and that will, in its application, do grievous harm to so many. This goes beyond swastikas on the synagogue door -- a terrifying trend, but perhaps not as concerning as the fact that Bannon is in the White House or Jeff Sessions is about to be confirmed as attorney general. The swastikas are one thing, but the normalizing of a white victimhood that erases from view the true causes for the decline of entire swaths of the working class and replaces them with a dangerous and rigged racial competition is something far more dangerous.