I am grieving over the 2016 Presidential election outcome. I’ve spent the past two days processing my feelings mostly online among a supportive Facebook community, occasionally fighting with random strangers over this line of explanation or that, or their defensiveness about what a vote for Trump really means. I’ve exhausted myself essentially shouting That’s Racist! into the ether online, buoyed up only by like-minded friends and their angry red emoji faces or similar rants. From my work in community economic development, political advocacy, and now teaching at an urban public university, I have the privilege of a racially, ethnically, gender, and economically diverse social network of colleagues and friends. I’ve benefited from the range and juxtaposition of insight, opinion, and knowledge that filters through my social media accounts and more broadly in my life. And as I sort through the range of explanations for Trump’s win, I ask: Whose story matters?
There is no shortage of ink spilled over the Democratic Party’s failure to win over the “white working-class,” a patronizingly venerated group of economically struggling Americans who are typically conjured in the public mind as white men, in former industrial strongholds now grappling with economic decline, drug addiction, and a reluctant but widespread reliance on our meager social safety net. But there is also strenuous resistance – hopefully one that will be sustained for some time to come – to the election of a documented racist, misogynist, anti-Semitic, narcissistic, craven, and shameless man who began his campaign by denouncing Mexicans as criminals and rapists and who made a major campaign promise of deporting millions of undocumented immigrants and Muslims in particular. One of the best pieces of writing I’ve seen is Rembert Browne’s “How Trump Made Hate Intersectional,” on the “infectious”-ness of hate and how Trump’s no-holds-barred bigotry stoked and fanned his white supporters’ inchoate rage and shame at their economic circumstances. Quotes from “Reagan Democrats” in industrially decimated areas of Michigan in this WaPo piece illustrate how Trump capitalized on the uneasy alignment of downtrodden whites’ “economic nationalism”and “ethno-nationalism.” I.e., the Chinese are killing our economy and the Mexicans are stealing our jobs. Trump will make them all pay.
Many, many pundits and well-meaning white liberals, and leftist and progressive activists want this Democratic failure towards the white working-class to be the defining narrative of Trump’s victory, with the associated recourse of the Democratic Party prioritizing this voting bloc as it regroups and rebuilds. But this intersectional hate layered onto economic insecurity is impossible to overlook and ignore and is actively harmful to the voters of color who reliably vote over and over again for the Democratic Party despite the Party doing very little to meet their pressing economic needs and desire for safe, free, and stable lives in a country roiling with police violence and a prominent and growing movement against it, #blacklivesmatter. It is the essence of white privilege to set aside the violent, prejudiced realities of Trump’s campaign in these missives to bring the white working-class back in. We are asking voters of color to ignore the very real threats embedded in the mash-up of beliefs like these from a white Trump supporter,
He liked Trump’s stands on immigration (“The immigrants coming over here, the illegal ones, when is our people gonna get fed?”), on China (“They keep loaning us money; they’re going to own the United States”), and on slapping a 35 percent tariff on auto imports. (“All of our businesses should be penalized if they move their plants overseas. He’s gonna put his foot down.”)
Because we have this idea that this person deserves to have his job back at the auto factory more than we believe people of color have a right to live free from fear of near-promised brutality by law enforcement under a Trump Administration with Rudy Guiliani as likely Attorney General.
White Trump supporters and their sympathetic allies in the media want to have it both ways, without accountability for what their votes really mean to the rest of us who rejected and fear for a Trump Adminsitration. They want to say their votes were about economics and against DC elites and not about violent racism and misogyny. They seem to have heard completely different messages from the Trump campaign, conveniently filtering out the near constant rhetoric and demonstration of hate against people of color, women, LGBT communities, the disabled, etc. in Trump’s speeches, campaign promises, choice of running mate and spokespeople, and history. And in the wake of his victory, they continue to do so, as evidenced by these competing headlines from Charles Blow and Nicholas Kristof in today’s NYT.
The reason I come back around to story and narrative is this: in multi-racial, anti-racist work, one of the first lessons for whites who want to be allies in the struggle for racial justice is to de-center themselves. To center the stories, experiences, and literal lives of people of color. This follows to other movements: it’s about women’s lived experiences and structural oppressions that men need to prioritize if they want to be feminists. Stop talking, start listening, start prioritizing, lifting up, pushing forward, following and supporting the lives of people who are at the heart of social justice movements. In such a scenario, whites would have rejected Trump for his misogyny and racism alone, discarding him as an agent of economic change because he promised to do it at the expense of vulnerable communities of color. To wit: “Gee, seems like that guy has some good ideas about infrastructure investments and limiting the permanent incumbency of millionaire a**holes in Congress through term limit promises, but he’s threatening to deport my neighbors who always keep their lawn tidy and go to church and the guys who run the store down the road, so he’s just not for me.” Does this American scenario even exist? We could make it so, first by rejecting his hateful rhetoric, actions and promises as a bridge too far, as a vision of a country where we don’t wish to live. But we have to hear and understand and know each other, and accept the righteousness of vulnerable communities of color’s lived experiences, fears, perceptions and predictions of what is to come under a Trump presidency. We have to be willing to prioritize those narratives.
The narratives of working-class people are not as polarized as one thinks. Other professors and I were discussing our students’ lives – urban students of color and rural whites – and they are the same mix of demanding economic responsibility for children and elders and extended families in young people’s lives as they try to get an education to pursue a career and care for their households in depressed and/or biased labor markets. There is tons of opportunity for building multi-racial, class-based alliances in their experiences, as geographically far flung as they may feel and be. But this will never happen if we tolerate racism and sexism from whites who are economically suffering. It sucks that capitalist inequality has decimated many urban and rural communities alike, but we cannot fix it by pitting victims against each other. When we do that, we divide and are weakened and end up electing a Congress poised to absolutely ravage our lives even more with their schemes of privatization, regressive taxation, and rabid budgetary cuts, overseen by someone with zero governing ability and what seems like seriously limited interest in developing such skills.
There is lots of organizing going on, organizations where we can donate our time and money, and planning for resistance against what is likely to be a very,very painful period of American life for millions of us. I urge other whites to stop talking and start listening, to start reading other perspectives, to check their own arguments and frameworks and see who is privileged in them. It’s real: white American voters elected a bigot who stokes violence without conscience. Own it. It hurts. But do it. You can. And now join us in fighting for a more racially, economically, and gender just society for all.