Fifty-five percent of white Americans believe there is discrimination against whites in the U.S., according to a recent NPR poll. But when asked about specific instances in which they personally experienced discrimination, less than 20 percent responded that their whiteness hurt them in job applications, pay equity and promotions and college applications. Reality does not match the perception of the poll respondents, but it does reflect an increasingly common belief—one that Donald Trump has promoted and exploited virulently—that white victimhood is a large-scale problem.
A recent email from a white listener of my radio program offers a perfect example of this type of dissonance. She complained that I focus too much on white supremacy in my news coverage and that in doing so I am “promoting the destruction of the middle class.” She went on to complain that at the McDonald’s she had visited that morning, all 12 employees were Hispanic, and not a single one Caucasian. She lamented the fact that everyone in the computer engineering department of her local university is “mostly Asian or foreign,” and that almost all of her local female leaders are Jewish or have Jewish husbands. She railed about the corporate media and banking industry being mostly run by Jews (“just a fact,” she offered almost apologetically). She also noted that while she is against allowing undocumented immigrants to stay in the country, she does support the Black Lives Matter movement and had voted for Barack Obama. Ultimately, she said, she isn’t seeking privilege or supremacy—she just wants a decent job to pay her bills.
Ignoring the racist themes of her email, I responded to her in the following manner:
What you are describing is what communities of color have suffered for decades while most whites remained silent because it was not impacting them. Now that the horrible state of the economy is spreading its malaise far and wide into white communities, you are feeling the terrible toll of capitalism. No one should have to suffer trying to make ends meet, trying to get a decent job with decent pay. Is your suffering the fault of people of color and Jews or is it the fault of the Donald Trumps and Hillary Clintons, and wealthy elites?
I think we are on the same side. Racism does not need to be the answer to capitalist failings. It’s too easy to scapegoat another person rather than point the finger at the wealthy people and corporations that are laughing all the way to the bank.
After digging into the listener’s background, I realized she is highly educated, with multiple degrees in technical fields. Still, like so many white Americans who are hurting financially, she blames communities of color for her struggles rather than finding common cause with them.
While this woman appeared to be critical of President Trump as well, her frustration with the state of the economy is real, and reminiscent of many voters’ reasons for supporting Trump. Indeed, her assertions about people of color appear to be informed by much of the disinformation and “fake news” that passes as fact these days and fuels Trump’s power. Trump has often promoted easily refutable lies on his Twitter account, feeding such propaganda. In November 2015, a year before his election win, he retweeted an infographic about violence in communities of color that contained not one single truth among its multiple assertions about whites, blacks and violence.
Yet this week, the president accused the press of publishing false stories, citing a Politico poll that found nearly half of all Americans think the media fabricate news about him. (Incidentally, Trump has railed against Politico several times in the past but had no problem promoting the results of its poll.)
Evidence and polls do not seem to alter the perceptions of some white Americans who consider their personal experiences indicative of the norm. This comes as no surprise, given the propaganda being flung around by conservative activists and politicians who want to assure white Americans that their racial resentment is valid, despite evidence to the contrary. Just last week, on his Twitter feed, Trump erroneously attributed Britain’s 13 percent rise in overall crime to “radical Islamic terror,” while staying silent on horrific gun violence in the United States. Sebastian Gorka, who briefly served as a White House adviser, said on a television panel Monday that “our big issue is black African gun crime against black Africans. … Black young men are murdering each other by the bushel.” Setting aside the casual and ignorant racism of the term “black Africans,” Gorka cited the standard right-wing, pro-gun trope about “black-on-black” violence that reinforces racist stereotypes.
Even the government’s specific actions serve to justify the fantasy that people of color are perpetrators and whites are victims: The FBI under Trump is focusing on “black identity extremist” organizations, which experts say is “fiction.”
News headlines are rife with instances of violence that dispute these racist stereotypes. Take one recent example: A white man’s mass shooting in Las Vegas on Oct. 1, which led to nearly 60 deaths and hundreds of injuries. Or the lynching threat made against Florida Rep. Frederica Wilson after she boldly stood up to Trump and chief of staff John Kelly. There are many other recent examples of violence and threats of violence in our country, and there also are plenty of studies offering irrefutable evidence of systematic racism (a topic I covered in an earlier column).
Author Joan Williams identifies the phenomenon represented by the listener who emailed me, saying in a recent interview with The Washington Post, “White people who are not privileged feel belittled. They feel stereotyped. They feel openly ridiculed and they are really, really angry because of what elite white people are doing to them. … Now, because of this poisonous dynamic among white people, guess who’s paying the price?”
Others have summarized this idea in slightly different ways, but it is important to articulate: To those who have been used to privilege all their lives, equality may feel like oppression. The challenge facing progressive whites and people of color is to identify the mistaken assumptions about who the perpetrators of social and economic violence actually are, and address these perpetrators head on. Along with growing anti-fascist movements nationwide, we need to articulate and promote a vision of economic justice that will benefit the majority of struggling Americans. We need to simultaneously underscore that people of color are here to stay and that wishing them away will not solve anyone’s economic problems. If we don’t meet this challenge, we will find ourselves in the midst of a race war that obscures the class war the rich are waging against us all.