Monday, August 14, 2017

Sorry, Mr. Trump: White people are not oppressed in America

Donald Trump is a political rock star who is stuck on an oldies tour.

He plays the greatest hits because that is what his fans want.

Steve Bannon, Michael Anton, Sebastian Gorka, and Stephen Miller are Trump’s songwriters and band members.

Over the last few weeks Trump has played an arena-scale concert where the unifying themes of his music are racism, bigotry, nativism and prejudice.

He has threatened to end civil rights protections for gays and lesbians, announced that transgender soldiers would be kicked out of the United States military, directed his surrogates to launch a full-on effort to end “affirmative action” programs in higher education because they “discriminate” against white people, told America’s police to brutalize suspects (i.e., black and brown people), offered macabre tales about young white women being tortured and killed by Mexican gang members, promised to change America’s immigration policy to give preference to English-speaking immigrants (white people), and continues his efforts to ban Muslims from the United States.

Trump knows his crowd. They were enthralled by his performance, reacting like hungry jackals, gobbling up the political red meat he threw into their salivating mouths.

Public opinion and other research has repeatedly shown that Trump’s voters think that white people are victims of racial discrimination in America. This deranged belief is not uncommon. Research by Samuel Sommers and Michael Norton suggests that as of 2011 the average white American actually believes that white people face more racial discrimination than African-Americans.

Racism is not an opinion. A belief that white people in America are “victims” of “racism” and are somehow “oppressed” is the worst type of magical thinking. Such claims are not new, they are old — and part of a centuries-long national derangement.

Even when black Americans were owned as human property by the millions and were only several years free during Reconstruction, white Americans bemoaned their fears of “Negro Domination.”

Such sentiments are not too different from those felt by Trump’s “nostalgia voters” who “wanted to make America great again” by voting in a white champion to undo and beat back the symbolic and literal progress embodied by President Barack Obama. Trump’s voters were yearning for a mythic past where black and brown people were fully obedient to whites, women had not been seduced by feminism, and gays and lesbians were locked in the closet.

Such feelings are still familiar to tens of millions of white Americans. It is a fear born of power. And like most such fears, it clouds the mind and imperils one’s ability to think intelligently.
Ultimately, racism is not an opinion. There are facts and theoretical frameworks that can be used to evaluate its many dimensions.

If we are to take seriously the suggestion that “white people are oppressed in America,” then such a claim must be interrogated relative to the specific facts and broader social context.

In her book “Justice and the Politics of Difference,” political theorist Iris Marion Young outlined a framework for evaluating how and whether a given social group is actually “oppressed.”

Her criteria included the following: exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, cultural imperialism and violence. These forces work together. A given group may experience some or all of them. These criteria can also be empirically evaluated. Contrary to the talking points and deflections often summoned by liberals and progressives, one can in fact “rank oppressions” as experienced by different social groups.

White Americans as a group have never suffered from any of these various aspects of oppression.

White Americans have never been exploited such that their skin color was used to justify transferring their productivity and labor away from them with the goal of disproportionately and unfairly subsidizing another social group.

White Americans are not marginalized in American society. “Whiteness” is taken as the de facto assumption of what it means to be a “real American.” For most of American history, this has been enforced by the law and also in everyday social life.

White Americans are not powerless. They control every major social, political and economic institution in the country.

White Americans have not been subjected to cultural imperialism. The experiences and perspectives of white Americans are taken to be “normal,” “natural” and “reasonable.” Moreover, these experiences and perspectives are treated as almost always being legitimate and real. The racial Other — whether by virtue of skin color or some other distinction — is different, abnormal or somehow “deviant” relative to the “universal” experiences of white Americans.

White Americans have not been victimized by inter-group violence. To the contrary, the genocide of First Nations people, the murder and enslavement of black people, racial and ethnic cleansing, systemic racism (the courts, police and other types of state power) and hate crimes are examples of how white Americans have been the almost exclusive purveyors of racial violence against people of color from before the Founding through to the post-Civil Rights era.

None of these realities will do anything to dissuade the white victimologists who are drawn to Donald Trump like flies to a dung pile. The psychological wages of whiteness are a type of political drug; the material wages of whiteness still pay great dividends in America.

Alas, one cannot fight magic with reason. Nevertheless, a person should never surrender the truth to his enemies.

Trump and his administration have launched a full-spectrum assault on the civil rights and human dignity of gays and lesbians, Muslims, black Americans, Latinos and Hispanics, Native Americans and other people of color. Although these groups may be positioned differently in America’s social hierarchy, Trump has targeted them all. This is a function of his cruel political calculus where by leveraging bigotry and hatred he hopes to distract the public from the many ongoing failures of his calamitous presidency. But it is also a reflection of a collective character flaw: Hostility and bigotry toward people of color and other marginalized groups helps give “real Americans” a feeling of personal identity and meaning in a country (and world) where they are increasingly obsolete.

There are timeless words that provide counsel and wisdom in times of crisis and stress.

Some seven or so decades ago, Lutheran minister Martin Niemöller said the following:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.

People of color, Muslims, gays and lesbians and members of other marginalized groups must stand united against Donald Trump and his allies.

But what of those Americans who have not yet been targeted by Mr. Trump’s crusade of hatred, racism and prejudice? Some of them may be applauding his efforts, taking joy in his cruelty. Many others yearn to be bystanders to history, telling themselves that this is none of their business or saying, “Who cares? Trump isn’t bothering people like me.”

Similar things have most certainly been thought and said in other countries and at other times in human history. It usually does not end well for those who take false comfort in such sentiments. The tyrant, the authoritarian, the bully, the dictator, the demagogue and the child-king will move from one group to another, punishing and harming, as fits his whims and needs.

Yes it can happen here, and it is. You have been warned.

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