Donald J. Trump’s victory in the American presidential election is a testament to the disaffected whites who are angry at the social progress that this nation has achieved in recent times. Post-election findings indicate that major sociological, economic, political and cultural changes caused a “white-lash” helping Mr. Trump’s ascension to the American presidency. Mr. Trump’s campaign slogan “Make America Great Again,” a phrase whose “great” was widely heard as “white” by white Christian Americans who voted en masse for Mr. Trump, demonstrated unequivocally that race or whiteness played a critical role behind Mr. Trump’s victory. The white voters who supported Mr. Trump were not only angry but also scared at the prospect of becoming inconsequential in a country that they thought was theirs. Charles Gallagher, a sociologist who studies white identity, notes: “They went from being a privileged group to all of a sudden becoming the new victims … There’s this perception that whites are no longer in control or in majority. Whites are the new minority group.” Although they are not a minority group, their negative perceptions and experiences shape what white identity means to them.
Trump’s voters witnessed drastic changes in the demographics with an explosion in the population of people of color. The sociologists’ predictions that by 2050 the Hispanic population will triple while the Asian-American population will double only deepened their sense of fear, anxiety, and helplessness. Nobel laureate American writer, Toni Morrison, captures the fear and insecurity of many white voters aptly: “In America today, post-civil-rights legislation, white people’s conviction of their natural superiority is being lost. Rapidly lost. There are ‘people of color’ everywhere, threatening to erase this long-understood definition of America …The threat is frightening.”
Hua Hsu, a contributing writer for The New Yorker, explains that the reason for the angst that many white Americans, especially the white underclass feel, is because skin color no longer guarantees any privilege for the white community. They believe that affirmative action and lax immigration policies have helped people of colour to get ahead of them on the social ladder. They also feel marginalized by a black President and alienated by affluent people of every hue. The white skin that once brought with it economic and social advantages have become a thing of the past to them. Many white folks, who feel disenfranchised, are deeply resentful of the perceived of loss of power and prestige in contemporary America. They found a perfect scapegoat to blame for their misfortunes: the economically successful ethnic minorities and the elites in this country.
The way white Americans view themselves has altered in radical ways from being in a privileged position to being on equal footing with everybody else, a change now widely visible: from being simply a natural thing to be a president of the country, or a CEO of an organization, or a doctor or lawyer, or a beauty queen to being the gorgeous young models in advertisements to having to make room now for people of color who currently fill many important roles. Unlike in the past, when whites were the only recipients of major economic gains, whites are now seeing people of colour becoming successful professionally or economically, also realizing the American dream.
In just a few decades, the nation has also seen widespread changes in the popular culture, including higher education. Literature courses in colleges and universities, which once included primarily white writers, now contain works by Chinua Achebe, Jhumpa Lahiri, Toni Morrison, Mo Yan, Salman Rushdie, and other writers of colour. For many of Mr. Trump’s white supporters, who never went to colleges where multiculturalism is celebrated, their notion of what America represents was probably formed in school in the 20th century. And that 20th-century image of America remains indelibly etched in their consciousness, rendering them unable to adjust to the fast changing, culturally diverse landscape of America.
In American society, all these changes indicated a loss of privilege for white people, commonly referred as “White Privilege,” which they enjoyed since the founding of the nation. From being in an unchallenged position of power, many white Americans are now finding themselves situated in uncomfortably close proximity to millions of people of colour in multiracial America. For many Mr. Trump’s white supporters, embracing the inclusionary message of “Make America Great Again,” meant that they wanted to restore whiteness to its former status as a marker of American national identity; they fervently hoped to enjoy their white privilege once again, which many whites felt they had lost in a culturally and racially diverse nation.
The concept of “White Privilege” was coined by Peggy McIntosh, a women’s studies scholar at Wellesley College, Massachusetts, who wrote a paper called “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” containing fifty examples of white privilege. (No. 5: “I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed,” No. 6: “I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented,” No. 48. “I have no difficulty finding neighborhoods where people approve of our household”).
Basically McIntosh shows that racism is a part of everyday American life where white people enjoy a certain kind of privilege due to their skin color. The comfort these white folks felt for being “naturally better” than people of colour and for not having to struggle or demand civil treatment, has unfortunately been a permanent feature in the lives of many non-whites for many years. This distinct advantage of being white is something that many whites find hard to give up. The satisfaction that whites get when they know that they will not be watched in a department store like people of colour, or that they are the preferred customers in high-end restaurants – these social inflections, belonging to whiteness, are relished by many whites. So, when many of Mr. Trump’s white supporters strongly feel the threat of losing their clout while non-whites are surely becoming a dominant voice in the political, cultural and economic arenas, it only fueled their anger and anguish. So scary are the consequences of a collapse of white privilege that many of them flocked to Mr. Trump’s political platform, which was built around the discourse of racist bigotry and xenophobia.
On November 8, millions of white voters, both the uneducated and the well educated, embraced the fear and racial hatred that Mr. Trump had sown, voting for him in overwhelming numbers. It didn’t matter that Mr. Trump’s company was sued by the Justice Department for not renting apartments to African-Americans. It didn’t matter that Mr. Trump was accused of sexual assault and not one but 12 women came forward, giving their testimony to the press. It didn’t matter to these white voters that it was Mr. Trump who questioned President Obama’s citizenship, which started the infamous “Birther” movement in the nation. It didn’t matter that Mr. Trump falsely accused Mr. Obama of being a Muslim who was sy mpathetic to the cause of Islamic extremists. It also did not matter to Mr. Trump’s white voters that Mr. David Duke, who was a former leader of the white supremacist group, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), supported him; that the KKK and other white nationalist groups endorsed Mr. Trump. Clearly, for all these angry, terrified white Trump supporters, Mr. Trump was their new messiah who would help reclaim their lost glory and pride. By appointing Mr. Stephen Bannon as the White House chief strategist, who is a controversial figure closely associated with white supremacists, Mr. Trump’s vision of “Make America Great Again,” has, sadly, become linked with white nationalism. Furthermore, Mr. Trump’s picks of General Michael Flynn as National Security Adviser (he gained notoriety for his highly inflammatory anti-Muslim vitriol) and Mr. Jeff Sessions for the post of the Attorney General, who was denied a federal judgeship 30- years ago due to his racist utterances, make many in this country fearful of the future, which remains quite uncertain at this juncture. The question for many is: are we going to see the reinforcement of white ideology under Mr. Trump’s presidency? If white ideology emerges as an American racial identity under Mr. Trump’s presidency, it will pose a clear and present danger to multiculturalism. It looks like white men of a certain disposition will be in charge of all the key positions in Trump’s administration. One could argue that this is nothing new; white men have been in charge in this country from time immemorial. While this is true, there is a major difference now. This time the white men in charge will not simply be white; they will be governing as white with the likelihood of turning the clock back to a time when multiculturalism may well become a thing of the past.
The writer is professor of communication studies, Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles.