White Flight From Reality: Inside the Racist Panic that Fueled Donald Trump's Victory
The mask of white civility hides the face of a monster. In her 2016 book “White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide,” historian Carol Anderson has documented and described how “black progress is the trigger of white rage.” What her work demonstrates is that when many white Americans politely discuss diversity, or discipline children for the use of racial epithets, they are maintaining a faÃ§ade dependent upon the protection of their authority. As soon as people of color start setting terms for coexistence, the mask comes off and a beast comes out. Currently, the beast wears tanning spray and sports a hideous combover, but he is a beast all the same, and he and his aggrieved coalition of Caucasians threaten to devour years of social and political progress.
My experience makes me unsympathetic to the maudlin and melodramatic tales of “white working class anger” that pundits employed to explain the ascendancy of Donald Trump to the presidency. I live in small town Indiana — “fly-over” territory far outside of New York and Washington, D.C. — where esoteric theories about the “economic frustrations” over “trade and globalization” go to die. In Northern Indiana, white Americans are not studying the numbers of NAFTA and contemplating the strengths and weaknesses of protectionism. Many are practicing a soft racism, though, invisible to the naked eye too easily distracted by the overt bigotry of white supremacists who have changed their stupid and destructive brand to “white nationalism.”
I grew up in Lansing, Illinois, a small town 30 miles south of Chicago. For most of my 1990s childhood, the ethnic and cultural variety of Chicago did not permeate my hometown. Lansing was almost entirely white. Neighborhood events were borderline translucent. It was also the idyllic picture of middle-class stability. The commercial “main street” was always bustling with transactional activity, while the real estate market climbed with seemingly no ceiling in sight. The public schools, due to superior facilities, better paid and educated teachers, and a greater offering of extracurricular programs, were much better than the private schools, but the private schools survived because of religious devotion, as there was a church on every corner, but moreso, because of white fear: white fear of engagement with multicultural society, white fear of black people, white fear of children entering interracial relationships. White fear is the revenue generator for many industries in the United States, and as the world recently learned, it is also a powerful voter mobilization tool for historic political campaigns.
When I was in junior high school, the subdivision where my family lived began to slowly diversify. A Latino family moved into our cul-de-sac, which raised a few eyebrows, but the panic and paranoia really set in and cultivated convulsions as a town hobby when the first black family bought a house down the block. Although I was young, I was old enough to understand the discussions that I could hear the neighbors having, and I was mature enough to find it disturbing. “Here they come”…“Once one comes, the rest will follow”…“I heard there were blacks looking at the house on Manor…”
Of course, it was irrelevant that the family was a minister, a nurse and their two children. They might as well have acted as co-leaders of the Crips. A crucial element of white fear is the fantasy of persecution. The black family is not simply looking to establish a good home in a safe neighborhood; they are foreign invaders, threatening to destroy property values and diminish community morale.
The “for sale” signs started appearing all around the neighborhood. When a single black man bought a house, followed by a childless black couple, the mass exodus only quickened. White flight happened throughout Lansing, and as more black families moved into town, many of them began to object to the public high school’s mascot. My alma mater’s team name is the “Rebels,” and their logo featured a Yosemite Sam lookalike in Confederate uniform carrying the secessionist flag. For reasons obvious to anyone not wearing the blinders of white rage and fear, black parents did not feel comfortable sending their children to a school proudly waving a flag that symbolizes their enslavement. White parents saw their glorification of a racist emblem not as worthy of reflection and correction, but as a sacred ritual to defend with self-centered fervor. Like maniacs, many whites began to stage marches around the school building, wearing confederate clothing and waving the flag. The small student population of African-Americans suffered harassment from their white classmates. All the insanity escalated to such a tense level that Jesse Jackson announced a rally in Lansing. Before the civil rights leader arrived, the local government and the school board agreed to remove the flag from the school logo, and to eliminate it from all school-sponsored displays.
I now live just east of Lansing in an Indiana town right over the border. One of my neighbors, also an alumnus of my high school, still references the rebel flag controversy as if it were some horrific assault on his life. “They made us take down our flag,” he will say, again referring to a dangerous and monolithic “they” in an erasure of human identity, history and complexity. For a short period of time, I worked as a substitute teacher at my old high school. It now has an almost entirely black student body. When I would answer the question, “What do you do?” to a white local, inevitably I would receive a reaction of terror, as if my job was to fight prisoners in hand-to-hand combat. “How do you do that?” . . . “Wow, that must be rough.” My honest response — that I quite enjoyed it — would provoke shock.
The south suburbs of Chicago aren’t exactly Alabama territory under Bull Connor’s authority, but in the 1990s, the white flight from the region happened so rapidly and dramatically that the New York Times reported on it with disbelief, and some researchers have concluded that suburbs near Lansing, such as Matteson and South Holland, saw the fastest white flight on record for the entire country.
When Barack Obama became president-elect in 2008, it seemed as if the entire country had transformed. The progressive orientation of young voters, of all races, and the diversification of American demographics, along with the unique charisma and brilliance of Obama, made what was unthinkable in my childhood an undeniable reality. Now, another previously unimaginable scenario has become all too real. A black family moved into the White House, and another form of white flight took off – white flight from political sanity, white flight from reality, and white flight from responsible citizenship.
It has little or nothing to do with economics. Studies demonstrated, in the Republican primary, that Trump supporters were actually wealthier than the constituencies for the Democratic candidates. Five Thirty Eight reported that the median household income among Trump supporters is $72,000 – not exactly the Joads. If “working-class angst” explains the rise of Donald Trump, why is that working-class black and Latino voters overwhelmingly supported Hillary Clinton? If the “white working class” feels “forgotten and left behind,” why do they hate President Obama, who extended health care to 20 million Americans, doubled funding for Pell grants, advocated for free community college, fought to raise the minimum wage, and signed the Consumer Protection Financial Bureau into law, helping to protect low-income home buyers from scam mortgages?
My wife and I would often shake our heads and curse the darkness when we would ride through our neighboring town of Griffith, Indiana, over the summer and fall. Trump signs in the yards of homes, and even in the windows of businesses, were a ubiquitous eyesore. In the entire Northwest Indiana region, Griffith has become a major success story. New restaurants, shops and breweries open on a monthly basis, and property values consistently increase. One of the major Chicago newspapers, along with Chicago’s most popular business publication, has profiled Griffith, offering it as a model for small-town economic vitality. Griffith, like Elkhart, Indiana, went from borderline bankruptcy to commercial triumph during the eight years of the Obama administration. In a lengthy profile of Elkhart, the New York Times revealed that when Obama took office in 2009, the unemployment rate was nearly 20 percent. Now it is at 3 percent, but the town solidly supported Trump, even resorting to taunting the Latino members of a visiting high school basketball team with chants of “Build the Wall.”
In Griffith, a woman who owns two bars — far from poor — actually changed the part of her business sign where she typically advertises specials and events to “Vote Trump! Grab ‘Em by the Pussy!” The town council asked her to remove the offending words, but she kept the worst part: “Vote Trump!” is still there.
Anything as unprecedented and unpredictable as Trump’s victory is the result of several factors. Multiple causes coalesced to create the horror of Trump, but with the possible exception of sexism, none are more important than soft racism. The soft racist gets along with his black and Latino coworkers, waves to the Arab neighbors, and gives a friendly greeting to the parents of color at his child’s school, but all the while he feels that America is his country. The virtue of his whiteness gives him ownership. Should a black president, or a Black Lives Matter protest, or a Latino presence in his neighborhood threaten his sense of entitlement, superiority and authority, he feels resentful, even hateful. Outwardly, the white soft racist treats people of color as if they are equal, but she actually believes that they are inferior — less worthy of liberty, opportunity and protection under the law.
Most black and Latino Americans suspect as much, and they don’t need a white millennial to tell them the news, but I would say that what I have heard from white neighbors, family members and coworkers confirms your worst suspicions. Now they have exposed their racism, no matter how soft, to the entire world, because a vote for Trump expresses, at a minimum, tolerance for bigotry, xenophobia and misogyny. The best defense available to a Trump voter, among a wide range of pathetic options, is to claim that he or she voted for Trump despite his disrespect of Hispanics, Muslims, the disabled, African-Americans and women. Tolerance translates to the cold message: “Because your suffering and exclusion do not affect me, I’m going to vote for the guy who will cut my taxes, nominate anti-abortion Supreme Court justices, and isn’t a woman who used a private email server.”
Many leftists won’t acknowledge the totality of what Trump has exposed about America, because it is too ugly and painful. Well-intended but misguided attempts at class solidarity with the forces of hatred will only enhance the present American nightmare.
Dramatic speeches about unity will soon dominate the airwaves, but those who make them are as delusional as the Trump voters who believe their cult hero will “bring back the jobs.” Unity with the soft racists is not possible. They reject diversity, and they seek to exclude people of color who will not conform to their will. The paranoiacs who sell their homes because a black man moved down the street are not people with whom I hope to unify. I only want to defeat them. Anyone left of center should feel the same way.
Hillary Clinton did defeat Donald Trump in the popular vote. If there is one small glimmer of good news, it is that decent, thoughtful and sane voters slightly outnumber the bigots and lunatics. I want to live in an America where that victory is not only mathematical, but political — the America of Walt Whitman’s imagination, Elvis Presley’s voice and Martin Luther King’s oratory.
Right now, I live in one of the most diverse neighborhoods of Northwest Indiana. One of my closest neighbors, a Nigerian immigrant, posted on Facebook shortly after he voted that, although he originally supported Bernie Sanders, he voted for Clinton for all of the immigrants like him, and for his daughters. Next door, a man who grew up not far from me lives with his wife who emigrated from Japan. On the other side of my home, a white husband and black wife share a house.
This is the enviable and desirable America under assault from a group of proud white supremacists and bashful white racists. Jesse Jackson has often said that “we can go forward by hope, or backward by fear.”
On November 8, 2016, 59.5 million cowards took America backward.