It’s not about Beliefs

By Ian Kennedy 

In a Boxing-Day Op-Ed in the New York Times David Paul Kuhn (pictured) made a claim I’ve been hearing a lot lately: contrary to misguided liberal assumptions, it was not bigotry, but economic realities which lifted Trump over Hillary. He’s not completely wrong. The problem is bigger: it wasn’t bigotry that elected the Donald, it was white supremacy.[1]

The difference I want to highlight between bigotry (or racial or gender prejudice) and white supremacy (a system that includes those prejudices but encompasses much more) has to do with where and how those entities appear in mind and action. Bigotry, Kuhn and I agree, is a belief held by some individuals and not by others that certain races are superior and/or inferior. Kuhn also recognizes that such a belief “appeared more concentrated among Trump voters,” citing a poll the found those voters were more likely to call black people “lazy.” I’d say that’s worth examining carefully, but I agree that it’s also important to note how that survey found six out of ten Trump supporters did not report prejudicial views, and that it’s dangerous to blame your political failures on your enemies.

When I say that white supremacy elected Trump, I don’t mean to say that it was a discrete sub-group of bigoted or racist white people. Those people are white supremacists, they hold racist beliefs. No, I’m talking about a political, economic, and ideological system. I’m not saying that it only influences conservatives either, instead that it’s a system that wedges its way into our lives regardless of our color, class, or politics.

When Kuhn mentioned those voters who regarded white people as less “lazy,” were they supported by that white supremacist system? Yes, of course. Kuhn argues, though, that most white Trump voters who were not bigoted: they disapproved of Trumps sexist and racist comments but, “absent any other champion, they supported the jerk they thought was more on their side — that is, on the issues that most concerned them.” That their thinking wasn’t based on racist beliefs, however, does not mean that it wasn’t supported by the system of white supremacy.

For one thing, what made him seem like he “was more on their side” was that he seemed to be on the side of poor white folks. He achieved this effect rhetorically by demonizing other groups.

Systemic white supremacy also supported their choice because it helped determine which issues concerned them most and least. In Kuhn’s estimation, those voters cared about the loss of good jobs to China, and they were willing to ignore the bigotry of a candidate they thought would get those jobs back. Kuhn shows that Trump support peaked where the most jobs went overseas. Given the demographics of those areas, that outsourcing disproportionally influenced white folks.

The same voters weren’t worried about the implications of Trump’s racist rhetoric, and that rhetoric wasn’t directed towards white folks. So white people supported policies that benefited them and ignored policies which harmed non-white people.

The influence wasn’t limited to the conservative side either. I, a cis white middle-class man, could have done more to resist Trump’s election in September and October. That I didn’t was partially because his presidency isn’t as dangerous for white and male me as for black and brown folks, women, and people from other countries. White supremacy also protects white liberals who stayed home or voted third party in close states.[2]

Again, I’m not standing up to call white people racists or bigots: those are claims about individual beliefs. I’m saying that we white folk are implicated in an ideology which influences our possibilities for action. Even if we hold egalitarian beliefs, that influence changes what we can do. This isn’t a discussion about blaming people, it’s a discussion about targeting white supremacy as a system. Or at least, that should be what we’re talking about.

Given all this, if the Democratic party is serious about winning in two years and in four, they better take this seriously. They have to find ways to make their messages stand up to this entrenched ideology and find ways to help white folks make egalitarian decisions to line up with their egalitarian beliefs. Let’s fund research to verify how white supremacy influences action, looking for possible points of disruption. If lots of Trump voters aren’t racially prejudice, there should be ways that we can find common ground to resist white-supremacy. No matter what, we can’t let white supremacist discourse dominate our public sphere.


[1] I could make analogous claims about patriarchy, which along with capitalism, cis-ness, and heteronormativity forms the hegemonic power structures  of our liberal democracy.

[2] Not to say they don’t have the right to vote as they please, just that votes have consequences and influences

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