It was always a myth that Barack Obama’s 2008 election ushered in a post-racial era in which one’s skin color no longer correlated with one’s prospects for success. Racist beliefs and overt discrimination might have declined among white Americans, we argued in Foreign Affairs in 2015, but racial inequality was still perpetuated by a host of hidden mechanisms that infected apparently race-neutral institutions. Last week’s spectacle of racist violence in Charlottesville and President Donald Trump’s jaw-dropping embrace of white supremacy in his subsequent remarks made us wonder whether even that assessment was too optimistic. Had the brutish racism of an earlier era merely gone underground only to resurface now in the guise of tiki torch-bearing neo-Nazis and the American president?
Trump himself has done a lot to foster this impression. His real estate and casino businesses have a long and sordid history of racial discrimination. It was Trump’s embrace of the “birther” mythology that fueled his political rise. He launched his 2016 campaign with a racist broadside against Mexican immigrants, and he went on to attack the loyalty of a Mexican-American federal judge and the Pakistani-American family of a soldier killed in the Iraq War. His campaign was built on nativist and xenophobic appeals on issues such as immigration and trade, and in his frequent invocation of the slogan “America first,” he echoed the xenophobic rhetoric of opponents of American entry into World War II. One of his first acts as president was to issue a ban on immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries that was widely understood, including by federal courts, to be improperly discriminatory toward Muslims. Trump’s political ascendancy has also coincided with a rise in overt racial antagonism and conflict, and he has clearly emboldened white supremacist hate groups, as the events in Charlottesville and elsewhere attest. But while overt racism has resurfaced in ugly ways, other structural factors are also at play.
There is more to this episode than the straightforward resurgence of white working-class despair. In the twenty-first century, that class feels less privileged than ever before; in fact, its members sense that they are under siege, and that belief fuels racial resentment. For many of these white Americans, Obama’s presidency emblematized their nation’s state of decline, despair, and social death. His administration, they believed, degraded the policies that had underwritten the rise of the white working class in the twentieth century—social insurance that excluded farm workers and domestic servants, for example, and subsidized mortgages that helped create exclusively white suburbs and accumulate wealth that white families could pass on to subsequent generations. Those voters felt set upon; a 2015 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute asked Americans whether discrimination against whites was on par with discrimination against blacks. Half of the whites surveyed agreed, as did an even larger proportion of working-class whites: sixty percent. Although diminished, racism is still clearly alive in the United States.
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