A candlelight vigil for Heather Heyer, killed by a white supremacist, at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, August 2017.
A candlelight vigil for Heather Heyer, killed by a white supremacist, at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, August 2017.
Tim Dodson / The Cavalier Daily / Reuters

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 old-fashioned racism, and Trump’s rise also offers a guide to these deeper currents. His presidential campaign was built on a foundation 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.

Not only do most in the white working class feel aggrieved, they are also deeply pessimistic about the future. According to the 2015 American Values Survey, 52 percent of those surveyed believed that America’s best days were behind it. A higher proportion of working-class whites—56 percent—agreed. Pessimism and despair have become deadly. Mortality rates among middle-aged whites with a high school education or less are on the rise. A 2015 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that poor and working-class whites between the ages of 45 and 55 have been dying prematurely from suicide, alcohol- and drug-related causes, and diseases such as diabetes and heart disease that are usually associated with people who are older and with people of color. The study estimates that, had the mortality rate for middle-aged whites with lower education levels remained constant at 1999 levels, there would have been half a million more of them in 2013. As a study by the Brookings Institution concludes, “the American Dream of prosperity, equality, opportunity, and stable democracy is being challenged by increasing income inequality, the hollowing out of the middle class, decreasing wages and increased insecurity for low-skilled workers, and rising mortality rates.”

This is what happens when work disappears in previously economically stable communities: the burden of financial strain and a heightened sense of alienation produce social malaise and, in the extreme, violent conflict. Those forces have existed among the black poor and working classes for decades. Now they are catching up with poor and working-class whites who have historically been protected by policies, practices, and often-invisible institutional and market forces that are no longer robust enough to shield them from a globalizing economy. Nor do the old privileges protect them from the rising tide of people they perceive to be the “others.” While some working-class voters supported Bernie Sanders’s insurgent campaign for the Democratic nomination in 2016, many others directed their anxiety and anger against those whom they perceived as threatening their way of life and their status in American society—blacks, Latino immigrants, and Muslims, among others. This kind of unease creates the opportunity for the more forthright expression of racist sentiments (as, for example, we saw at Trump’s campaign rallies) and, ultimately, for more radical action, as at Charlottesville.

A white supremacist protestor speaks to the media during the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, August 2017.
Joshua Roberts / Reuters

The perceived threat of the other is what drove Trump’s presidential candidacy, and it has become the primary theme of his presidency. Trumpism evokes, for many voters, a half-remembered America of old. His campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” harkens back to a golden era of American prosperity and social cohesion. (Of course, for minorities, this supposed golden age was an era when segregation was the order of the day, white supremacy was the law of the land, and nonwhites were denied the benefits of material prosperity and full citizenship.)

Alongside this economic and social drift, several factors are reshaping the role race plays in the conduct of American politics. Voting rights, hard won over a century of struggle after emancipation and the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment (which prohibited race-based voting restrictions), are today at risk of being whittled away through increasingly onerous ID requirements fueled by unsubstantiated and fantastical claims of “voter fraud.” The Voting Rights Act is under threat, particularly after the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision to strike down one of its key provisions—the requirement that certain jurisdictions with egregious histories of race-based voting restrictions undergo preclearance by the Department of Justice before making any changes to their voting rules. The court’s decision has accelerated the recent movement toward voting restrictions that disproportionately target African Americans and other minority groups.

At the same time, voting and partisan alignments have increasingly broken along racial lines. Although racial identity has long been one of the fundamental cleavage of U.S. politics, parties have varied over time in the extent to which they have explicitly mobilized racial groups. For much of the twentieth century, for example, the racial lines between the parties were relatively indistinct, as neither party sought seriously to challenge Jim Crow or other structures of segregation—Democrats because they were divided between southern and northern factions and Republicans because they had little electoral incentive to declare themselves on either side. But since the 1960s, the parties have sharply divided along racial lines over issues, constituencies, and electoral appeals, widening a generation-old crack into a chasm. In particular, Republican national campaigns have been trading on themes of racial resentment for half a century, from the nomination of Civil Rights Act opponent Barry Goldwater in 1964, to Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” in 1968, to Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign launch in Philadelphia, Mississippi, near the site of the murders of civil rights activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, to George H. W. Bush’s notorious “Willie Horton” ad in 1988.

The perceived threat of the other is what drove Trump’s presidential candidacy, and it has become the primary theme of his presidency.

Trump’s apparent appeals to racial animosity and anti-immigrant anxiety is not simply an expression of some kind of fundamental underlying racism among white Americans. Rather, it appears to be a consequence of a generation of structural trends in racial and ethnic politics. His appeal to white working-class voters seems to have energized not racism per se but a sense of alienation from a more cosmopolitan political establishment and nostalgia for a lost status that, while not always rooted in explicit racist attitudes, was built on generations of preferential policies. Nevertheless, Trump’s rhetoric has clearly provoked and emboldened people and organizations who espouse racist and anti-Semitic ideas, and in Charlottesville and elsewhere those groups are taking advantage of a moment of alienation and anxiety to advance their cause.

The activity and visibility of white supremacist hate groups has been growing for some time, as last week’s events in Charlottesville tragically showed. But this activity is not isolated from other kinds of racial antagonism across the country. Conflict, often fatal, between white police officers and African Americans has inflamed racial tensions in many communities around the country. And Trump’s own rhetoric and behavior during his presidential campaign and since have frequently skirted perilously close to the kind of racism, anti-Semitism, and nativism that were long understood as taboo in respectable political life; last weekend, he may finally have crossed the line, as the gathering opprobrium and his growing isolation suggest. 

But we should not ascribe the events surrounding Charlottesville solely to the noxious chants of a raggedy band of odious marchers or to the ravings of a shallow, ignorant, and spiteful man who happens to be president of the United States. Although diminished, racism is still clearly alive in the United States, and we should not for a moment relax our vigilance toward its expression and its effects. We should also remember, however, that the historical and structural roots of racial inequality run deep and that, although less visible, they lie beneath the surface spreading their rot. Digging them up will require more than confrontation and condemnation. It will require the hard work of systemic reform and institutional repair.

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