There are a lot of theories about the anxieties that produced the 2016 presidential election outcome.
On Monday, Leon Botstein, president of Bard College, published an essay in Time magazine headlined, “The Election Was About Racism Against Barack Obama.” The essay draws a straight line between European anti-Semitism, American racism and the 2016 election. Swiss-born Botstein, 70, has been president of Bard for 40 years. The Washington Post spoke with Botstein by phone this week about his ideas.
The interview below has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: What prompted you to write the essay comparing the integration of European Jews in the 1930s to the social advancement of people of color in the U.S. today?
A: Well, I’m an immigrant. I was a child immigrant of Eastern European Jews to the United States. My entire childhood was shaped by reflections on the character of what happened to European Jews.
For us [Jewish immigrants], America was a paradise because we were white. So, suddenly we discovered that we were not the primary objects of discrimination in the society in which we lived. That doesn’t mean that there wasn’t, that there isn’t, anti-Semitism. But what we encountered here, it was trivial compared to European anti-Semitism.
I had two uncles killed in the Warsaw ghetto. My father was the only survivor in his family. I also had an aunt, you see, who was a righteous gentile, a Catholic who rescued Jews from the Holocaust. From her I learned that there is always the question what would you do if you are not a member of the victim class but the perpetrator class. And as a scholar I’ve written and explored the widespread resentments and conditions that allowed so many to engage in or stand by in the face of monumental injustice.
You see, throughout Europe there was antipathy toward the unintegrated Jew who looked “strange” and “acted strange” and had these “strange” traditions. They [non-Jews] complained about them, disliked them. But once there was [social] emancipation, once Jews were admitted in large numbers to European universities, became doctors and lawyers and writers and foreign ministers, once they began to integrate and ascend, then, they were a threat.
In America the real dividing line is not religion, but race and [skin] color. It remains closely tied to socioeconomic standing. Schools and neighborhoods and places of worship are largely segregated along those lines to this day. But as whites with limited education have come to see or notice black doctors and lawyers around them, they have come to see this as evidence of their supposed “oppression,” that they do not have what they should.
Something is off, or wrong. And Barack Obama, a black president, has become the ultimate symbol of that. Understanding that was, for me, easy.
Q: That’s a big set of ideas that won’t sit well with people who think privileges connected to whiteness don’t exist.
A: Well, in this country, of course, there have been moments of great optimism, reason to believe that the county was aligning it’s actions with it’s core ideals like equality. Almost a decade ago now, the election of Barack Obama as president was kind of a miraculous event. Or, that is how it was seen and described.
But, it is one thing to elect someone and quite another to let them govern. I can’t think of a president more obstructed and toward whom more incivility and recalcitrance has been directed in a way that can only be fully explained by race. Barack Obama — and his entire family — have truly been the most dignified, well-spoken, contemplative president [and first family] in my lifetime. And, in that comparison I include Kennedy, Truman and Roosevelt. Yet, the resentment toward him, the anger about economic trends [deindustrialization, the loss of factory jobs], which began when Obama was a child, have been incredibly intense.
Reasonable people should see that it is possible, that uneducated whites in Rust Belt America whom Washington did not serve well for decades — not during the [President Bill] Clinton era or the [President George W.] Bush era or the Obama era — have reasons to be angry.
However, if racism were not a part of what’s happening, if bigotry was not at work here, unaddressed economic conditions and expectations related to race, the inability to earn a reasonable living or feel certain that their children will, should have created greater solidarity with poor blacks. Many of their needs and interests are the same.
Q: What do you think is missing from their understanding of the state of the country?
A: Well first, of course, are the causes of growing economic inequality, the policies which create it. Also high on this list has to be the often forgotten fact that economic inequality effects us all, it cuts across black and white.
The problem, the thing that makes so many people so very susceptible to political manipulation, to fake news in the utter absence of evidence, no question, is that there has been an erosion of solidarity over economic matters, widely shared economic experiences. Instead, there’s been this retreat to identity politics.
Then, there is also a sense of history, or perhaps I should say accurate history. From the very start this was a county of professed equality, where there was slavery. Then Reconstruction then, segregation, which lasted well into the mid-20th century and without force of law largely continues today. An enormous amount of conflict followed each time anything like progress toward equality was made.
So, this, what we are seeing now, the white rage and anger, is not new. This mythic narrative of a great America into which so many voters bought is, it would seem, a desire to return to the 1950s. That was a time, if you think of it, that was good for America — for white America only. But this was also a world where competition for jobs and opportunity and housing was effectively limited. It was a world where blacks and others were much more subordinate and excluded than they are now.
Among whites, the nostalgia at work here is that whites were far more dominant and America was great. What they fail to recognize is that this was also a time, that in that great America of the past, there was a progressive income tax, far greater investment in schools and infrastructure and public investment of all kind. That created much more white economic equality.
In 2016, the symbolic and significant progress among citizens of color plus real and growing inequality among whites has proven an explosive combination. Because the blame is misdirected and the real causes of their economic struggles so misunderstood, a man like [President-elect Donald] Trump can come along and win. Scapegoating groups is one of his major skills.
Q: How do you think we should address this problem of misdirected blame?
A: I am suggesting that white identity politics are a problem. Others have no choice but to fight for inclusion and equality [as a group] because they are excluded and treated unjustly on the basis of their identity. But for white Americans, focusing on race is and historically has been a problem.
I’m asking white Americans to forget about race or their sense of a racial competition in which some feel they are falling behind because of “special privileges” and opportunities “given” to minorities. I’m saying these people need to realize that [minorities] are not their problem, neither is Barack Obama.
The idea that hate and subjugation are the answers, the keys to a great American future is a distraction, not a solution. What we have, in this country, are policies that allowed a small amount of mostly white people to grow very, very rich while everyone else saw their wages stagnate or fall. Your government has failed to serve you. It has abandoned you.
Q: What can be done to address the problems you describe?
A: In a word: investment. We need to invest, as a country, in economic rebuilding and education. We need both to make people less susceptible to fake news and completely fictional but appealing understandings of how the world and its economy works, to understand the role of economic inequality in their lives and its real causes.
We’ll have to make more education a clear and desirable path for much more of the population. And civics education, fundamental American civics, need to be restored to a place of importance in all schools so that no one leaves high school without a sense of how government actually works.
Stirring rage against other people and belief systems is a way of buying off and deflecting attention from the real issues of inequality and the absence of work [paying a living wage]. Trump is not going to bring back manufacturing jobs any more than any president before him. The world’s economy has fundamentally changed in ways that are beyond any one president or one nation’s control.
We need for more white Americans to understand that the vast majority of other people are not your problem. The trivial amount of money we have invested in advancing the black American community, the presence of immigrants and religious minorities does not begin to compare to the tax breaks we have given to wealthy almost exclusively white Americans.