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Opinion The right fans a repulsive campaign to racialize the Ohio train disaster

Fox News host Tucker Carlson in March 2019. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
5 min

The fiery derailment of a freight train carrying hazardous chemicals in eastern Ohio is coming to represent bigger societal failures. It’s a story about profit-driven rail companies underinvesting in safety, lobbyists weakening rail regulation, and the government’s failure to assure residents’ security from lingering toxins.

But in certain right-wing media precincts, the disaster is about something else: A campaign of discrimination being waged against White people.

“East Palestine is overwhelmingly White, and it’s politically conservative,” Fox News’s Tucker Carlson recently said of the roughly 4,700 residents of the disaster zone. “That shouldn’t be relevant,” he added, but “it very much is.”

It very much isn’t. But ever since the Feb. 3 disaster, Carlson and his comrades have sought to transform East Palestine’s plight into a tale about “woke” Democrats abandoning White communities in the virtuous, forgotten heartland.

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What this illustrates is how the right uses race-baiting to deceive people into forgetting that Democrats are now the far more committed party when it comes to investing in such left-behind communities.

Central to Carlson’s insinuation about the “relevance” of East Palestine’s Whiteness is the conduct of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. Carlson cites recent remarks by Buttigieg about the construction industry’s racial makeup, sneering that Buttigieg has been neglecting East Palestine specifically to focus on a more “pressing problem,” that “we have too many White construction workers.”

Similarly, Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) ripped Buttigieg for neglecting railroad safety while instead “talking about how we have too many White male construction workers,” adding in the “male” for good measure.

The relevant Buttigieg comments were about the importation of White workers to build projects in high-unemployment minority communities, and about how to create opportunities for minority construction workers. For Vance and Carlson, this apparently isn’t a concern. But even if you disagree with Buttigieg on this, it’s disgusting to link it to East Palestine: It’s meant to imply neglect of White disaster victims to serve a hidden agenda of preferring minorities over Whites.

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Carlson ratchets up this vile game by saying that if the accident had happened in Philadelphia or Detroit — wink, wink — there would be no neglect. And the race-baiting gets worse. One Fox News host suggested the Biden administration is “spilling toxic chemicals on poor white people.” Far-right personality Charlie Kirk decried a “war on white people” waged by the “Biden regime,” which is supposedly allowing the “poisoning” of “citizens of eastern Ohio.” Note the hints of the ugly trope that elites are plotting to exterminate Whites, or at least allowing them to perish.

Unquestionably, when the facts are all found, the administration, Congress, the rail company Norfolk Southern and the freight-rail industry should be held accountable to whatever extent they are implicated. For now, what’s objectionable is the right’s deliberate racializing of this story.

This notion of a premeditated project of elite Democratic neglect is absurd, given recent history. Biden presided over passage of bills, such as the Inflation Reduction Act and the Chips and Science Act, that will pump huge sums into tech and green manufacturing in many regions that are a lot like East Palestine.

Mark Muro, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, says that spending is already helping facilitate such projects in Ohio, including expansions of electric vehicle battery and chip manufacturing in places such as Lordstown and Licking County. Ultimately, Muro told me, the programs will mean “thousands of new jobs in advanced manufacturing and green energy” in “areas like northeast Ohio.”

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Such places do have legitimate longtime grievances. But as MSNBC’s Chris Hayes notes, some of the same Republicans demagoguing about East Palestine have been silent about real answers to those grievances. Worse, we’re in the middle of an extraordinarily ambitious effort to address those regional grievances, and Republicans have mostly opposed it.

Democrats can lean into that argument, says Tim Ryan, who challenged Vance for the Senate and is now a senior fellow for the moderate group Third Way.

“You guys want to talk about a train accident as an attack on White people?” Ryan said of Republicans. “We want to talk about how we rebuild these communities.”

Something deeper is at stake. Many commentators have offered what the Atlantic’s Adam Serwer calls a “Calamity Thesis” about working-class White America: It has endured a social catastrophe rooted in globalization and cultural change that liberal elites won’t acknowledge, fomenting backlash. This story inevitably privileges working-class White victimization as a driving fact of U.S. politics.

Cartoon by Michael de Adder: At a crossroads

The right’s East Palestine demagoguery employs a widely shared graphic of an enormous chemical plume from a controlled fire burning off chemicals. This is meant to suggest a left-behind area victimized by a deliberately inflicted calamity, which is explicitly described in right-wing media as woke elite punishment for the Whiteness of its abandoned residents.

For some on the right, it isn’t enough for this story to be about corporate greed, the need for bureaucratic reform, or which party is genuinely committed to investing in — and governing on behalf of — places like East Palestine. Instead, it must be transformed into a tale about racial malice, with White Americans as the victims.