Jonathan M. Metzl directs the Center for Medicine, Health, and Society at Vanderbilt University and is the author of “Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland.”
It’s time to talk about what it means to be white in the United States.
That’s what I was trying to do Saturday afternoon at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Northwest Washington when I was interrupted by a group of white nationalists. Ironically, the protesters’ chant — “This land is our land” — served only to reinforce my point.
For too long, many white Americans have avoided this conversation, and we’ve done so for a reason: We don’t have to see the color white. Race scholars often argue that white privilege broadly means not needing to reflect on whiteness. White is the default setting, the assumed norm. A white American does not have to think about being white when walking down the street — while people marked as not-white are often noticed and surveilled. White people have the superpower of invisibility.
Yet with the rise of President Trump’s brand of resentment politics, American whiteness is increasingly hard to overlook. Trumpian rhetoric defines white identity not by shared values but by shared resentments. Whiteness, in this telling, is under siege. Walled behind Trump’s claim that the country is “full,” and his equivocations on white extremism, lies the notion that immigrants and citizens of color are usurping the privileges of whiteness. This narrative is then amplified by increasingly emboldened white nationalists like the ones who sought to shout me down Saturday.
For the past eight years, I’ve studied how these politics of racial resentment have profound negative consequences for working-class white communities. I traveled across southern and midwestern states to track the everyday effects of anti-government, anti-immigrant politics and policies. Time and again, I found that the material realities of working-class white lives are made worse not by immigrants and citizens of color — but by GOP policies that promise greatness but deliver despair.
For instance: Blocking the Affordable Care Act or defunding government programs makes for great campaign slogans for those who imagine that such programs primarily benefit immigrants and citizens of color. But the cuts to education, transit and health-care delivery systems that follow cost many white, red-state Americans months and years of life expectancy. Funds that might support white working-class communities are diverted into tax cuts for the wealthy. If working-class conservative voters ever demanded better roads, schools or hospitals as the price for their support, the GOP would be unable to fund these tax cuts.
My research suggests that constantly blaming “others” masks ways that the GOP platform depends on rendering even its working-class white supporters expendable. White Americans are literally dying from Trump’s brand of identity politics. But if whiteness is sick, what’s the cure?
That’s the dilemma facing white Americans who recoil from Trump’s cruel politics — and Democratic politicians who wish to speak to conservative white voters. They, too, are often hampered by not seeing whiteness. What’s needed is a language to promote different ways of being white.
One place to start is by avoiding what psychologists call “zero sum” formulations of race relations — in which there are “winners” and “losers” in fights for power or resources. Equitable societies are healthier for everyone, and alliances among groups with common socioeconomic interests (rather than identities) are more successful in achieving shared objectives. A white Kansan has more in common with his Hispanic neighbor than with a white Tennessean.
Unpacking whiteness also requires white people speaking openly — not by proxy conversations about immigration or guns — about the strengths and limitations of American whiteness. This means reflecting on white traditions of generosity and resilience, and not just the anxieties, biases and fears of white communities. It means talking about ways that white Americans can enhance or thwart American prosperity. And about how, to make America truly great, we need a more communal version of racial justice to emerge.
Such an approach should acknowledge that whiteness is not monolithic. Trump — and my protesters — seem to have commandeered the narrative, but there are different ways of being white in America. It’s too easy for liberals to overlook how many white conservatives want better communities as well.
During my research, I saw countless examples of white Americans in the reddest of red counties who were proud of their conservative values but also understood their moral obligation to immigrants and citizens of color. In other words, they were willing to see their privilege and to begin the work of dismantling it.
Is there a way for Democrats to reach these voters? What might a political appeal to their concerns even look like? How Democrats answer these questions may well determine the results of the 2020 election.
To refute Trump-style politics, white Americans of conscience have to “see” what their whiteness means. It’s not enough for well-meaning whites to #resist specific policies. They need to contest his very definition of whiteness.
Such a reckoning may not be comfortable. But it is necessary, not just for a more equitable country but also for defeating the politics of racial resentment at the polls.