Donald J. Trump campaigned on the slogan “Make America Great
Again,” a phrase whose “great” was widely heard as “white.” Certainly the
election has been analyzed as a victory for white Christian Americans,
especially men. Against Mr. Trump were all the rest of us: professionals with
advanced degrees and the multiracial, multiethnic millions.
Though white Americans differed sharply on their preferences for president, the
election of 2016 marked a turning point in white identity. Thanks to the success
of “Make America Great Again” as a call for a return to the times when white
people ruled, and thanks to the widespread analysis of voters’ preferences in
racial terms, white identity became marked as a racial identity. From being
individuals expressing individual preferences in life and politics, the Trump
era stamps white Americans with race: white race.
I don’t mean that Americans suddenly started counting people as “white.” This
has been going on since the first federal census of 1790, which enumerated three
categories of white people (“Free white Males of sixteen years and upwards,
including heads of families,” “Free white Males under sixteen years” and “Free
white Females”). That census also tabulated two other categories: “All other
free persons” and “Slaves.” Period. Black was not marked. Since 1790, population
statistics have faithfully recognized a category of “white” people, sometimes
more than one, especially native- and nonnative born. So I don’t mean that
Americans suddenly discovered the category of white in 2016.
I’m saying that what it means to see yourself as white has fundamentally
changed, from unmarked default to racially marked, a change now widely visible:
from of course being president and of course being beauty queen and of course
being the cute young people selling things in ads to having to make space for
other, nonwhite people to fill those roles.
We have been seeing this change in popular culture and in higher education over
the course of the last decades. Black and brown and Asian people sell you
financial instruments and clothing. The president and first lady are black. Your
college literature course includes Toni Morrison and Junot Díaz. But if you
haven’t gone to college, where multiculturalism has been making its way for a
generation, and if your version of America was formed in school in the 20th
century, and that 20th-century image remains in your consciousness, you may have
a lot to lose.
In our racially oriented American society, this change marks a demotion for
white people. From assumed domination, they now take their place among the
multiracial American millions. For Trump supporters embracing the social
dimension of “Make America Great Again,” their vote enacted a visceral “No!” to
multicultural America. As if to say, “Take us back to the time of unmarked
whiteness and racially unmarked power” assumed to be white.
In the Trump administration, white men will be in charge (virtually his entire
transition team, and practically every name offered for a potential cabinet
post, is a white man). You could say that’s nothing new, that white men have
been in charge forever. This is true, but now with a gigantic difference. This
time the white men in charge will not simply happen to be white; they will be
governing as white, as taking America back, back to before multiculturalism.
Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign’s leadership and support complicate making
America great again, on account of the campaign’s tilt toward white nationalism.
Here lies a snare that has entrapped white identity for decades. White
nationalism scares many ordinary white people away from embracing whiteness,
which white nationalism makes appear bigoted and terroristic. Given the people
who emphasize their white racial identity — white nationalists, Nazis, Klansmen
and so on — the white race is a spoiled identity. Embracing whiteness would seem
to enmesh one in a history of slave-owning and all the discrimination flowing
from it. What righteous person would want to embrace that? Up to now, there’s
hardly been a pressing need to do so, for a fundamental dimension of white
American identity has been individuality.
Conveniently, for most white Americans, being white has meant not having a
racial identity. It means being and living and experiencing the world as an
individual and not having to think about your race. It has meant being free of
race. Some people are proud white nationalists, but probably not many of the
millions who voted for Donald Trump. Thinking in terms of community would seem
to be the job of black people. The Trump campaign has disrupted that easy
By elevating Steve Bannon of Breitbart News into its leadership and not
vigorously forswearing white nationalist support, the Trump campaign enmeshed
“Make America Great Again” with white nationalism. As whiteness emerges as an
American racial identity, this constitutes a problem. Who defines American
whiteness right now? Does Mr. Bannon define what it means to be white, a
definition not as an individual in the default category of American? How will
white people who didn’t support Mr. Trump in 2016 construe their identity as
white people when Trumpists, including white nationalists, Nazis, Klansmen and
Mr. Bannon, have posted the markers?
Here’s a further question about white American identity in the wake of “Make
America Great Again.” Mr. Trump did not win a majority of popular votes. Even if
he had, the population he will have to govern far exceeds his supporters. Given
this minority basis of support, what might a Trump administration portend?
The federal government’s jurisdiction encompasses a country of more than 320
million multicolored, multireligious people in rural areas, towns and cities,
spanning 3.8 million square miles. If President Trump is to govern all of us, he
will have to take on issues he never imagined and unimaginable complications,
even on his pet issues of bringing back jobs. Whose jobs? Where? At what cost,
and who’s paying? What happens if Mr. Trump does try to address his supporters’
economic grievances, even if only among white people? There are millions of them
all over the place, with interests that hardly align with those of Republican
What happens if Mr. Trump’s people discover you can’t just give away public
lands and trash Native American sacred grounds without a huge push back? What if
Mormons won’t go along and get along, morally and ethically, with Mr. Trump’s
agenda? As president, Mr. Trump’s going to have to move beyond his white and
heavily male electorate and face up to conflicts of interest even within his
core. A Trump supporter in Atlanta warned the president-elect: Break your
promises at your peril.
I will not be surprised if the need to govern all of us alienates his base. And
I will not be surprised if being president of a huge, multiracial, multiethnic
democracy turns many of his supporters against him as a traitor to their values
— perhaps, even, as a traitor to their race.
Nell Irvin Painter is a professor emeritus of history at
Princeton University and the author of “The History of White People.”
A version of this op-ed appears in print on November 13, 2016, on page SR4 of
the New York edition with the headline: What Whiteness Means in the Trump Era.
IT is clear that you, white America, will never understand us. We
are a nation of nearly 40 million black souls inside a nation of more than 320
million people. We don’t all think the same, feel the same, love, learn, live or
even die the same.
But there’s one thing most of us agree on: We don’t want the cops to kill us
without fear that they will ever face a jury, much less go to jail, even as the
world watches our death on a homemade video recording.
You will never understand the helplessness we feel in watching these events
unfold, violently, time and again, as shaky images tell a story more sobering
than your eyes are willing to believe: that black life can mean so little. That
Alton B. Sterling and Philando Castile, black men whose deaths were captured on
film this past week, could be gone as we watch, as a police officer fires a gun.
That the police are part of an undeclared war against blackness.
You can never admit that this is true. In fact, you deem the idea so
preposterous and insulting that you call the black people who believe it racists
themselves. In that case the best-armed man will always win.
You say that black folks kill each other every day without a mumbling word while
we thunderously protest a few cops, usually but not always white, who shoot to
death black people who you deem to be mostly “thugs.”
That such an accusation is nonsense is nearly beside the point. Black people
protest, to one another, to a world that largely refuses to listen, that what
goes on in black communities across this nation is horrid, as it would be in any
neighborhood depleted of dollars and hope — emptied of good schools, and
deprived of social and economic buffers against brutality. People usually murder
where they nest; they aim their rage at easy targets.
It is not best understood as black-on-black crime; rather, it is
neighbor-to-neighbor carnage. If their neighbors were white, they’d get no
exemption from the crime that plagues human beings who happen to be black. If
you want interracial killing, you have to have interracial communities.
We all can see the same videos. But you insist that the camera doesn’t tell the
whole story. Of course you’re right, but you don’t really want to see or hear
At birth, you are given a pair of binoculars that see black life from a
distance, never with the texture of intimacy. Those binoculars are privilege;
they are status, regardless of your class. In fact the greatest privilege that
exists is for white folk to get stopped by a cop and not end up dead when the
encounter is over.
Those binoculars are also stories, bad stories, biased stories, harmful stories,
about how black people are lazy, or dumb, or slick, or immoral, people who can’t
be helped by the best schools or even God himself. These beliefs don’t make it
into contemporary books, or into most classrooms. But they are passed down,
informally, from one white mind to the next.
The problem is you do not want to know anything different from what you think
you know. Your knowledge of black life, of the hardships we face, yes, those we
sometimes create, those we most often endure, don’t concern you much. You think
we have been handed everything because we have fought your selfish insistence
that the world, all of it — all its resources, all its riches, all its bounty,
all its grace — should be yours first, and foremost, and if there’s anything
left, why then we can have some, but only if we ask politely and behave
So you demand the Supreme Court give you back what was taken from you: more
space in college classrooms that you dominate; better access to jobs in fire
departments and police forces that you control. All the while your resentment
builds, and your slow hate gathers steam. Your whiteness has become a burden too
heavy for you to carry, so you outsource it to a vile political figure who
amplifies your most detestable private thoughts.
Whiteness is blindness. It is the wish not to see what it will not know.
If you do not know us, you also refuse to hear us because you do not believe
what we say. You have decided that enough is enough. If the cops must kill us
for no good reason, then so be it because most of us are guilty anyway. If the
black person that they kill turns out to be innocent, it is an acceptable death,
a sacrificial one.
You cannot know what terror we live in. You make us afraid to walk the streets,
for at any moment, a blue-clad officer with a gun could swoop down on us to
snatch our lives from us and say that it was because we were selling cigarettes,
or compact discs, or breathing too much for your comfort, or speaking too
abrasively for your taste. Or running, or standing still, or talking back, or
being silent, or doing as you say, or not doing as you say fast enough.
You hold an entire population of Muslims accountable for the evil acts of a few.
Yet you rarely muster the courage to put down your binoculars, and with them,
your corrosive self-pity, and see what we see. You say religions and cultures
breed violence stoked by the complicity of silence because peoples will not
denounce the villains who act in their names.
Yet you do the same. You do not condemn these cops; to do so, you would have to
condemn the culture that produced them — the same culture that produced you.
Black people will continue to die at the hands of cops as long as we deny that
whiteness can be more important in explaining those cops’ behavior than the
dangerous circumstances they face.
You cannot know how we secretly curse the cowardice of whites who know what I
write is true, but dare not say it. Neither will your smug insistence that you
are different — not like that ocean of unenlightened whites — satisfy us any
longer. It makes the killings worse to know that your disapproval of them has
spared your reputations and not our lives.
You do not know that after we get angry with you, we get even angrier with
ourselves, because we don’t know how to make you stop, or how to make you care
enough to stop those who pull the triggers. What else could explain the white
silence that usually greets these events? Sure, there is often an official
response, sometimes even government apologies, but from the rest of the country,
what? We see the wringing of white hands in frustration at just how complex the
problem is and how hard it is to tell from the angles of the video just what
We feel powerless to make our black lives matter. We feel powerless to make you
believe that our black lives should matter. We feel powerless to keep you from
killing black people in front of their loved ones. We feel powerless to keep you
from shooting hate inside our muscles with well-choreographed white rage.
But we have rage, too. Most of us keep our rage inside. We are afraid that when
the tears begin to flow we cannot stop them. Instead we damage our bodies with
high blood pressure, sicken our souls with depression.
We cannot hate you, not really, not most of us; that is our gift to you. We
cannot halt you; that is our curse.
Michael Eric Dyson, a professor of sociology at Georgetown, is
the author of “The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in
America” and a contributing opinion writer.
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