The false anxiety that whiteness is under siege fueled the rise of Trump, but it isn’t new. You can trace white supremacist culture throughout American history.
In the context of contemporary politics in America and the rise of the radical right, whiteness feels like it is having its moment in the sun. The election of Donald Trump in 2016 seems to have revived racial identifications in ways previous contests had not. John Sides, Michael Tesler, and Lynn Vavreck, political scientists who authored Identity Crisis, an analysis of the 2016 election, have argued that the data suggests that there is a very strong correlation between a self-defined ‘white’ identity and Republican voting. Over the course of Barack Obama’s presidency, the authors show, there was a vastly increased alignment between white identity and Republican voting.
Rather than creating a ‘wave’ of nativist, nationalist or racist sentiment, the authors claim, the Trump campaign tapped into a ‘reservoir’ of resentment and anxiety. Such feelings reflect an increasing anxiety about white identity married to concerns about migration and related hostility towards Hispanic and Muslim groups. Such concerns have also characterized the recent US midterm elections, where the Republican advertising campaign focused on race and migration. One Republican television advert had to be pulled because of its racist insinuations of an invasion of Central American migrants directed and encouraged by Democrat politicians.
From White Imperialist Poetry To Reality
Yet these feelings are not new. Through some of the writers and thinkers who emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, we can trace the rise of whiteness as a cultural phenomenon in the United States. In 1899, Rudyard Kipling published a poem – ‘The White Man’s Burden’ – that has now become a notorious by-word for the worst aspects of white imperialism. Yet Kipling’s poem did not address itself to British India, where Kipling had been born and where he spent some key years of his early professional career. Nor did the verses refer to the British empire’s more recent colonial expansion in Africa, a project shared with France, Germany, Belgium, and other European powers.
The poem was subtitled ‘The United States and the Philippine Islands’, and the text was produced in the context of the Spanish-American war of 1898. In the aftermath of Spanish defeat, the United States gained indefinite control of Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines, and temporary control over Cuba.
Kipling’s poem was written in the context of this new, imperial America; a country that had displaced Spain as the pre-eminent military power in both the Pacific and the Caribbean. Kipling’s poem encouraged the United States to join Great Britain in what he saw as the sacrificial work of empire: ‘To seek another’s profit/ To work another’s gain’. But the poem also marked the consolidation of the connection between American global power and the idea of white identity.
Whilst ‘whiteness’ had emerged in the Americas in the context of plantation slavery, the renewed prominence given to the idea of whiteness in the late 19th-century imperial context was something new. By showing how the unstable nature of this idea haunted white America in the early twentieth century, we can better understand the reservoirs of white resentment that fuel support for right-wing nativist politics in the United States today.
How White Anxiety Leads To White Supremacy
The new imperial whiteness brought with it instabilities, anxieties, and fears. As Gretchen Murphy has argued in Shadowing the White Man’s Burden (2010), “the response to [Kipling’s] poem in the United States both reflected and channelled anxieties about what it meant to be white and what that racial identity had to do with being American or with promoting civilization, democracy, or progress abroad”.
She continues to argue that when Kipling’s American readers “formed interpretations of U.S. expansion as a white man’s burden, they intentionally or unintentionally spotlighted conflicting and unstable conceptions of whiteness as a domestic and as a transnational racial construct”. Whiteness is both a vague and simultaneously exclusive concept; Murphy points out that its modern expression in American politics and culture emerges from a transnational context. Global instabilities draw attention to the unstable nature of whiteness, its insecure boundaries.
As the novelist Henry James walked around the Eastern European Jewish communities of New York’s Lower East Side described in his book The American Scene (1905), he seemed to fret, feeling the ‘sense of a great swarming’ where the inhabitants of these neighborhoods are described like small animals ‘like snakes or fish’ that multiply when cut into pieces. Ironically, the renewed focus on whiteness created by a new global, transnational American empire in the late 19th and early 20th century also created renewed fears of a global influx of diverse migrants.
For James, his anxieties around migration also led him to question what it means to be an American. ‘Who and what is an alien, when it comes to that….? Which is the American, by these scant measures? – which is not the alien…. and where does one put a finger on the dividing line?’ In the early twentieth century, the time in which James was writing, the borders of ‘whiteness’ were rigidly policed. Southern and Eastern Europeans, Jews, and Irish immigrants were often excluded from the dominant visions of whiteness in the United States in this period.
Ten or fifteen years later, these anxieties were channeled by white nationalist and eugenicist thinkers, like Madison Grant (whose The Passing of the Great Race was published in 1916) and Lothrop Stoddard (The Rising Tide of Colour against White-World Supremacy, 1920). Whilst, as I have been suggesting, antebellum contexts of plantation slavery shaped perceptions of race, especially in the southern United States, the imperial focus on whiteness as a global‘supremacy’ expressed primarily by American and European empires created a new focus on race.
Stoddard’s understanding of race tied increasing migration to threats to western colonial power in Africa and Asia. Race, for Stoddard, was built on a hierarchy where ‘Nordics’ (including Anglo-Saxons) stood at the pinnacle; this race was now under threat from the populations of Asia and Africa. The racist fears that Grant’s and Stoddard’s books articulate entered the wider context of American culture.
In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), the character of Tom Buchanan asks his guests if they have read “this man Goddard [sic]” and complains that “if we don’t all look out, the white race … will be utterly submerged”. Similarly, Ernest Hemingway’s parodic 1926 novel The Torrents of Spring was subtitled ‘A Romantic Novel on the Passing of a Great Race’, in a clear nod to Madison Grant’s text. The novel contains references to the ‘Nordic’ race and parodies Hemingway’s erstwhile friend the writer Sherwood Anderson’s interest in African American cultures.
For the contemporary right, such concerns express themselves as a feeling of disenfranchisement, or – as in the case of the extreme radical right marchers of Charlottesville in 2017 – a fear that whites will be ‘replaced’. For Arlie Hochschild, who has undertaken a detailed study of the culture of mainly white Tea Party supporters in Louisiana (Strangers in their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, 2016), there is a ‘deep story’ that many Tea Party and Trump supporters accept. In this story, these supporters claim to the American dream has been snatched away, as migrants, women, and people of color take the prizes that should be theirs (a narrative the Republican Party has propagated in their decades-long Southern Strategy).
In the historical context, late nineteenth and early twentieth-century imperialist rhetoric inflated the idea of whiteness, equating it with global hegemony and military strength. Yet it also highlighted the inherent instability of notions of white racial identity. Whiteness was at once the repository of privilege and power; yet at the same time, its privileged position was constantly under attack, under threat. Such paradoxes continue to affect the dynamics of right-wing politics in the United States today – fuelling the rise of the Tea Party and latterly Trump. Only once these anxieties & resentments have been debunked will we see the cessation of this divisive reality.
Dr David Barnes is a Senior Career Fellow at CARR and a Postdoctoral Researcher at University of Oxford. His profile can be found here:
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