Danny Cardwell's picture

    Hegemony, Demographics, and "Populism"

    "And before we knew it we were totally outnumbered at the family gatherings and consigned to a corner of the sectional, whispering and ducking among the flying hands, feeling rather small and blind, like moles or voles trembling in the shadows of the raptors."

    When I first heard Paul Hostovsky's poem "Hegemony" I was so caught up with the in-group out-group role reversal narrative that I completely missed the poems lesson: communication. In the poem the protagonist has three deaf cousins who were largely ignored by the rest of their family, but through a series of marriages, births, divorces, and new marriages the biblical narrative of "the first shall be last and the last shall be first" was manifested. The deaf cousins found themselves the center of attention. The "small and blind" feeling the new minority of the hearing felt was based solely on their response to their new position within the family. The majority's willingness to ignore the minority left them on the outside looking in. Maybe we need to start communicating better and read more poetry? 

    It's another week and I find myself in the familiar position of sitting in front of my computer with the option of writing about things that, for one reason or another, seem to only happen to people who look like me. Last week provided a wealth of material. I could write about the American legal system failing another black family: the Michael Slager mistrial. I could definitely write about Joe McKnight being murdered and the shooter (Ronald Gasser) being released only to be "strategically" arrested days later. How about that press conference Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand gave? I could drone on for days about his use of threatening messages and profanity as a vehicle to diminish the legitimate concerns people of color have about these types of investigations.

    I am very distrustful of anyone who downplays or attempts to diminish the lived experiences people of color talk and/or write about. We inherited an America that wrote a Declaration of Independence and a Preamble to the Constitution that willfully excluded Africans. From a historical perspective, we are far enough from the most egregious forms of racism that even the conservatives admit slavery, Black Codes, and Jim Crow were wrong, yet too many of these same people (and even some liberals) refuse to address the racial inequities of today. It's like being a passenger in a car with a driver who admits to swerving erratically twenty miles ago, but refuses to acknowledge the two left tires in the center rumble strip now. The past is a great whipping boy for anyone trying to deny structural racism today; The past allows nostalgic Americans to ditch their responsibilities to the next generation by pointing out how bad past generations were. We're constantly reminded: "No one alive owned slaves." "You people are represented in every field." "This isn't the 1950's." Statements like these do two specific things; they offer absolution to those making them, and create resentment inside the people hearing them. People of color haven't been spared from economic hardships, so why are we only talking about working class whites?

    America was created for white people. I don't know how this easily locatable fact has been turned into a controversial statement. If one were to honestly connect the dots between the actions America has taken in the name of the flag or the idea of American "exceptionalism" you'd come to this conclusion. What it means to be white has changed since the 19th Century, but the goal of controlling contested resources is the same. Black freedom movements combined with the increased migration of Hispanics and other people of color changed the rules that governed who was considered white. Germans, Italians, and Polish people gained full acceptance into the American family. The Irish faced terrible discrimination when they got here, Italians were called every racially insensitive name in the book, and Polish people are the butt of some of the worst jokes ever told, but none of these people were systematically excluded from the American Dream for the first 60 plus years of the 20th Century. The collective economic pain many white Americans are feeling is rooted in economic decisions younger than me. There's always been pockets of poverty, but economic despair combined with the potential end of white hegemony have created a fear that passes for "anger".  


    White inclusion has historically been strong enough to unite people of different socioeconomic backgrounds, but like the dollar: inflation has limited its purchasing power. The last decade has been marked by populist movements on both sides of the political spectrum. Donald Trump's underlying message of restoring whiteness was the electoral glue Bernie Sanders' economic message lacked. Scholars and political pundits on the left and right have worked incredibly hard to explain the overt racism we've seen as if it's a by product of the economic anxiety and not a constitutive part of it. We're told to focus more on what automation and globalization have done to working class whites than the racists and racist organizations they've embraced. America is changing fast. Extreme wealth is the only insulation from "New America", and there's a shortage of cash. Whiteness isn't a blessing or a curse. I'm not trying to create anger, guilt, or sympathy. I'm suggesting we be as honest about this moment in history as we are about the past. 


    Pathways to the middle class have narrowed, but economics alone doesn't explain why the old Tea Party/Trump coalition hates the old Occupy Wall Street/Fight For Fifteen crowd. If it were just about money the party fighting for higher wages would have won the election. I'm not willing to waste time circling the square about Bernie being screwed by the DNC. I won't engage hypothetical situations in which Trump isn't the president-elect. Donald Trump represents the hopes and wishes of millions of people who advocate for a return to authoritarian white hegemony. I can't afford to waste my time psychoanalyzing these people or parsing their words. Since the Rodney King beating I've watched dozens of courts across this country reaffirm the fact that I don't have the same rights as my white peers. The fairy tale is that all of these issues are separate from each other. People work harder to deny the existence of  causal links than to accept them and attempt to correct them. I don't care if someone has a personal prejudice: we all have them; I care that their prejudices are allowed to influence the daily experiences of others. As America undergoes more racial and cultural shifts we will see more "whites only" populist movements. We will be told these movements are based on creating opportunities, but if you listen closely you can hear their desire to reshape America into the country she always was. The family in the poem is a great metaphor for the new minority's fear.




    Thanks for this post Danny, I think the election of Trump served as a balm to the mental health of many black Americans. There was initial shock and depression, but this was followed by an almost sense of relief that we were not suffering from a mental disorder. At every step we were told that we were too sensitive about race. We were playing the "race card". The Obama election made us "post-racial". Blacks knew this was crap, but the image of President Obama was shoved in our faces as rebuttal to our concerns. Mitch McConnell pledged to make Obama a one term President. A Congressman from South Carolina called Obama a liar during the State of the Union address.Obama had to show his full form birth certificate. We are a long way from post-racial.

    A man selling loose cigarettes is choked to death by police  on camera, but there is no crime. A Cleveland police officer who was fired from a previous police department because he was too unstable to carry a weapon guns down a child with a toy gun in an open carry state and the initial response of news media in Cleveland is to question the criminal record of the child's parents. As you note, a South Carolina jury refuses to find a police officer who fired repeated at an unarmed man running away guilty of any crime. These are sad times.

    Cliven Bundy and then his son challenge federal law enforcement with guns and live to tell the tale. The villain who killed nine people in a Charleston church is fed a hamburger before being carted to jail. Blacks saw all these things and were told that this was"normal".

    Trump is a documented con man with multiple bankruptcies, but his supporters chose him to save their jobs. Trump knows nothing about church, but white Evangelicals flocked to him. Blacks see there impressions documented once and for all. A large segment of whites voters will vote for the racist just as long as the racist pretends he cares about their interests. The country spoke and told us what it thinks of us. While he majority of voters did not vote for Trump, an electoral college put in place to appease the slave states did its job by making sure the racist got elected.

    The mechanism put into place by the Confederacy did its job . The glaring fact that there was already an institution that made sure that the slave states were not overwhelmed by the will of more populous states was deemed unimportant. That institution, the Senate, acts as the protection the slave states said they needed.The impact of the Confederacy lives on today.

    Thanks for speaking so much truth to power. We are drowning in "Denial River". Economic anxiety alone can't make people embrace racism. We need to be honest. Thanks!!!

    Who is talking when you hear:  " We're told to focus more on what automation and globalization have done to working class whites than the racists and racist organizations they've embraced." ?

    I believe people when they show me who they are. In many cases Progressive allies have given virulent racist more cover than they were looking for. I know all of Donald Trump's supporters aren't bigots, but how many Trump supporters do we reckon spent the last eight years dehumanizing President Obama? There are people on the left who have a need to excuse this behavior or overlook it completely. 

    Sadly, as soon as the election results came in, some on the Left picked up the wingnut term "identity politics". The term was used to shove blacks and Latinos under the bus in the vain attempt to court white voters. They ignored the white identity politics Trump used to gain votes. Whites were "working class", meaning minorities were leeches on society. Even Sanders joined in the attack.


    I understand how many policies coming from the Left do not confront the problem of racism head on. I understand the ways that the Left has caused problems while trying to solve them. I do not see how any of that process was or is satisfying a "need to excuse this behavior or overlook it completely."

    But I don't say that with an interest in saving anybody's reputation or legacy. While I am interested in thoughts about how the changes in our society could have been made differently, I am more interested in talking about what we should do now.

    There are a large number of people who want the white people world you speak of. There are a large number of people, including a huge chunk of white people, who do not.

    What's the best thing to do next, given those conditions?

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