The Politics of White AnxietyRoundup
tags: racism, Donald Trump, white voters, social psychology
Jonathan M. Metzl is the Frederick B. Rentschler II Professor of Sociology and Psychiatry, and the Director of the Center for Medicine, Health, and Society, at Vanderbilt University. He is the author of Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentness Is Killing America’s Heartland and The Protest Psychosis: How Schizophrenia Became a Black Disease.
Is white anxiety inevitable? The question hangs over the frantic closing days of the presidential election.
For much of the summer, polls across the country suggested a national reckoning with race and racism and a “sea change of good will” following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others. But late-summer data suggested falling white support for racial progress among a key demographic: white voters in swing states. Suddenly, the outcome of the election hinged on whether the GOP could provide what the Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart called “permission structures” to coax enough squeamish white voters to pull the levers for Donald Trump.
Sensing an opportunity, the Trump campaign amplified messages that linked Black Lives Matter with looting and violence. In early September, in the aftermath of a BLM protest marred by confrontation with white supremacists, Trump traveled to Kenosha, Wisconsin, and strode through manicured rubble to warn white America what would become of it should Democratic “anarchy” prevail. The Biden camp quickly shifted its focus in response. Biden rushed to Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minneapolis—even bringing pizza to a firehouse in Pittsburgh—in an effort to blunt Trump’s “law and order” message and bolster his standing “among white voters in the industrial Midwest.”
For commentators such as Elie Mystal, writing in The Nation, the spectacle of white sympathies shifting away from Black communities—so-called whitelash—highlighted the mercurial nature of white support for Black communities. “And so here we are, barely three months after George Floyd was choked to death, and already white allyship is waning,” Mystal wrote. “A majority of white people were always going to value their own comfort over justice for Black people.”
Mystal’s reaction points to a historical reality: widespread white commitment to racial progress tends to be episodic and short-lived. Indeed, historically, as Black Americans become more politically active, white political violence increases in frequency. This pattern is exacerbated by the fact that national elections often are won by stoking white fears. In 1968 Richard Nixon crafted a law and order campaign that appealed to what he would later describe as the “silent majority” of “law abiding” Americans. His promises to quell antiwar and civil rights protests turned the tides on Democrat Hubert Humphry’s efforts to address poverty and racial injustice. George H. W. Bush overcame a ten-point polling gap to beat Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential election by stoking suburban white anxieties about Black criminality. Bill Clinton built his reputation on tough-on-crime legislation and campaigned at a prison adjacent to the KKK memorial Stone Mountain.
After launching his first campaign by warning of rapists from south of the border, Trump now centers his second presidential campaign almost solely on white identity politics. The closing months of his 2020 reelection have focused mainly on warning white Americans that Black crime and urban leftist terrorists will invade the suburbs if his campaign fails.
The future of our democracy depends on arriving at a sophisticated answer to the question: What is the white anxiety that these campaigns leverage? Necessarily, this means engaging with both the psychological history of white anxiety, as well as more practical considerations about its political uses. The latter point, of its Realpolitik, leads to a critical follow-up question: Why, given how predictable it is that politicians will use the crass power of white anxiety to manipulate voters, do we still struggle to find an effective counterstrategy to negate its polarizing effects?