This is an optimist’s case for the following proposition: one of the dumbest and deadliest inventions humans have ever devised is getting its butt kicked. Folks, the racists are losing.
We may come to remember the Trump presidency as a pathetically weak attempt to roll back the cultural, demographic, and ideological change that is rising to a nearly inexorable force. The effort to Make America Racist Again has already failed miserably. Give it another four years and it will still fail.
To drive home the point that my optimism does not rest in this year’s election results, I’m posting this before knowing whether or not Trump has been defeated. My case for optimism certainly doesn’t rest in the election of a longtime moderate Democrat with a habit of cozying up to white supremacist senators back in the day. My hope does not depend on whether this Trump interlude proves to be of the four or eight year variety. My optimism rests in a broader global-historical sweep of the twentieth century.
At the dawn of that century, Senator Ben Tillman stood on the floor of the United States Senate and said this: “We took the government away. We stuffed the ballot boxes. We shot them. We are not ashamed of it. The Senator from Wisconsin would have done the same thing. I see it in his eye right now. He would have done it…The brotherhood of man exists no longer, because you shoot negroes [sic] in Illinois, when they come in competition with your labor, as we shoot them in South Carolina when they come in competition with us in the matter of elections. You do not love them any better than we do.” Some might have deplored Senator Tillman’s candor but, as the kids say these days, where was the lie?
A century ago, racism was the coordinating principle of global affairs. W.E.B. Du Bois indulged no idle speculation when he wrote, “Are we not coming more and more, day by day, to making the statement ‘I am white,’ the one fundamental tenet of our practical morality?” The world-embracing hubris of it is what most stood out to Du Bois. People had found reasons to dominate each other since the dawn of time. But now, Europeans and their settler state descendants had not only come up with a bizarre conspiracy theory called whiteness, they used it to organize society and politics across the globe!
The ideology of whiteness fueled ecstatic visions of earthly conquest as divine calling. From Afrikaner ministers in the Dutch Reformed Church to prominent social gospelers in the United States, many white Protestants eagerly awaited the consummation of God’s plan, when their divinely chosen white race would fulfill its mission. Josiah Strong supposed that “God, with infinite wisdom and skill,” was “training the Anglo-Saxon race” for the day it would “spread itself over the earth.” In that glorious day the “inferior tribes” would be revealed as “only precursors of a superior race, voices in the wilderness crying: “Prepare ye the way of the Lord!” These days, the Christians imagined as white are more likely to be embarrassed and uneasy about it than to be carried away by fanciful flights of eschatological genocide.
Horror at the depths to which racism could take humanity in the Holocaust, and even more important, the challenge of anti-racist and independence movements all across the Global South in the second half of the twentieth century, dealt a body blow to white supremacy from which it has never recovered. Henceforth, denial moved more than ever before to the very center of racist ideology. As the late George Fredrickson pointed out, the Holocaust was so discrediting that the classic racist position is not to defend it, but to deny it had ever happened!
To be sure, denial has always been part of any racial order, even the most brutal ones. The paternalist defense of slavery, for example, provided the planter a psychological shield when his brutalized conscience accused him. And Germans carried out their genocide more in a spirit of fear than hatred. Indeed one might say racism is denial. As Frederick Douglass put it in one of the great speeches of American history, “Man is man, the world over. This fact is affirmed and admitted in any effort to deny it. The sentiments we exhibit, whether love or hate, confidence or fear, respect or contempt, will always imply a like humanity.”
Our case for optimism, then, must not ultimately rest in the perennially confused psychology of the racist. But the centrality of denial, its organizing role both on the level of psychology and systems, seems to me relatively new. And, crucially, it suggests an exhausted ideology. Racism is losing its power to inspire, much less organize coherent political projects.
The idea that the horrors of the Holocaust discredited racist ideology has often been overdrawn (indeed, I’ve made this case myself elsewhere). If racism was no longer fashionable, a disturbingly large number of Europeans missed the memo. In the 1960s, during my parents’ lifetime, the Portuguese dictatorship busily sent tens of thousands of white settlers to Angola in a classic case of racist settler colonial domination. In the 1980s, during my lifetime, racist South African security forces and commando units wreaked havoc across southern Africa. A British Commonwealth committee estimated they contributed to 1 million deaths and made 3 million people homeless. But these political projects have been so thoroughly discredited that people are shocked to discover they even existed in a world so close to our own.
Even in the most obvious state of exception in a decolonizing world, South Africa, denial ruled the day. The regime not only portrayed itself as a bulwark against communism. It established native “homelands” and granted them fictive “independence” in an elaborate bid to deny and obfuscate the essentially racist character of the apartheid state. Even the prototypical exemplars of modern racist social organization did not want to admit what they were doing.
And so this stark fact remains: racism crested in the era of global war and has receded through the era of decolonization, civil rights movements, and the rise of global human rights.
Against this sweeping historical change, what do the racists offer? In 2017 a motley crew of a few hundred demonstrated in Charlottesville before one of their number launched a terrorist attack and killed Heather Heyer. Organizers promptly retreated, concluding they had made a strategic error because the American public was so revolted. Trump’s equivocations about the terrorists became a political albatross rather than a source of strength. He and his enablers quickly spun new tales of denial to try to bury the episode.
Terrorists used to be able to take over whole states and defy the federal government to do anything about it. Now their would-be sympathizers recoil in disgust. I know the headlines often seem scary today, reading of proud boys and boogaloos and militias. But these lonely cosplayers can only dream of the power and acclaim racists like themselves used to amass a short time ago. Social media is not our friend in our efforts to achieve perspective. A Florida man yelling “white power!” as he rides by on his golf cart is not the stuff of which racist revolutions are made. For racists, times are hard, even with one of their own in the oval office.
Trump’s invocations of racism have often been startlingly old-fashioned. This is, I admit, infuriating. From the blood and soil nationalism evoked in the “send her back” chants, to playing on stereotypical racist fears of racial pollution through rape and housing integration, to crafting an immigration policy of which even the Dillingham commission could be proud, it often seemed as if Trump was trying to play racism’s greatest hits. Yet even as his fans got a thrill out of it, they experienced this pleasure within a carefully maintained framework of denial. Not only did they deny the fact that they had joined a racist movement, they continued to imagine that they didn’t like racism at all.
Anti-racists often treat this stunning blindness as a sign of racism’s entrenched position in American life. From one vantage point that’s true. This “colorblind racism” often feels intractable, and it really does cause profound pain and suffering for people of color, not to mention psychological strain for white people. But from another vantage point, this denial is a flashing red light declaring that racism as an ideological project is exhausted. These folks aren’t even good at hating people anymore. Their heart isn’t all the way in it.
A century ago—far less, in fact—populist demagogues could mobilize a crowd with a proud message of white supremacy till kingdom come. Now, even Trump’s most loyal mass constituency—white evangelical Christians—declares an avowed belief in a brand of Christian universalism. Christ died for all and anyone who accepts Jesus as savior is headed to the same heavenly destination. The doors of the church are open to all, regardless of color. Believe me, I’ll be the first to say this Christian universalism tends to be remarkably immune to practical ethical content, but I argue it does make these white Christians feel cross-pressured. Their racism makes them uncomfortable. This is not a confident ideology ready to make new converts. It’s a tired and fearful perspective on the world, and the demographic groups most likely to cling to it are shrinking.
My students at Temple University are black and white, Asian and Hispanic. Their families come from India and Vietnam, Cameroon and Armenia. They tell me they’re prepared to disrupt racism. The historian in me says this is the conceit of the young. But then, maybe I’m not thinking historically enough. Is it really so hard to believe that the most diverse and racially integrated generation in American history will turn out to be the most anti-racist generation?
I’ve been skeptical that the massive black lives matter protests of this summer signify much. But let’s at least stipulate this: never in American history have so many people of such diverse backgrounds come together to demand racial justice. It remains to be seen how much this will matter in the long run, but for now, let’s take a moment to be grateful this good thing has happened.
The burden of an optimist’s case is that it must not become another species of the denial it claims to critique. It must not descend to that point of wishful nonsense where, as Kimberlé Crenshaw has put it, “sober assessments of how far we have come” are replaced “by congratulatory declarations that we have arrived.”
From racist policing to a yawning wealth gap that shows no sign of closing, racism remains an urgent burden that is a matter of life and death in the present day. Most worryingly for the future, these material forces are reproducing race as we speak. The future will belong to the anti-racists insofar as we put a wrench directly into these systems of power and finally interrupt the reproduction of their ideological justification. This is what freedom movements across the global south did. They didn’t wait around for Europeans to have a change of heart. They served notice the old systems of power weren’t coming back and they ushered the racists off the stage to the margins of history. Many a racist settler died embittered and resentful. For the world’s future it didn’t matter if they never learned their lesson. What mattered is that they were pushed to the sidelines where their racism no longer commanded armies and bureaucracies.
The racists are losing. This is a case for optimism, not complacency. The only thing that ever moved the world toward freedom was people acting together to make power, take power, and use it to free human beings from domination. In the fog of war it can be hard to tell if one is fighting a depleted enemy in a rear-guard action, or a well-supplied force waging the next phase of a long campaign. Trumpism is a desperate defense of an exhausted and pathetic ideology. In its heyday, racism killed millions and held the globe in its thrall. Today, it’s the succor of a lonely man and his feeble hangers-on. They, too, will be ushered off the stage of history.
Yes, Lord, so may it be.