“White people riot by voting.”
Years later, I no longer recall who first shared that bit of wisdom with me, but I’ve always found it striking. Not, of course, that it is literally true.
As is attested by any fair reading of the history of urban uprisings — New York City in 1863, Chicago in 1919, Los Angeles in 1943, San Francisco in 2012 — white people riot by rioting, same as anyone else. But I’ve always considered the aphorism’s larger point unassailable. Namely, that when confronted with unwelcome racial or cultural change, many white people seek salvation and, yes, retaliation, at the polls.
I spent a good part of last year arguing in this space, in speeches and in panel discussions, that this was a much underrated and overlooked factor in the rise of Donald Trump. That reasoning met with, at best, limited success — at least among my white listeners.
They would regard the point with skepticism before allowing that, while perhaps racial or cultural enmity played some supporting role, the real culprit was something they called “economic anxiety.” In other words, white working-class voters were primarily drawn to this blustery nincompoop because the factories were shutting down.
Well, a new study by the Public Religion Research Institute and The Atlantic brings some clarity to the question and, I must admit, economic anxiety played a role I didn’t expect. The analysis — it is only preliminary — says white people who described their finances as fair or poor were nearly twice as likely to vote for Hillary Clinton as those who were better off.
On the other hand, about 80 percent of white working-class people who see the American way of life as under siege from foreign influences and who agree that “things have changed so much that I often feel like a stranger in my own country” supported Trump. So the “anxiety” that most influenced them wasn’t economic. They didn’t fear not making the rent so much as they did black neighbors or a mosque in the local strip mall.
In words of one syllable: I told you so.
There was a neon line leading straight from the lavish abuse heaped on Barack Obama to this dumb bigot who asks a black reporter to set up a meeting for him with the Congressional Black Caucus (“Are they friends of yours?”) and tries to hang a “No Muslims” sign on the Statue of Liberty. Yet many white journalists, pundits, authors and academics simply could not see it.
Sure, it’s fair to criticize Obama for his Syrian policy or his health care plan. But his birth certificate? Really? “Subhuman mongrel?” Seriously? And you mean to tell me a brother can’t even get a hearing on a Supreme Court nominee?
No, that all bespoke an animus deeper than politics. Yet, when the white working class chose a Klan-backed candidate to save itself from Obama, some of us nevertheless blamed it on mine closures. As Vann R. Newkirk II, a writer for The Atlantic, pointed out on Twitter: “People of color have faced existential and economic crises for all of American history and have managed to not become Nazis.”
No, I’m not calling white working-class people Nazis. But I am saying many of them turned eagerly to a manifest incompetent whose saving grace was that he channeled their racial and cultural animus. And it’s no accident, six months later, that as I prepared to write this column, I chanced upon video of a white man on a Texas beach cursing and harassing a Muslim family while invoking Trump’s name like a mantra. Such scenes have become common since November.
It’s obvious what this is. The only question is what some of us will choose to call it instead.
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for The Miami Herald.