The Myth of the Unassimilable Mexican

Trump’s election has unleashed a flood of animus against Mexican Americans. Within 24 hours of the election, Mexican-Americans across the nation (along with many other racial, ethnic, religious, and LGBTQ groups) were being verbally and even physically attacked. I personally heard several first-hand accounts. A novelist friend of mine tweeted a criticism of Trump and a stranger threatened him with deportation. Similarly sad, demeaning and outright terrifying stories are erupting all over social media and archived by groups including the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The hostility percolates down to the most intimate levels. A lovely man and a positive role model for my son teased him that he was not patriotic enough to use a piece of equipment with an emblazoned American flag but not to worry, they would not deport him. At my friend’s child’s school, 8-year-olds teased their Mexican-American classmates that they could be deported. Parents tsk-tsked but said it was just “kids being kids.” Many perpetrators don’t think they are racist or insist they are just joking. But the message is clear: “you don’t really belong here.”

 

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What we are seeing is the reanimation of longstanding stereotypes—what I call “racial scripts”—that present Mexicans as unassimilable, criminal, even diseased.

We like to describe ourselves as a melting pot nation, based on the idea that immigrants can learn our language, appreciate our culture, and adopt our values and ultimately “become” American by way of assimilation. This had been the case for white ethnic immigrants before, even those who faced much discrimination, such as the Irish, Italians, and Jews.

But Mexicans have had citizenship available to them for nearly 170 years, since the Mexican-American War ended. So why aren’t they seen as fully assimilated into US culture? Why can Donald Trump still call them “bad hombres,” rapists, criminals, drug dealers, and disease carriers?

Presumably much of this animus derives from concerns about the undocumented. The Pew Foundation estimates that there are over 11.2 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. of whom Mexicans comprise about 53 percent. But we can’t characterize all immigrants as lawless marauders simply because they’re undocumented. Those with criminal records are already being deported. Some of President Obama’s critics call him “the Deporter in Chief” because he’s already deported 3 million immigrants—more than any other president before him.

Many take the position that being undocumented alone qualifies migrants as criminals—they are “illegal.” But being undocumented is also part of our country’s history. European immigrants who came to the US in the 19th and early 20th centuries faced few immigration restrictions. And even when these restrictions were violated, relatively short statutes of limitation limited the power of deportation.

When these laws did change in 1924, the federal government instituted a variety of mechanisms to help make mainly European immigrants “legal,” including suspending deportations and allowing immigrants to pay a small fee to register when they arrived in the United States, providing them access to measures that would ensure their assimilation, while not making these accessible to Mexicans.

Mexican immigrants enjoyed no such opportunities. Instead, they faced increasing regulation through the Border Patrol, established in 1924. Health screenings at the border used race, not symptoms, as the organizing principle. Other forms of control worked outside the law. Like African Americans, thousands of Mexicans were the victims of lynch mobs well into the 1900s, a legacy documented in community and archival records.

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In the 1920s, like now, employers opposed immigration quotas because they limited the availability of low-wage labor. But even this supposed openness to Mexicans nonetheless cast them as alien workers, not as immigrants arriving to the American melting pot. As historian Mark Reisler put it, Mexican Americans are “always the laborer, never the citizen.”

During the Great Depression, when Mexican labor was no longer needed, U.S. repatriation practices sent an estimated one million Mexicans back to Mexico, including some U.S. citizens of Mexican descent.

All these practices led to ways of seeing and categorizing Mexicans that reduced them to a type—creating “racial scripts” that characterized Mexicans as “illegal” and diseased.

These scripts persisted even as Mexican-Americans became a permanent and visible part of U.S. society. After the mid-1940s, Mexican-Americans’ second generation numbers eclipsed those of the immigrant generation. Yet, American citizens of Mexican descent were segregated from mainstream America. They could not freely choose where to live because of racial covenants and discriminatory government lending practices that shunted them into segregated neighborhoods.

Children attended “Mexican” schools and were only allowed to swim in public pools the day before the pool was drained. They sat in the segregated section of movie theaters, were not allowed into many restaurants (along with “negroes” and dogs), and were buried in segregated cemeteries—a practice that extended even to veterans.

Many people believe that we of the twenty-first century are past the overt racism and racialization that has plagued the U.S. from its earliest days. Some commentators believe the Civil Rights Movement and affirmative action ameliorated the worst of the U.S.’s past wrongs. Thus, they argue, there is no longer a need for a conversation about righting past wrongs. Along these same lines, some people argue that mainstream America’s racial sensibilities have shifted to the point where, as a group, we have become “colorblind.”

Even if as individuals we could succeed in willing ourselves to not see race, or at least to not act on our perceptions, the long reach of past racism in areas such as government lending, private real estate practices, zoning regulations, unequal access to healthcare, and disproportionate exposure to toxic environments is now institutionalized. This kind of structurally embedded racism affects nearly every aspect of our everyday lives, advantaging some of us and disadvantaging others with respect to how and where we live, work, learn, and play, as well as positively or negatively affecting our ability to accrue assets, manage our health, and sustain a good quality of life.

Once these racial scripts are in place, they are extended to all Mexicans, regardless of citizenship status, generations in the United States, educational level, income, language ability or even skin color. One only has to remember when Trump derided US District Judge Gonzalo Curiel who presided over the Trump University class action lawsuit, as unable to be biased because, as a Mexican, the judge had an “inherent conflict of interest” given Trump was “building a wall” along the US-Mexico border, never mind that the judge was born in Indiana.

These scripts filter down to all of us, until someone can “joke” that my fourth-generation American son doesn’t deserve to carry American flag decorated gear. We would all agree that right thoughts lead to right words lead to right action. We must ask ourselves what scripts we are acting out and what they will lead to, regardless of our intent.

 

~Natalia Molina is Associate Dean, Division of Arts & Humanities, and Professor of History and Urban Studies at the University of California, San Diego. Professor Molina’s work lies at the intersections of race, gender, culture, and citizenship. She is the author of award-winning books, How Race Is Made in America: Immigration, Citizenship, and the Historical Power of Racial Script and Fit to be Citizens? Public Health and Race in Los Angeles, 1879-1939, both published by the University of California Press.

White Supremacy Isn’t a Fad, It’s a System

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With a newly, perhaps unlawfully, elected U.S. president gleefully endorsed by the KKK, we are going to have to get smarter about the way we talk about white supremacy.  I’ve been studying white supremacy for more than twenty-five years. Let me share with a few of the basics that I’ve learned from my research.

White Supremacy is not a “fad”

To begin, white supremacy is not a “fad.” The mannequin challenge is a fad. To suggest that white supremacy is a fad — as Kevin Drum recently did at Mother Jones — is to misunderstand the basic meaning of both “white supremacy” and “fad.”  

(updated 11/28 at 3:18pm) It seems that someone at Mother Jones changed the title of this insidious piece, but the URL still says “fad.”

And, no, Ta-Nehisi Coates did not “invent” the use of the term white supremacy. As even a cursory check of the Wikipedia entry would tell someone with an elementary-school level of intellectual curiosity, “white supremacy” has been used by academics as a term of critique for many decades by scholars writing in the tradition of critical race theory.

Coates did, however, eloquently point out why we have so much trouble with this particular issue:

The shame reflects an ugly and lethal trend in this country’s history—an ever-present impulse to ignore and minimize racism, an aversion to calling it by its name. For nearly a century and a half, this country deluded itself into thinking that its greatest calamity, the Civil War, had nothing to do with one of its greatest sins, enslavement. It deluded itself in this manner despite available evidence to the contrary. Lynchings, pogroms, and plunder proceeded from this fiction. Writers, journalists, and educators embroidered a national lie, and thus a safe space for the violent tempers of those who needed to be white was preserved.

We have a particular gift for embroidering our national lie when it comes to race, but it’s not particularly new.

 

White supremacy is not new to the U.S.

Some have called there is a  “the new white supremacy,” or that it’s experiencing an “awakening,” but white supremacy is not new to the U.S.

Thomas Jefferson, one of the founders of the United States, owned and enslaved people. At least one of those, Sally Hemings, he also raped and forced to bear six his children. Jefferson, of course, was one of the authors of the Declaration of Independence, and the worlds “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,”but this self-evident truth did not apply to the men and women that he owned. Jefferson pondered whether those currently enslaved should be set free in his Notes on the State of Virginia, in which he concluded that no, they shouldn’t be, when he wrote:

I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.

In this writing, Jefferson gave voice to what many liberal thinkers of the day believed about the inequality of the races: that white people were inherently superior to black people. That fact seemed obvious to Jefferson. Think this is all old news and no one is advocating for this kind of ideas? Think again.

As I pointed out in Cyber Racism (2009), banner images in regular rotation on the white supremacist portal Stormfront, regularly feature quotes and image from Thomas Jefferson that herald white superiority and connect their political cause to the founding fathers of the U.S.

jefferson at stormfront

Jefferson’s ideas of white supremacy got woven into the very fabric of the nation’s founding documents.  For example, the U.S. Constitution includes something known as the “three-fifths compromise,” which was an agreement worked out between white northern and southern lawmakers about how to count the  enslaved population. The northerners regarded slaves as property who should receive no representation. Southerners demanded that Blacks be counted as people, because it would strengthen their power in the newly created Congress. The compromise  allowed a state to count three fifths of each black person in determining political representation in the House. The Three-fifths Compromise would not be challenged again until the Dred Scott decision (1857), which held that “held that a negro, whose ancestors were imported into [the U.S.], and sold as slaves, whether enslaved or free, could not be an American citizen and therefore had no standing to sue in federal court.”

So, yeah, white supremacy. It’s not new. It’s been part of the U.S. since the beginning.

White supremacy is a system.

White supremacy is a system that ensures some people, who are white, always end up with the lion’s share of resources. Here’s a more academic definition:

White supremacy is…a political, economic and cultural system in which whites overwhelmingly control power and material resources, conscious and unconscious ideas of white superiority and entitlement are widespread, and relations of white dominance and non-white subordination are daily reenacted across a broad array of institutions and social settings.”  (Frances Lee Ansley, “White supremacy (and what we should do about it”. In Richard Delgado; Jean Stefancic. Critical white studies: Looking behind the mirror. Temple University Press, 1997, p. 592.

From here, you could investigate any number of areas – wealth, income, educational achievement, occupations, housing, health, incarceration, crime – and find evidence that white people “overwhelmingly control power and material resources.” Here’s just one example in the area of wealth:

(Source: CNN Money, 2016: Why the racial wealth gap won’t go away)

 

There are lots of other examples, too. On white supremacy in housing, read Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” about the very real, material impact of residential segregation and plunder in the form of subprime mortgages.  On the way white supremacy gets perpetuated in education, listen to the excellent reporting by Nikole Hannah Jones in “The Problem We All Live With.” For an account of the white supremacy in the criminal justice system is Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow.

These material aspects of white supremacy are justified by systems of thought. For understanding how science is implicated in white supremacy, read Dorothy Roberts’ Fatal Invention. And, for a broad understanding of how white supremacy frames our thinking, read Joe Feagin’s White Racial Frame.

 

But, calling the current system “white supremacy” makes me, as a white person, uncomfortable.

 

If you’re white, and talk of white supremacy makes you feel uncomfortable, you might want to do some self-reflection. Why is it that it makes you uneasy?

If you’re feeling especially defensive when talk turns to white supremacy, then you may be experiencing  “white fragility.” Robin D’Angelo coined this term to describe:

“an emotional state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress be- comes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves.”

If you don’t think this applies to you, then you may want to investigate “white identity politics.” There seems to be a lot of that going around.

Typically, when people speak about identity politics – and especially the need to “move beyond identity politics” — they mean the racial identity of those who are Black or Latino. Implied in this use of the term “identity politics” is that white people are exist in a space that is safely removed from the politics of racial identity.

But, as Laila Lalami wrote recently in The New York Times:

This year’s election has disturbed that silence. The president-elect earned the votes of a majority of white people while running a campaign that explicitly and consistently appealed to white identity and anxiety.

So, does this mean that all people who share a white racial identity are white supremacists? Not necessarily. Linda Martín Alcoff, in The Future of Whiteness, writes:

White identity poses almost unique problems for an account of social identity. Given its simultaneous invisibility and universality, whiteness has until recently enjoyed the unchallenged hegemony that any invisible contender in a ring full of visible bodies would experience. But is bringing whiteness into visibility the solution to this problem? Hasn’t the racist right done just that, whether it is the White Aryan Councils or theorists like Samuel Huntington who credit Anglo-Protestantism with the creation of universal values like freedom and democracy? In this [book], I show evidence of the increasing visibility of whiteness to whites themselves, and explore a variety of responses by white people as they struggle to understand the full political and historical meaning of white identity today. (read an excerpt here)

Alcoff holds out hope for that there will be more white people, like the ones she documents in her book, who have joined in common cause with people of color to fight slavery, racism, and imperialism, from the New York Conspiracy of 1741 to the John Brown uprising to white supporters of civil rights and white protesters against the racism of the Vietnam War.

Even so, those whites who have joined the resistance are still beneficiaries of a system of white supremacy. That’s the thing about systems. They keep on churning even when we wish they would stop.

What about the people in groups with the  _______  (funny outfits, tattoos, special symbols)? Aren’t they the real white supremacists?

 

There are people who form hate groups, or meet online to discuss the ideology of white supremacy. Sometimes, they wear outfits to signal group membership, like Klan robes or Nazi uniforms or Confederate flag symbols. Sometimes, they get tattoos that reflect their beliefs. According to research conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are 892 hate groups in the United States.

 

(Source: Southern Poverty Law Center)

 

The most common way to talk about white supremacy in the U.S. is to talk about those who identify, through clothing or tattoos, as members of these hate groups.  In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I did extensive research on five of these groups (KKK, David Duke’s NAAWP, the Church of the Creator, Christian Identity, and Tom Metzger’s White Aryan Resistance). I analyzed hundreds of their newsletters and movement documents.

What I wrote in White Lies (1997) was that the white supremacist discourse produced by these extremist groups shared much in common with the kind of language that mainstream politicians used, that I saw in commercials created by Madison Avenue executives, in popular culture, and some of what was created by white academics.  I made this argument by comparing the text of extremist white supremacist documents with elements of mainstream culture, including images, like the ones below.

white men buildings men who built america

 

On the left, an image from the newsletter “White Aryan Resistance,” on the right, a recent image from The History Channel. Both carry with them a message of white supremacy – that white men built the nation, and therefore, are exclusively and especially entitled to it in some particular way. In that book, I argued that the extremist images are simply cruder versions of the same ideas that are slightly more polished in their mainstream political and popular culture versions.

Part of what has happened with the Trump campaign to “Make America Great Again,” has been a blending of the crudest possible white supremacist language (e.g., his claim that “Mexicans are rapists”) with a more mainstream appeals to white identity.

Certainly, people who swear allegiance to a Nazi flag or get white power tattoos should be a cause for concern, but so should politicians who threaten to deport millions of people who are not white Christians. Make no mistake, both are engaging in white supremacy.

But, they’re so dapper (or handsome or went to Harvard), they can’t possibly be white supremacists!

The rise of Trump and the far-right he has courted along his rise to power has created a new level of mainstream media interest in writing about white supremacy. Journalists, and their editors, want things that are “new.” That’s part of what makes something “news,” after all, is it’s newness.

So far, it’s not going very well.

 

There is a trend of think pieces on white supremacists that has declared one “dapper,” and another (retrospectively) “handsome,” comparing him to movie idol Robert Redford. This maddening trend has the effect, intentional or not, of normalizing white supremacy. It also reveals more about the white liberal reporters writing this story than it does about their subjects.

In my most generous interpretation of this trend, editors and journalists are trying to offer some “new” angle on the story of white supremacists. If this is the case, then what that means is that they are playing off the idea that white supremacy is relegated to those who are unattractive, uneducated, toothless, and living in a trailer park.  Thus, the “fresh, new” angle they can offer is the opposite of that image. The problem is that it doesn’t serve the reader or the public sphere because, in so doing, it validates their views as legitimate.

In a less generous read, these are predominantly white editors and journalists who are hobbled by the blindness of their own white identity. What the philosopher Charles Mills refers to as “the epistemology of ignorance,” fostered by the system of white supremacy. As white people, immersed in a system of white supremacy, we are like the fish who cannot see or understand water because it is everywhere. I doubt seriously that a journalist and editor who were both people of color would have published pieces on a “dapper” white supreamcist or the “fad” of white supremacy.

Why does understanding white supremacy matter now?

I hope this is obvious, but in case it’s not, let me offer one other important reason that understanding white supremacy now is more important than ever.  In a recent study, researchers at Stanford Graduate School of Education found that 82% of 203 students surveyed believed sponsored content was a real news story.

This is consistent with what I found in Cyber Racism (2009), when I asked young people (ages 15-19) if they could tell the difference between a “cloaked” white supremacist site, and an actual civil rights site. Most could not. So, one young person in my study, reading a white supremacist site that declared “slavery was good for some people,” responded: “well, maybe so, there’s two sides to everything.”

I hope you find this as chilling. We don’t want to go back to debating whether slavery was a moral evil or not, do we? If we don’t, then we have to get smarter about the way white supremacy operates, and how we fight against it.

Saying that white supremacy is a “fad” neither helps our understanding, nor the fight against it, but reveals the epistemology of ignorance that keeps white people from understanding the system we, ourselves, have built.

This Thanksgiving We Stand with Standing Rock

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We’ve written here about Thanksgiving as holiday rooted in oppression. It’s a time when many of us reflect on the history of injustice and oppression experienced by indigenous people in this country.

This week, the dissonance between the Thanksgiving holiday and the violent response to water protectors at Standing Rock is impossible to avoid.

Maybe you’ve been seeing a little bit about #noDAPL on facebook, or you caught the news this weekend about the water protector who may lose her arm, or the deployment of water cannons and mace by police in freezing weather.

Here’s the very basic background: the Dakota Access Pipeline is a $3.8 billion project that would cross the Missouri River just upstream from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. The Sioux are opposed to it because the pipeline would endanger sacred lands, harm wildlife, and could contaminate drinking water for 15-18 MILLION people if it ruptures.

If you’d like to do a deeper dive on understanding the events, you can use the #StandingRockSyllabus.

And, the president-elect, Donald Trump,  has significant financial ties to the pipeline:He has over $1 million invested in the Dakota Access Pipeline, and he received more than $100,000 in campaign contributions from the CEO of Energy Transfer Partners, the company leading the project.

Given all of this and his apparent refusal to place his business investments in a blind trust, it’s hard to believe that these financial ties won’t impact his actions if the stand-off continues through inauguration. (If you want to learn more, you can listen to this great podcast about the history of the water protectors).

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Here are some actions you can take today to stand with the water protectors at Standing Rock and, at the same time, #FightTrump:

 

  1. Sign this petition and this one, to de-militarize the government response to water protectors at Standing Rock and halt the construction of the DAPL.
  2. Donate to the legal defense fund, children’s education at the camp, Veterans for Standing Rock or medical response at Standing Rock.
  3. Search for and share posts using the tags #NoDAPL, #istandwithstandingrock, #rezpectourwater, #standingrock, #dakotaaccess on social media
  4. If you live in North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Indiana, Wyoming, Nebraska or Ohio- you may find your local police or sheriff’s department is sending officers to North Dakota. Please call them and ask them to stop supporting militarized police action against water protectors.

 

For more actions like these, go to #FightTrump.

Calls for Respect Following the Election Misguided

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A few days after the 2016 Election, I received statements from both my university and my church encouraging us to have “respect” for others with whom we “strongly disagree.”  Both messages for “unity” were clearly meant to be supportive, but they are misguided. Such messages ignore that the disagreements in question are not over petty partisan politics but are over the profound question of whether or not all people deserve equal human rights.

Differing opinions on the Dakota Access Pipe Line offers a ready example. Those who oppose the project  point to its construction as not only desecrating sacred Native American land but also potentially harming the Sioux reservation’s main water supply. The project has also been criticized for targeting Native lands seemingly to avoid endangering predominantly white towns such as Bismarck. As Time magazine, notes, however, supporters of the project “have shown little interest in accommodating the project’s critics, particularly the protesters on the ground.”

Thus, if it is your opinion that companies should be able to forcibly destroy Native American land and endanger Native American lives for financial gain, and I disagree, that is no ordinary difference of opinion. That is a disagreement, as during the 1830s, over whether or not Native Americans’ land and lives are worth more or less than white Americans’ desire for lucrative business development.

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Differences of opinion regarding gender and sexuality are similarly often less about partisan politics and more about differing beliefs in who deserves human rights. After the release of tapes revealing that Donald Trump bragged about conduct toward women that is legally defined as sexual assault, for example, it was some people’s opinion that his statements were unequivocally unacceptable  and others’ opinion that they were insignificant “locker room talk.”

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Given that sociological research on the use such language in the performance of masculinity has demonstrated that these utterances are “not without consequence; rather they are part of, and indeed central to, persistent gendered inequality and violence,” the difference of opinion on this issue is fundamentally over whether or not one considers the perpetuation of inequality and violence against women to be acceptable or not.

 

From police brutality to immigration to bathrooms to protests over these and other issues, the disagreements in our government, classrooms, and on social media are decreasingly over topics like those that Reagan and O’Neil debated and are increasingly more like those that characterized Brooks versus Sumner. In other words, as one writer puts it, “This isn’t a political contest – it’s a moral crisis.”

The secular and religious institutions to which I belong both refused to condemn hetero-patriarchal Christian white supremacist viewpoints as wrong. Their calls for “appreciation of individual differences,” encouragement to “try to understand” people with whom we disagree, and above all their admonishment to be “respectful” all combine to reveal that they accept – as equally legitimate – both the view that all people are created equal / a child of God and the view that some people are not. Their language of respect rather than justice continues a long history of prioritizing being “more cautious than courageous” and in so doing demonstrates both institutions’ failure to live up to the standards of integrity, equality, and “respect” for all that they claim to promote.

 

~ Jennifer Patrice Sims, PhD, is an adjunct professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. Her work examines racial perception, mixed race identity and the sociology of fictional societies, in particular Harry Potter. A life-long Roman Catholic, she also engages in dialogues analyzing the ways that organized religions are complacent in and/or contribute to social inequality.  

Understanding the Trump Moment: Reality TV, Birtherism, the Alt Right and the White Women’s Vote

Many of us are waking up to a November 9 that we never could have imagined. Donald J. Trump, real estate developer and reality TV celebrity, is president-elect of the United States. Over the last 18 months of his campaign, he has engaged in explicitly racist, anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim language that has both shocked and frightened people. The implications of what a Trump presidency could mean for ginning up racial and ethnic hatred are chilling.

 

 

But first, it’s important to understand the Trump moment, and what led to it. This is an election that will be spawn a thousand hot-takes and reams of academic papers, but here’s a first draft on making sense of this victory.

Reality TV

Donald Trump is not a successful businessman, but he played one on TV.  “The Apprentice,” gave Donald Trump a powerful platform over fourteen seasons (2004-2014).

Since about 2000, and the premiere of “Big Brother,”  the media landscape has been transformed by the proliferation of non-fiction television, so-called “reality TV.” Driven by low production costs and drawing large audiences for advertisers, reality TV shows have proven reliable media products.

Trump’s “Apprentice,” is one of many within the genre of reality TV based around work. From “Project Runway,” to “Top Chef,” viewers tune in to watch people compete to keep their jobs, or get cut. Heidi Klum tells aspiring fashion designers, “auf Wiedersehen,”  Padma Lakshmi, sends hopeful chefs away with, “please pack your knives,” and Donald, of course, told would-be entrepreneurs, “You’re fired!”

The success of “The Apprentice,” and shows like it – where we watch people do a difficult job, typically for little money, under grueling conditions (or, “challenges,”) only to see them voted off or “fired,” speaks to the triumph of neoliberalism. We don’t just work at difficult jobs for little money under grueling conditions with the constant threat of being fired, we can also enjoy that as a form of entertainment.

Trump’s rise to prominence through “The Apprentice,” and the proliferation of shows like it, says something  about the transformation of the media landscape. Scholars such as Laurie Ouellette (and others) argue that reality-based TV has become a mechanism that meets the increasing demand for self-governance in the post-welfare state. Ouellette writes that reality-based TV shows like “Judge Judy” drive home the message that everyone must “take responsibility for yourself.”  In other words, to be good neoliberal citizens — “productive citizens” — requires a lot of work on the self, and a lot of work on work. What better evidence of the way that we’ve thoroughly internalized the lessons of neoliberalism than through our voracious consumption of reality-TV shows of people working (and getting fired)? And, now, we’ve affirmed this once again through the election of a reality TV star as president.

Of course, the imagined neoliberal citizen on these shows is white by default (the contestants of color are often the earliest to go), as is Trump’s vision of America and what will “make it great again.”

Birtherism

Remarkably for someone elected to the presidency, Donald Trump has no previous political experience. His emergence on the political landscape is due to his early, loud, racist denunciation of President Obama as “not born in this country,” and his crackpot call to “show the birth certificate.” Obama eventually relented to this request, and Trump counts this as one of his proudest achievements.

While most of us on the left rolled our eyes at the preposterousness of birtherism and decried the obvious racism of it, it resonated deeply with wide swaths of the populace. They, too, felt that there just wasn’t something right about a Black president with a funny sounding name in the White House.

Meanwhile, those on the right denied the clear racism of Trump’s birtherism. Although Colin Powell said “birtherism is racism” and Michael Steele, former RNC chair did call it “bullshit racism,” few on the right joined them in denouncing Trump or his tirades about Obama’s birth certificate.

Instead of disqualifying him presidential politics, Trump’s birtherism helped him build a base of otherwise disaffected white voters, whites who felt that there was something deeply wrong about a Black president. Pollsters missed these voters in the run-up to the election. And, like Nixon, Trump says that he speaks for this “silent majority.”  These are also the white voters who are listening to Alex Jones’ “Infowars” , a daily talk show that airs on 63 stations nationwide, with a bigger audience online than Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck combined. Jones schtick is to connect unrelated dots into vast conspiracy theories, which often feature the Clintons or other establishment politicians as the villains. There is a short leap, some would say no leap at all, from Jones’ brand of conspiracy theories and the anti-Semitism in Trump’s last campaign ad.

The Alt-RIght

Trump found willing allies for his brand of racism in the alt-right.  In case you’ve missed the dozens or so articles and puff pieces about them, they alt-right is the latest iteration of white nationalism. They are recognized as a hate group by the SPLC, which offers the following definition:

The Alternative Right, commonly known as the Alt-Right, is a set of far-right ideologies, groups and individuals whose core belief is that “white identity” is under attack by multicultural forces using “political correctness” and “social justice” to undermine white people and “their” civilization. Characterized by heavy use of social media and online memes, Alt-Righters eschew “establishment” conservatism, skew young, and embrace white ethno-nationalism as a fundamental value.

While some are speculating that “the GOP was primed for a white nationalist takeover,”  this gets the direction of the relationship wrong. It’s not that the alt-right launched a takeover of the Republican party, it’s that Trump found common cause in the alt-right. And, he did it through Twitter.

As J.M. Berger notes in his carefully reported piece, white nationalists were initially hostile to Trump because they thought he was Jewish or was, their terms, “a White man who wishes he were born a Jew.” During Trump’s birther campaign, white supremacists at Stormfront were debating the sincerity of Trump, “some said he was a Jewish plant, intended to deceive gullible white nationalists into supporting him, or just to make them look like idiots by association,” according to Berger.

In June 2015, Andrew Anglin, founder of the Daily Stormer a popular neo-Nazi site, wrote:

“I urge all readers of this site to do whatever they can to make Donald Trump President. If The Donald gets the nomination, he will almost certainly beat Hillary, as White men such as you and I go out and vote for the first time in our lives for the one man who actually represents our interests.”

As Berger tells it, Anglin was the first white supremacist to voice support for Trump. And, the following month, Trump doubled-down on his anti-Mexican racism. This gained him even more supporters among the far-right.  From Berger, again:

Trump was surging in the polls “because he is not on his knees before Mexico and Mexican immigrants,” said Jared Taylor of the influential white nationalist website American Renaissance, which under the guise of “race realism” attempts to put an intellectual face on white nationalism. “Americans, real Americans, have been dreaming of a candidate who says the obvious, that illegal immigrants from Mexico are a low-rent bunch that includes rapists and murderers.”

Over the summer of 2015, the alt-right began to accept Trump as someone who shared their views on race, as evidenced by discussions online. But this sort of thing is not new, white supremacists have talked about mainstream candidates’ views online (and before that, in printed newsletters) for decades now. What happened next was different.

In July 2015, a tweet appeared from Trump’s account showing a stock photo of Nazi S.S. soldiers where American soldiers should have been. The Trump campaign blamed an intern for the mistake, and the incident faded from the news cycle. But at the white nationalist site Daily Stormer, Anglin wrote,

“Obviously, most people will be like ‘obvious accident, no harm done, Meanwhile, we here at the Daily Stormer will be all like ‘wink wink wink wink wink.’”

It’s this media circulation that came to define the Trump relationship with the alt-right and part of what helped him win. He would say something, in a speech or on Twitter or calling into one of the television talk shows, then deny or disavow the racism (if called on it), while the white nationalists dutifully perked up and heard in those messages a like-mind.  So, for example, when Trump tweeted a graphic showing false statistics vastly exaggerating black crime, white nationalists responded enthusiastically. The graphic was later traced back to a white nationalist on Twitter. Trump deflected criticism from Fox News pundit Bill O’Reilly by arguing, essentially, that retweets are not endorsements. “I retweeted somebody who was supposedly an expert,” Trump said. “Am I going to check every statistic?”

 

In late 2015, the Trump and alt-right Twitter game changed. A white nationalist meme maker named Bob Whitaker, has worked for years to popularize the phrase “white genocide” as a meme online. Whitaker started trying to goad Trump into re-tweeting the something with “white genocide” in it.  In late January 2016, Trump took the bait, retweeting a message that had been directed to him from a user with the handle “@WhiteGenocideTM.” While the content of the tweet was relatively innocuous (a light jab at an opponent), the user’s account was filled with anti-Semitic content and linked to a revisionist biography of Adolf Hitler. More importantly, white nationalists saw this as a much more overt nod from Trump to justify their enthusiasm.

From there, Trump and the alt-right engaged in a nodding and winking relationship that suggested a closeness, even as Trump occasionally and mildly “disavowed” white nationalists like David Duke. (Duke was a relative latecomer to endorsing Trump among white nationalists, but has been an ardent supporter once on board.) The close relationship between Trump and the alt-right has been so widely acknowledged that it even made it into the spoof for SNL.

The relationship was cemented when Trump chose Stephen Bannon, of Breitbart Meida, to run his campaign. Unlike a mainstream GOP operative or campaign strategist who might have suggested a more “presidential tone,” Bannon assured Trump he should stick to his overtly racist messaging. The alt-right rejoiced when Bannon joined the Trump campaign. And, Bannon turned out to be correct about what appealed to voters. Trump’s campaign, from start (Mexicans “are rapists,”) to finish (the anti-Semitic last ad) has used overtly and sometimes not-thinly veiled racist language to appeal to voters. And, white people showed up by the millions to vote for him and his message.

More White Women Voted for Trump than Clinton

Over the next weeks and months, there will be a lot written about the angry white male voter, and deservedly so. But white women voted for Donald Trump, too.

In fact, more white women voted for Donald Trump than for Hillary Clinton. Here’s how white women voted:

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That’s 53% of white women who voted for Trump. There is an official “Women for Trump” website. And, drawing on that as evidence, it doesn’t seem that most of the women who support Trump are concerned with what he has said about (or done to) women. One white woman who supports Trump, Jane Biddick, reportedly said: “Groping is a healthy thing to do. When you’re heterosexual, you grope, okay? It’s a good thing,” (New York Magazine).

White women voted for Trump for the same reasons as white men.  As the Washington Post reported in April 2016. Trump’s rhetoric of “taking back the country” and “banning immigrants” appealed to the white women of the Tea Party. And, a poll from January 2016, found that white women are the angriest voters, angrier even than their male counterparts.

For the most part, mainstream journalists (and documentary filmmakers) miss the reality of the angry white woman who votes GOP because of silly, wrong-headed notions about “womanhood.”   In a related mistake, people often make in thinking about “women voters” is that women are going to vote as a block. It’s a mistake the suffragists made in the early 20th century. They thought once women got the vote, they would all vote the same. Because…. women, you know, shared interests.

But research has shown again and again that class and race are more reliable predictors of voting behavior than gender. In other words, women respond to economic and racial issues in much the same ways as men do. And, if you’re surprised that more white women voted for Trump than for Hillary Clinton, then you haven’t been keeping track of the trouble that white women are in (here’s a guide to the trouble, in case you want to catch up).

Shocking, Frightening… but Not Surprising

The election of Donald Trump is shocking. It is a deep jolt to the soul to realize that a man with no qualifications, no human decency, no compassion, no moral center, is going to be the next president of the U.S.

The election results are also frightening. I fear for all my friends, my chosen family, the people I love, the students I teach, who are among those that Donald Trump wants to stop-and-frisk, deport, exile, ban, and keep out with a wall. I feel the need for better, more practical, skills to enlist in the resistance to a Trump regime. I want MacGyver-like skills to be able to bust my friends out of the camps.  But there is no re-tooling my way out of this fear. It is set to run for four years.

As shocked and frightened as I am, I can’t say that I’m surprised.  I’ve written about the overlap between extremist white supremacy and mainstream politicians for over twenty years (White Lies, 1997). As the groups I studied in the early 1990s moved online, I followed their transition there (Cyber Racism, 2009). So for me, the emergence of an alt-right that’s cleverly used the Internet, or a candidate that’s made deft use of Twitter isn’t surprising.

Trump’s victory should remind us that white supremacy is not new and it is not an aberration. It’s a consistent feature of our political landscape. Yet, there’s a kind of naïveté among some (white) writers covering Trump who are shocked at his success. But we should not be surprised. In the U.S., we cling to an illusion about our inevitable progress away from a past of slavery, Jim Crow segregation and overt racism. Some of us even hoped that electing the first African American president would mean a post-racial era, but the fact that Stormfront’s servers crashed the night Obama was elected should have made us more circumspect about how transformative that was for us as a nation, and who felt left out of those celebrations.

This election, white people — including a majority of white women — voted for a candidate endorsed by the KKK.  This is a mirror.

Researchers Register Voters in County Jails

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Researchers like Christopher Uggen and Jeff Manza have documented the political impact of felony disenfranchisement, the ways in which voting restrictions strip away citizenship, civic engagement, and political participation from Black Americans.  But in our own decade-long research program in Midwestern county jails, we found that even where felony disenfranchisement laws had not stripped the incarcerated of their right to vote, most weren’t aware they still had the right to vote.

So, we decided to get the word out to those who eligible voters who might also be incarcerated. Earlier this year, our research team partnered with a local community organizing agency  to register citizens while they were incarcerated. As a result, we successfully enrolled 14% of minimum and medium security inmates in two county jails in the Kansas City area.

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Ahead of registration deadlines for primary elections last June, we spent 5 days registering voters at the two jails. In late September, we returned and spent another 3 days registering voters ahead of the general election. Our process varied. For instance, in June, people signed up beforehand and were brought to us in a room in the jail in small groups. In September we were instead escorted to common areas within individual housing units, where we were announced by a corrections officer and were then allowed to mingle with inmates and complete registration materials. We don’t know how many people in the facilities were already registered or the number of those who were ineligible. However, we were given access to all units at the minimum and medium security levels and were allowed to speak with any interested inmate, except those in medical isolation or those held in solitary confinement.

 

PEOPLE IN MOST STATES CAN VOTE AFTER A FELONY

The good news is that in most states people can vote after completion of a felony conviction, though many don’t realize it. For example, Anthony Papa who completed his sentence for a conviction under the Rockefeller drug laws, recalls:

“I remember very clearly when I was released from prison and tried to vote and I was turned away.  I felt like I was second class citizen because I was powerless to help fix my south Bronx neighborhood that was deteriorating around me. I had to wait five years until I was off of parole in order to vote. When I was allowed to vote I felt complete and was fully welcomed back by society as a citizen.”

Aggressive sentencing for drug possession and sales over the past three decades has meant that felony disenfranchisement affects 6.1 million U.S. citizens, like Anthony Papa.

Still, many inmates still perceived their voting rights lost forever, even when that wasn’t true. It’s simply not true in Kansas and Missouri and 16 other states where voting rights are restored automatically following completion of a felony sentence. And the right to vote is not lost at all in Missouri and Kansas for those with convictions at less than felony level.  Unfortunately, misperceptions on this point are widespread, making the disenfranchisement of incarcerated persons in our states real even where it is not true.

Many of the inmates with whom we spoke at the jails believed they were ineligible to vote. Indeed, during the first round of registration in June, at one of the facilities we learned that some had been given wrong information even as they were signing up for our event by corrections officers who themselves misunderstood the laws. Lack of awareness about voter eligibility may run several layers deep. Our registration efforts thus meant signing up voters and educating citizens—inmates and jail staff alike—about the fact that in Kansas and Missouri past felony records do not affect voter eligibility. Most of the people we spoke didn’t realize that only four states in the U.S. bar voting after completion of a felony sentence. People in these states who have been impacted by policies are working to spread the word about what it means to permanently disenfranchise past felons.

 

DISENFRANCHISEMENT HITS COMMUNITIES OF COLOR HARDEST

The burden of disenfranchisement falls particularly heavily on Black and Latino citizens. One out of three Black Americans has lost the right to vote due to these laws, compared to 1 out of 56 non-Black voters. Loss of voting rights, however temporarily, is one of the many collateral consequences of policing and sentencing practices that disproportionately target Blacks in the U.S., acting in some sense as a new approach to racial gerrymandering.

 

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In addition to felony disenfranchisement, Blacks face other barriers to full political participation. Missouri voters, for instance, will decide in November on a measure to amend the Missouri constitution to allow the legislature to pass laws requiring state-issued photo identification at polling places. Photo-ID voting laws, which generally require some form of state-issued (e.g., driver’s license, passport, state-issued ID) identification are in place in 32 states. Opponents of photo ID laws point to evidence that state-issued ID requirements to vote would effectively disenfranchise many older and low-income voters, with many arguing that the impacts of new voter restrictions are likely to be felt disproportionately by Black and Latino/a citizens. Courts recently ruling on similar laws in North Carolina and Texas have agreed with this implication, striking down voter ID requirements as racially discriminating in their effect.

Given the de facto disenfranchisement that occurs when citizens are misinformed about their rights, and the equally real threat to voter rights posed by current ballot measures, we were moved to reach out to potential voters in perhaps the most unlikely of settings, local jails. These efforts involved not only registering voters in advance of the primary and general elections, they included coordinating the delivery of absentee ballots for those who knew they’d still be locked up during both elections. We would underscore that our involvement was about registration, engagement, participation—not about specifically whom or what to vote for. However, to the extent that enlarging and enhancing the franchise is itself a partisan act these days, we plead guilty. In this, we were abetted by jail administrators and staff, who also recognized the importance of affirming all citizens in the exercise of their rights. We were further aided by an agency with deep roots in activism around racial justice and voting rights in our community.

 

(Early voters wait in long lines in Clark County, Nevada: Image source)

Racially motivated efforts to suppress the vote in this country are diverse in form and dismayingly frequent. Some efforts, like photo-ID measures, seem obvious; others, like the silence and misinformation around felony disenfranchisement, only slightly less so. For those who believe as we do in the importance of a broad franchise to a racially inclusive, democratic—indeed, a just—system, any efforts to restrict citizen access to the ballot must be met with action. We took an opportunity to use our familiarity with the jails to try to make a difference. We don’t know how many of those we registered will vote, although we requested and were granted contact information from most and will be evaluating outcomes post-election. But our purpose in sharing the experience here is to hopefully prompt others to look at their own networks, look for local openings for organizing and activism—for surely even the smallest, most piecemeal acts of justice-making can be fit to Dr. King’s prophetic arc.

 

 

~ This blog post was co-written by Megha Ramaswamy and Amanda Emerson.  Megha Ramaswamy is an Associate Professor at University of Kansas School of Medicine. She is trained as a sociologist and works as an applied public health researcher in county jails, designing, implementing and evaluating public health programming. Read more about her team’s work here and follow her on Twitter @Vaginographer.

Amanda Emerson is a PhD candidate in the School of Nursing at University of Missouri – Kansas City. Her research interests lie in creative, community-focused public health interventions to reduce health disparity. Amanda also has a PhD in English, her earlier scholarship focusing on the myth of equality in 18th– and 19th-century American literature.