Thanks to the candidacy of Donald J. Trump, the 2016 presidential election has become a national referendum on racism. When Americans elected Barack Obama in 2008 many hoped that it signaled the long-promised denouement of white supremacy. But for many others, Obama’s presidency represented their worst nightmares realized. Now, as Mychal Denzel Smith observed recently about Trump: “He is the backlash.” Or, as comedian Larry Wilmore frames it, the Unblackening of the White House has begun.
But Trump’s appeal is not really new. In fact, it’s as old as the United States.
Beginning in 1790, the US made white skin a prerequisite for citizenship. This hateful pigment bias established white skin as the norm for US citizens. By making whiteness the norm, the founders categorized non-white skin as a type of deviance. This is not just history. In 2015, a federal judge reaffirmed as recently as 2015.
This means that, for people of color, even the simple act of appearing in public constitutes a form of anti-normative criminality. The fact that people of color are vastly overrepresented in US prisons in large part because they are more likely to be perceived by law enforcement as “incorrigible recidivists.”
How could a nation that touts itself as “the world’s greatest democracy” equate non-white skin with criminal deviance?
Emile Durkheim, a founder of sociology, argued that every society constructs its own definitions of deviance. Deviance functions as a type of social glue. It works by lionizing those who comply with social norms and stigmatizing those who don’t. The US’s European settler-colonialists incorporated an ethnocentric preference for white skin into the political substrate of American democracy and designated everyone else ‘deviant.’
These European settler-colonialists wanted to claim ownership of an entire continent that was already occupied. If Europeans were going to make a home for themselves in North America, they would either have to share the continent with its original inhabitants, or they would have to murder millions of indigenous people and steal their land.
Although Native Americans may have been willing to co-exist, Europeans weren’t keen on the idea of sharing. They were keen on the idea of plunder. So, Europeans invented the ludicrous fiction of white nativism. White nativism is the notion that light-skinned Europeans are North America’s true natives. As the true natives, whites are deserving of all that plunder. Or, so the fiction goes.
White nativists have constructed a range of prejudices for different groups of people in the US. White nativists enacted genocide against Native Americans, instituted slavery, established Jim Crow, and devised mass incarceration for African Americans. White Nativists have also excluded Chinese immigrants from the US, interned Japanese Americans and have treated Latinos as if they were all illegal immigrants. More recently, white nativists have openly contemplated a national ban on Muslims. Through these mechanism the US has celebrated whiteness and denigrated those with relatively more skin pigment.
Donald Trump takes pleasure in fomenting racism for his own political gain. Given Trump’s nauseating popularity as a 2016 presidential candidate, it is also obvious that many Americans share Trump’s white nativist tendencies. Since entering the 2016 presidential race, each time Trump has uttered a despicably racist comment his popularity with the American public has increased.
Donald Trump wants to take America back to the days when privileged white racists got their jollies by terrorizing people of color. Sadly, a passionate cadre of fellow racists want to help Donald Trump set civil rights back a century. It doesn’t have to be like this.
If Americans really love democracy, then they — and by that I mean we — can and must dismantle white supremacist racism. And we need to start dismantling racism today.
In our book, A Formula for Eradicating Racism, Earl Smith and I argue that Americans can terminate the climate of sadism that inspires white supremacist racism by erasing the Three-Fifths Compromise from the US Constitution and replacing it with a universal declaration of human equality.
We could, as a nation, choose to do this. Other countries, including South Africa, have embraced human rights as part of their foundational tenets.
Or, we could elect Donald Trump. If America elects Trump, a candidate now endorsed by the likes of former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke, we’ll have no one to blame but ourselves.
Register. Vote. And tell your non-Trump-voting friends and family to do likewise.
~ Professor Tim McGettigan teaches sociology at Colorado State University-Pueblo and he writes books about social change. Most recently, he is the co-author, with Earl Smith, of A Formula for Eradicating Racism: Debunking White Supremacy.