White Bodies, Brown Bodies: The Presidential Election and After

Critics, pundits, bloggers, and just about everyone with a pulse and a social media account have taken to the public sphere to explain how Hillary Clinton, the most unpopular candidate ever to win the popular vote, lost the presidential election to Donald Trump, the most unpopular person ever to occupy the executive branch. Blame was evenly distributed but didn’t explain much. Although data indicated that the median income of the Trump voter was $72,000, it was the fault of the white working class. It was also the fault of anyone without a college education as well as rural whites. Rural whites make up a paltry 17% of the entire electorate. Rural whites haven’t supported a Democratic candidate since the south was a one party system and Franklin Roosevelt was president.

It was white women’s fault because more white women voted for Trump than Hillary. However, more white women voted for Mitt Romney over Barak Obama four years ago, just as more white women voted for John McCain over Obama in 2008, which means that white women simply voted like white women have in recent elections when the Democrat’s candidate won. It was the fault of blacks because blacks cast fewer ballots in 2016 than in the previous two elections. Republicans managed to suppress minority voters with racist Voter ID Laws and other implicit racist tactics, such as supplying limited voting machines in minority precincts. Only stalwart leftist magazines like the New Republic pointed out that Trump’s support was found in the upper and middle class white suburbs, comprised of the very people who thrived after the recession, and were not affected by the last few decades of deindustrialization. On the positive side, it may have been the first time no one blamed black women for an undesirable outcome.

I’m not here to add to the cacophony of the blame game of why Hillary lost. It’s not very productive. I am here to advocate for the importance of the body as an independent variable. Bodies have agency in the sense that bodies exert an affect over political outcomes. I’ve done so elsewhere. I’ve explained how exercising power over one’s body can produce changes in others and how the performativity of protests can fuse protesters with audiences.

I’ve explained how the tension between racially threatening and racially non-threatening bodies continue to hinder struggles for racial equality and how good white bodies are an integral part of the neoliberal project. Others have as well. Marion Klawiter explained how different fields of contention formed around the bodies of breast cancer survivors and breast cancer victims. The events leading up to the 2016 election and waves of post-election protests provide an opportunity think how a network of white bodies formed a racist white meta-public in relation a profaned meta-public comprised of brown bodies, sick bodies, trans bodies, migrant bodies, and the bodies of refugees.

The formation of a racist white meta-public illustrates the fluid nature of America’s racialized social structure. Systemic racism captures how the many interconnected elements of society are held together by a singular logic of white racial dominance. The theory of systemic racism does more than explain how racial oppression is at the core of American society. It also explains the causal effect racism has in creating and maintaining interlocking white institutions, and traces the historical patterns of elite white power, including how elites responds to various forms of black civic inclusion. White and brown bodies link elite whites with ordinary whites because they are part of a cultural framework known as the white racial frame. The white racial frame is an overarching “white world view” that “encompasses a broad and persisting set of racial stereotypes, prejudices, ideologies, images, interpretations and narratives, emotions, and reactions to language accents, as well as racialized inclinations to discriminate.” Racialized bodies anchor racist meanings into publics. The body is a form of communication at the visual and affective level that communicates political meanings, narratives, and myths, and in turn, connects audiences with distinct and otherwise unconnected publics. Audiences read publics as sympathetic, dangerous, or subversive; as sacred or profane; as good or bad. Rather than use history to break down or ‘deconstruct’ the origins of elite white power, I prefer the analytical framework of assemblages to explain how the white racial frame operates like a web of racist meanings that connect publics with economic policy, with geography, and with police brutality.

Publics and public spheres have to be created. They do not simply exist, waiting around for us to enter. Judith Butler’s recent entry into the debates around performativity and assemblages explains the relationship between bodies and the making of publics. As Butler explained, bodies still come together with the streets to form a public,

No one body establishes the space of appearance, but this action, this performative exercise happens only between bodies, in a space that constitutes the gap between my own body and another’s. In this way, my body does not act alone, when it acts politically. Indeed, the action emerged from the between.

Publics are the means for marginalized groups to get their demands for equality into the broader political agenda. Publics make invisible groups and invisible bodies visible. In turn, Butler notes that the process of making a public “contests the distinction between public and private.” Butler, always the eternal optimist, imagines how an assemblage of a public can grant marginalized bodies a political voice. I’m not so optimistic. Marginalized groups have a limited control over how audiences respond to their claims. In the neoliberal era, the visibility of marginalized bodies triggers a white backlash — especially when racialized and other threatening bodies are visible.

The key site of political struggle in the contemporary public sphere has increasingly shifted from a discursive struggle to a corporeal one. The white and brown body is the visual cue that provides the initial reading of the public. In the current digital age of rapid news feeds made up of staged photo-ops, selfies, memes, gifs, scrolls, likes, and swipes — talk is downplayed. The importance of corporeal politics has increased in the digital age. The question is not just how embodied performances create publics, but rather, how elites and ordinary citizens bind and fail to bind heterogeneous publics together. The binding of heterogeneous publics illustrates the assemblage of a meta-public. Thus, meta-public is not simply comprised of a network of specific publics. It also captures an outcome, a dependent variable if you’ll have it, which is the current political climate.

Our current political climate is defined by the relationship between racism and neoliberalism. In Race and the Origins of Neoliberalism, I explained how the conditions for the neoliberal project were forged in the white response to the civil rights movement. A unified white response was made possible by what I dubbed the language of neoliberalism, or white-private/black-public. The language of neoliberalism refers to the assemblage of language around the signifiers of white, black, public, and private. Rather than divide the world into simple black and white categories, the form of racism that sustains neoliberalism is the result of combining the signifiers white-private and black-public. For example, elites weave together a thread of white-private-taxes to distort the perception of who ‘owns’ public resources, and a separate thread of white-private-security to define who is comforted by the expanded police and military presence. On the flip side, elites assemble a black-public-taxes sequence to define who benefits from public resources in order to rally support for privatizing our social welfare system. The language of neoliberalism expands in a non-linear fashion, existing at the center of a web of meanings connecting racism with deregulation, privatization, austerity, and taxation.

The current racist white meta-public grew out of the white response to real instances of racial integration. To give a brief historical example, let’s trace the white response to black inclusion since the civil rights movement. Political audiences and political parties have been segregated since the end of the civil rights movement. Lyndon Johnson was the last Democratic president to win the majority of the white vote. In the early 1970s Richard Nixon foresaw the existence of the Voting Rights Act as a political marker that would drive disaffected white voters to the Republican Party. The Republican Party was soon comprised of whites who responded to tax increases with tax revolts, integrated schools with white flight, black women receiving AFDC benefits with welfare queen stories, and growing black urban poverty with incarceration. The result was the nationalization of the neoliberal project through tax cuts, banking deregulation, private prisons, and cuts to AFDC.

Since the nationalization of the neoliberal project in 1979, each white response triggered an additional wave of neoliberal reforms. Republican’s rallied white voters against the 1993 Motor Voter Act via the myth of fraudulent black voter. Along with strategic gerrymandering, Republicans took control of congress in 1994, setting the stage for banking and pharmaceutical deregulations, and the privatization of social welfare. The Bush presidency began with a series of tax cuts for the wealthy. The terrorist attacks on 9/11 corresponded with a rise of white nationalism in relation to Arab bodies to justify war abroad. State’s continued to privatize prisons and public schools throughout the 2000s. It took the near collapse of America’s financial institutions and the mobilization of black voters to elect Barak Obama. Even then, Obama’s signature policy, the Affordable Health Care Act, was a system of privatized insurance. The federal government subsidizes private health care companies and private citizens to create the private health exchange market. The white response to Obama’s election was a combination of conspiracy theories about where he was born, the uber-neoliberal Tea Party that supports the complete privatization of public institutions, and states with a large minority population and a republican governor passed laws to limit minority votes, such as Voter ID laws.

The elite and middle class white response to the increased visibility of brown bodies since Obama’s second term led to the assemblage of the current meta-public. I define brown bodies as Arab bodies, black bodies, latino/a bodies, and Muslims bodies. In every case, the brown body serves as the focal point to influence the audience response to the public. Depending on the audience, a public of black bodies protesting police brutality can be a demand for reform or a riot. As the collection of local anti-racism and anti-police brutality groups assembled under the tag line #Blacklivesmatter, whites responded with their own tag line: #Bluelivesmatter. #Bluelivesmatter was not just a defense of the police. It was an affirmation of white supremacy, of racial discrimination, of legitimating the state violence against marginalized brown bodies.

The brown body provided a figurative focal point for middle class whites’ to link their own domestic anxieties with global and economic changes. The brown body is always nomadic — a stateless actor — that threatens white borders and steals white jobs. The visibility of Arab and Muslim bodies define the terrorist public that threatens whites’ sense of security. White Christian terrorists, white men and their guns and homemade bombs, are responsible for the overwhelming number of domestic terrorist acts. Yet, whites do not demand deporting other whites, they do not criminalize Christianity, and they do not place restrictions on easy gun access. The visibility of latino/a bodies connects legal and illegal immigration with global economic insecurity. Deindustrialization, driven by a combination of increased use of robots and automation in manufacturing, federal tax policies that supported relocation of firms from the northeast and great lakes region to right to work states in the south, the recent popularity disruptive business practices, and the privatization of social welfare since the 1980s, has eroded the value of real wages in the United States. It was not Mexican immigrants. But bodies carry mythologies that are more potent than data driven facts when influencing political ideology.

Brown bodies create different publics than trans bodies. Trans bodies subvert and undermine the gendered world order. The bathroom is reconstituted as a public as trans bodies come together to demand open access and equal use of a facility designed simply to relocate bodily wastes to a sewer treatment facility. The social conservative response to visibility of trans bodies was to assemble a new anti-gender equality public dominated by the bodies of heteronormative white men. The new anti-gender equality public linked with other publics: anti-black, anti-immigration, and anti-Arab. It was the affirmation of patriarchy via men’s ownership of women’s bodies. When pro-trans activists hold signs that read “It was never about bathrooms” I have a feeling the social conservatives concur.

Does the process of assembling a meta-public exist on the left? Clinton jammed the various racist, neo-nazi, sexist, and homophobic publics into a single alt-right public, or basket of deplorables. But the left has been unsuccessful in linking the alt-right with neoliberalism, which in my humble opinion must be done. This may indicate how the left’s inability to think of an alternative political and economic project to neoliberalism leaves them unable to create links with other publics. Or it may indicate that elite whites in the Democratic Party who’ve benefited from neoliberalism over the years aren’t as liberal and progressive as they think they are. It’s an empirical question.

This essay is modified from an earlier version published on the ASA Body & Embodiment Blog

Randolph Hohle, is Assistant Professor, Sociology, Fredonia, SUNY. His books include Black Citizenship and Authenticity in the Civil Rights Movement (Routledge, 2013) and Race and the Origins of Neoliberalism (Routledge, 2015). His upcoming book, Racism in the Age of Neoliberalism: A Meta History of Elite White Power in the United States, (Routledge, forthcoming). He can be reached at Randolph.Hohle@fredonia.edu; his website is Randolphohle.wordpress.com