“Even with Trump’s supporters being 90 per cent white, he was trailing Hillary Clinton because of the demographic diversity in the US. Sadly, the damage he has done to the psyche of both the whites who believed in his delusory “movement” to restore America to its roots, and the minorities he relentlessly denigrated, will outlast him. Meanwhile, the terror of racism lives on, stronger and emboldened than before”, says the author.
The history of the United States is founded on the backs of African slaves purchased and brought to its shores to work in the most abject conditions under white ownership to make colonies more habitable. Human beings were bought and sold like cattle and treated worse than the animals. George Washington, the first President of an independent America, promised to make liberty, equality and justice the bedrock of the nation, but had African slaves working for him. It has been a terrible legacy that America has tried to shake off.
Slavery was subsequently abolished and affirmative action put in place with the rights of blacks and other minorities acknowledged and legitimatized through changes in political and social policy. With the awful past buried, America was ready to move on. With the whites in overwhelming majority, the post-war industrial boom and jobs aplenty, whites sat content at the top of the pyramid. For the middles class upwardly mobile majority, the blacks had been given their rights, and could shape their lives as they pleased as long as they did not encroach on the privileged status of the whites. Matters of race went largely underground. However, racism may have been submerged under a thriving economy but social divisions based on race solidified and were marked by frequent sordid incidents of white against black crime, usually in the Confederate Southern States, where white power still reigned supreme. Since there was no economic insecurity, there was no immediate threat from any minority and the country hummed along, creating millions of jobs in manufacturing, and helping Americans realize their dream that if you work hard, you will always have a job, and the future will be secure. The awareness of race was very much in place, but was not perceived as a political, economic or social threat.
Several factors upended that dream scenario. Waves of immigration from Asia, Mexico and Africa began to change the demographic map. America entered its post-industrial era, where millions of jobs evaporated with the demise of heavy industry and the shift of manufacturing overseas. Previously thriving white dominated swathes became ghost towns, occupied by disaffected jobless poorly educated factory workers. While the new immigrants strived to succeed in their new home, the disillusioned native population became increasingly resentful at the government, at the entitlement policies towards the blacks, the Latinos and other minorities who all began to turn to alcohol and drugs to soothe their discontent.
The Recession of 2008 further exacerbated a situation already teetering on the edge. Middle class whites now began to lose their jobs and fell behind, losing their homes, their security and watching their American Dream shatter with no hope of resuscitation. The recession affected everyone, particularly the minorities already living on the edge but the white majority, facing an unimaginable dire future, needed to assign blame. Consequently, all ignorant white fingers pointed to the immigrants who had stolen their jobs. Furthermore, anger and resentment began to simmer against blacks who they had always believed were intellectually and culturally inferior. Latinos were blamed for swooping the low-paying service jobs, accepting lower wages while the Asians who looked different and appeared to be a cultural and social anomaly, became a formidable threat.
This stupendous rise in the non-white population was unstoppable and now poised to change the political landscape of the country. In came the first black President of the United States, Barack Obama with an overwhelming support from the non-white and educated white population. With his election in 2008, the white elite declared the death of racism, while the uneducated blue-collar whites deepened their resolve to blame the “other” for all their ills. The working class was historically a Democratic stronghold, but the election of a black President was intolerable and presaged the death of white supremacy. This seething racism was legitimized by the conservative media which thrived on projecting Obama as anti-American, a Muslim, a wolf in black clothing, someone to be despised, overturned at the earliest.
The demographic constitution of America had now gone through a sea change. For the first time in the history of the country, children under five are a non-white majority, and it is rightly projected that by 2050 whites will be a minority. In fact, no race or ethnicity will be in majority; the country is moving towards a diverse plurality which is radically reshaping the entire political, socio economic and cultural landscape irreversibly and for the better. But it has also been a catastrophic blow to the demographic hegemony of the whites. To see themselves as an underclass of under educated, in the throes of drugs and alcohol, equalizes them with the blacks who have lived like that for generations. The picture is frightfully real and one that they would do anything to reverse. Contemporary America abounds with the violence of racism. The time, therefore, was ripe for a Presidential candidate like Donald Trump, a blustering bigot to successfully tap into this simmering racial hatred breeding in a bed of economic and social impoverishment, and turn it onto a campaign to restore American greatness to where and how it was when the whites were dominant and color of the skin determined status in life. He gave voice to racism that had been palpably felt but not overtly expressed. He brought differences of race, class and ethnicity to the forefront of the political narrative and underpinned his entire pitch on the divisions. It was the whites against the “other”; the anger was unleashed, and his populist, nativist, demagoguery struck a powerful chord with the disgruntled whites who began to dream of a country they once knew. Racism was once again legitimized and the country riven by serious divisions.
Even with Trump’s supporters being 90 per cent white, he was trailing Hillary Clinton because of the demographic diversity in the US. Sadly, the damage he has done to the psyche of both the whites who believed in his delusory “movement” to restore America to its roots, and the minorities he relentlessly denigrated, will outlast him. Meanwhile, the terror of racism lives on, stronger and emboldened than before.
(The author is a Professor in the Department of English & Cultural Studies, Panjab University, Chandigarh)