In many ways political campaigns are like pop songs–they need a hook, a central point, image, or mood that animates them and drives them forward. For Obama it was the image (if, ultimately, not the substance) of Hope and Change at at time when the economy was collapsing and America’s image abroad was thoroughly tarnished. For the Republicans in ’94, it was the “Contract with America“; Reagan struck a similar tone in 1984: “Morning in America“–both this and Gingrich’s Contract were meant to invoke a return to past stability and prosperity.
What do we have this time around? Interestingly enough, for the Clinton campaign, race has played a major role. In some ways, this is not surprising: her husband was famously the “first black president” and both Clintons have long polled well with with African-Americans (and at times other ethnic minorities). Furthermore, the GOP nominee is especially abrasive when it comes to race, even for a Republican: Donald Trump has made xenophobia against Mexican- and Central-Americans, as well as friction, to say the least, with black protesters, central to his campaign. With such an opponent, it makes sense that Clinton would try to play on the anxieties of people of color to boost electoral chances.
But the story of Clinton’s race-strategy isn’t as simple as this. Her campaign and its many proponents did not begin to portray her as the anti-racist candidate only after the primaries were over. Race featured as a major issue in the Democratic primaries, with the campaign itself and many in the media suggesting that much of the support for Bernie Sanders was itself animated by white anxiety or even outright racism. Unlike with Trump, this accusation lacked any real basis apart from some irresponsible fidgeting with polling data.
For one, Sanders had many people of color endorse him. Secondly, he did as well or better with young people of color as did Clinton; it was only older POC who supported Clinton by large margins. Third, and most substantively, Clinton is on record for supporting a range of policies and laws that disproportionately harm POC–the omnibus ’94 crime bill and the welfare “reform” act of ’96 being the most infamous.
All of this considered, it’s not obvious that Clinton should necessarily receive the mantle as the champion of minority causes. And yet she has positioned herself as just that, and, by and large, most of the major media outlets have not questioned her on this (though some smaller outlets have). Now, explaining this phenomenon en toto could fill volumes of books, and ultimately would require an expertise I lack. There are a host of questions around political messaging, grassroots leadership, demographic trends, etc. that would have to be asked and answered to really get at the heart of this seeming paradox. Nonetheless, there is one dimension of this situation that I think especially needs to be discussed both because of its immediate relevance and its structural impact.
In short, Clinton’s successful posturing as the POC champion is linked to the way that journalists tend to talk about racism in this country: racism is the result of the ignorance of poor white people (it should here be noted that poor white people are actually more likely to vote for Clinton in any event–a fact which only underscores the deceptiveness of this whole narrative). You see this narrative everywhere, and its has deep roots. It’s apparent in Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s clear in the coverage of Donald Trump’s support. It’s always in the background, framing the way we talk about race. Indeed, “racism” and “ignorance” almost always come as a package deal whenever the issue comes up in American discourse on these topics.
Now, undoubtedly, ignorance plays a central role in racist attitudes. But it does not play an exclusive one, and it’s all the things that are left out of this common analysis of racism that I think we need to talk about more.
First and foremost, racism-as-ignorance presents racism as a sort of massive and unfortunate accident, as if white supremacy just happened due to the lack of good schooling in the early colonies. And this presentation is intentional, because it fundamentally lets well-educated (and wealthy) whites off the hook. The actual fact of the matter–that white supremacy was and is a culture and ideology explicitly designed by wealthy and well-educated whites to justify slavery and the theft of land from Native Americans–is obscured by linking racism and ignorance in a linear and one-to-one fashion.
Another way of making this point is to say this: racism was developed, and encouraged, and it thrived, and became hegemonic, because it was profitable. The political-economic circumstances of North America were rather unique: a massive amount of arable land was available (though by no means uninhabited) for exploitation, but there was insufficient labor to grow cash crops (like cotton and tobacco). So a) the indigenous people needed to be either transformed into cheap laborers or removed and b) massive amounts of labor needed to be relocated to the colonies. Early efforts by European governments and land-owners generally employed actual purchases to achieve the first goal, and indentured servitude to achieve the second. But neither of these worked quickly, cheaply, or completely enough. White supremacy was the stone that killed both birds. It justified ever-more rapid and violent displacement of Native Americans as well as the permanent enslavement of black Africans as chattel–itself an innovation in the laws and concepts of enslavement.
All of this is to say that racism was generated not by ignorance, but by a savvy–but also demonic–understanding of how agriculture functioned as a business. Natives Americans and Africans alike were nothing more than resources to moved, employed, and destroyed, depending on the wishes of property-owners.
White supremacy, of course, also had another vital function: it provided the necessary wedge to keep working-class and peasant whites from organizing with Native Americans or Africans. And this wedge was not only of theoretical value, since the 17th century witnessed a number of uprisings in which people of all three groups united to attack landowners. In regards to the poor white population, white supremacy functions in the classic divide-and-conquer strategy: under this culture and ideology, even the poorest, least-respected white has a dignity not afforded to any non-white. Such a white person perceives himself as having a place, a status, in the system–and something to lose if it were challenged–and therefore will act to uphold it, even if doing so is inimical to his own long-term material interests.
This latter point does bring us back to the issue of ignorance: how poor white people were and still are tricked into supporting policies that are not helpful to them through the ideology of white supremacy. But to treat this situation as simple “ignorance” is to ignore what’s actually going on. To lay the blame for white supremacy on the ignorance of poor whites is to act as if these people could and should know better, but due to their own sloth or inattention, simply haven’t figured the truth out. In fact–and of course–these people are actively deceived, have been and are continually barraged by propaganda, explicit and implicit, to keep them ignorant. You might as well tie a handkerchief around someone’s eyes and blame them for being blind.
That’s not to say that those poor whites who accept racist arguments bear no responsibility for their own beliefs, expression, and actions. But to lay the blame completely and exclusively on them simpliciter is deceptive in the extreme. And this brings us back to the concrete axis of this discussion: the Clintons have been more than happy to benefit from white supremacy when they could; they only posture against it when they think it will be to their advantage. Let’s not forget Bill’s (and Hillary’s) statements about “super-predators” in ’94, or the eagerness with which he executed Ricky Ray Rector in ’92. Likewise, let’s not overlook Hillary’s own eagerness to bomb POC in Libya, in Yemen, in Pakistan, in Palestine–as well as her own vocal support for the above-mentioned actions of her husband when he was in office.
If the Clintons’ opponents are overtly racist (as right now), they tack to the left, adopting the language of the civil rights movement and layering themselves with a thin veneer of concern. But if their opponents already sit to the left of them on such issues, they instead engage in dog-whistle politics, scaring middle-class whites into support of their centrist triangulation.
Now, supporters of Clinton’s are likely to counter at this point–well, actually, much earlier than this point–that none of this is relevant since Clinton is clearly preferable to Trump on any number of issues, race especially. And this is the frustrating wall that one always hits when criticizing the Democrats from the left: one’s opponents will argue with you until you actually bring up your evidence, at which point they switch to the with-us-or-against-us rhetorical tactics, suggesting that any criticism of Clinton is necessarily support for Trump.
But this is just pure nonsense. One might as well suggest (insert pithy remark on Godwin’s Law here) that to criticize Winston Churchill’s chauvinistic attitude towards the British Empire and his conservative values in domestic policy is somehow tantamount to supporting Hitler, because those two found themselves in conflict during World War II. But in truth, I can have criticisms of both without that criticism, in any way, shape, or form, implying any support for their rival. Of course it will be the case that my criticisms of Hitler are much more severe and firmly held than my criticisms of Churchill, but that doesn’t mean for a moment that I should refuse to criticize the latter.
And this is what is so frustrating about such discussions with Clinton-supporters. They see facts, if those facts reflect poorly on Clinton, as pro-Trump, and therefore inadmissible, despite their status as, well…factual.
Of course, as a leftist, my critique of Clinton is not meant to hurt her chances in this general election–I earnestly, if un-enthusiastically, hope she wins. Rather, the goal of such critiques from the left is to indict the whole set of assumptions which undergird the contemporary American political mainstream. When Clinton is the “leftist” option, we should know we are in trouble, and however much it might make sense for us to support Clinton in the short-term, we also need to be building consciousness to effect change in the long-term that pulls the Overton Window to the left.
Some Clinton-supporters may fundamentally agree, but then argue that we should reserve such conversations to non-election years so as to not damage the Democrats’ chances at election. The problem, of course, is that, first off, many Americans only really engage in political discourse in the months leading up to elections, and, secondly, in the off-years, the parties are focused on fund-raising and backroom deals. Election years may be the only time when leftists can get attention from both politically-disengaged citizens and the Democratic Party itself–the first because of the increased coverage of all things political at such times and the latter because of their anxiety over vote margins.
White supremacy is not some sui generis phenomenon that arises, like a fungus, from the woeful ignorance of poor white people. It has been and is an intentional strategy of propertied whites, a cultural technology (to use an academic term du jour) designed to justify horrific exploitation of people of color and, even at times, some poor whites as well. “Liberals” as well as “conservatives” have been happy to use it when it suits them, and critique it when it doesn’t. The Clinton campaign may have invited an undocumented woman and her daughter on-stage at the convention, but there’s no doubt that a Clinton administration will be deporting hundreds of thousands of such immigrants in 2017. Rhetoric is not substance. We need to see through this political posturing, recognize the real causes of exploitation and oppression, and organize to end them. Supporting Clinton may be a perfectly acceptable short-term tactical maneuver, but in the long-term, it is a strategic dead-end.