The End of the Postracial Myth
The New York Times Magazine
Pundits are quick to say that it couldn’t be about prejudice in states like Iowa, where Obama voters went for Trump. But racial anxiety is always close to the surface — and can easily be stoked.
On a cold, clear night in January 2008, when Iowa Democrats selected Barack Obama over a white woman and a white man in the state’s first-in-the-nation caucus, the moment felt transformative. If voters in this overwhelmingly white, rural state could cast their ballots for a black man as president, then perhaps it was possible for the entire nation to do what had never been done; perhaps America had turned far enough away from its racist past that skin color was no longer a barrier to the highest office of the land. In the months that followed, as Obama racked up primary victories, not just in the expected cities but also in largely white Rust Belt towns and farming communities, it seemed evidence for many Americans that the nation had finally become “post-racial.”
Of course, that post-racial dream did not last long, and nothing epitomizes the naïveté of that belief more than the election last week of Donald J. Trump. As I watched my home state of Iowa join the red flood that overtook the electoral map last Tuesday, I asked myself the same questions that so many others did: What happened? Why had states that reliably backed Obama — states like Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania — flipped Republican?
I was struck by how quickly white pundits sought to tamp down assertions that race had anything to do with it. It was, it seemed to me, almost a relief to many white Americans that Trump’s victory encompassed so many of the heavily white places that voted for a black man just years before. It was an absolution that let them reassure themselves that Donald Trump’s raucous campaign hadn’t revealed an ugly racist rift after all, that in the end, the discontent that propelled the reality-TV star into the White House was one of class and economic anxiety, not racism.
But this analysis reveals less about the electorate than it does about the consistent inability of many white Americans to think about and understand the complex and often contradictory workings of race in this country, and to discuss and elucidate race in a sophisticated, nuanced way.
While we tend to talk about racism in absolute terms — you’re either racist or you’re not — racism and racial anxiety have always existed on a spectrum. For historians who have studied race in the United States, the change from blue to red in heavily white areas is not surprising. In fact, it was entirely predictable. “There are times when working-class whites, whether rural or urban, will join an interracial alliance to get the short-term gains they want,” Robin Kelley, a history professor at U.C.L.A., told me. “They don’t ever do it without kicking and screaming.”…
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