‘This was a whitelash.’ Political commentator Van Jones pulled no punches on election night as he sought to nail the reasons for Trump’s victory. ‘This was a whitelash against a changing country. It was a whitelash against a black president.’
The phrase was picked up by the chatterati, including Polly Toynbee in The Guardian, who lamented through the lens of class how privileged popularists had used race and immigration to turn poor against poor.
Let us not indulge the Angry White Man, others added. We need to hear and address their concerns around job losses and industrial decline for sure, but educated liberals must not subjugate their noble ideals to placate ignorance and prejudice. We know better!
The US election, and the Black Lives Matter movement, has allowed the British commentariat to discuss race issues from a safe distance across the ocean. Yet ‘over here’ the typical reaction to Brexit just a few months ago was flat denial that anti-immigration sentiments meant the white working class were racist.
A large chunk of British commentary on the US assumes that racial divides are ‘over there’ not closer to home. A white American shouting ‘take our country back’ is evidence of racism, but a white Brit uttering the exact same words is merely a reflection of pressures on local services caused by immigration.
Progressives are criticising ‘Post-truthers’ – people who reject evidence and of experts – in the Trump election post mortem. Yet what is more post-truth than ignoring stark evidence of unequal racial outcomes right under your own nose or failing to challenge the forces stoking white fears of disadvantage?
The equalities watchdog and the United Nations released damning reports after Brexit looking at the extent of structural and institutional racism in the UK, but this was ignored by those now standing up for ‘the truth’.
In Britain condemnation of explicit racism, such as the spike in hate crime, has long taken precedence over acknowledgment of systemic racism, which is explained away through a class and social mobility perspective.
A new report has highlighted how white working class boys lag behind in school exam results, the latest in a string of such studies. Yet time and again the issue is discussed in isolation from the fact that the white working class overtake all black and minority ethnic groups in employment.
The acres of newsprint dedicated to portraying white working class children as victims of the education system is itself underpinned by an unspoken resentment at past efforts to raise the educational attainment of BME pupils. Look, all this politically correct focus on black kids has left white kids behind, the coverage dogwhistles into white ears.
Ignoring evidence of massive systemic racial discrimination in work while concentrating on perceived unfairness towards white children not only fosters white resentment and victimhood but also assumes that any instance of white people being below people of colour is wrong and against the natural order, whereas the reverse is the acceptable norm.
The British political class might be grappling with the concept of an American ‘whitelash’ but they really should pay more attention to white walls that keeps their own spaces both white and middle class. The worlds of broadsheet columnists, opinion formers and think tankers uphold the natural order of racial unfairness and lack of social mobility by ignoring the evidence.
It is easier to note disapprovingly of how Trump’s victory was welcomed by European neo-fascists like Marine le Pen and white supremacists like David Duke, ex-leader of the Klu Klux Klan, than it is to acknowledge one is personally benefiting from a system which maintains racial division through persistent barriers that hold down people of colour.
The difference between wearing or waving the confederate flag and calling a black person the n-word in the Deep South, and working in an all-white office while living in a mostly all-white neighbourhood in multicultural London, boils down to power and manners as much as geography. But the effect can be just as pernicious.
‘Give me an open racist over a closet racist any day’ is a phrase I have heard many a time. The silent majority are not the white working class – as every loud British radio talkshow demonstrates – but are in fact the white middle class, a group as anxious to protect their advantage as the white working class are to protect ‘their’ jobs from new arrivals.
Ex-Channel 4 journalist Paul Mason wrote that Trump’s appeal was based on the sub-text ‘we’ll reimpose segregation on black America’ and rightly called this out as white supremacy. The question is whether this strategy was formed to capitalise on existing white fear and resentment, brewed by the likes of Fox News over the eight years of Obama’s presidency, or whether Trump’s white supremacy was a project in its own right waiting for the right time and personality to deliver it, is hard to judge.
Political reporter Jamelle Bouie wrote that Trump had ‘forged a politics of white tribalism, and white people embraced it.’ That gives Trump too much credit; white tribalism was not made by Trump. It already existed in America as it does in Britain.
The forces that unleashed the spike in post-Brexit hate crime were not suddenly conjured up by UKIP during the referendum but were simmering over many decades before a bit of extra heat made the pot boil over.
The Angry White Man had been angry for some time. The absence of his condition being addressed by a progressive narrative of economic and political redistribution has instead been filled by a high cholesterol diet of hate in the Daily Express and Daily Star.
Trump and Farage are sometimes described as nationalists. Yet they are all too willing to make common cause with likeminds from other countries who share their skin colour. The interaction and kinship between these ‘nationalists’ make them internationalists motivated more by identity than sovereignty. It makes them willing to share ideas with foreigners who look and think like them while proclaiming ‘America first’, ‘Britain first’ or ‘France first’.
If the whitelash was a solely an American reaction borne of rustbelt decline and dislike of growing racial diversity or having a black president why are similar movements growing simultaneously across the West, all supported by rich media moguls?
The hard Right and far Right have been on the march for some time. They run Hungary, will pose a major threat in the French presidential elections next year, and are rising across Europe. Only UKIP’s incompetency burst their own bubble but the seeds of resentment have been sown here too.
The apparent inability of the political class to challenge myths, call out racism by its’ name, tackle the concept of white tribalism, recognise systemic and institutional racism, understand white supremacy, or pay attention to mounting evidence of racial unfairness and unequal outcomes afflicting people of colour have all contributed to the current crisis on both sides of the Atlantic.
The angry working class whitelash is a coin that has the imprint of middle class white advantage on the flip side. It is a coin guaranteed to never come up trumps for people of colour, or indeed for radical economics that favour the poor. It is a currency that trades on keeping the race gap in employment, feeding white working class resentment and fear, and expanding the wealth gap for the have-yachts.
My definition of white supremacy is that whole system. The whitelash, a necessary part of maintaining it.
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Lester Holloway is writing in a personal capacity. He tweets at @brolezholloway