The question this post wants to answer is why does racism produce for many white Americans such sheer sensations of pleasure? Stephanie Keith
On Monday CNN published an op-ed from the novelist Andrea Portes titled, “Dear White women, let’s not fall for Trump’s racist bet on us.” Portes put her whole heart into the piece, but, sadly, it amounts only to a song directed at a choir of white women like her. The white women who feel her are already made of the stuff that can vaporize Trump’s attraction before it reaches in and grasps the core from which the white-power passions are excited.
Polling shows White women favored Trump in 2016, but that enough of them turned out to help Democrats win the House two years later. Quite simply, Trump, trailing among all women in the polls for the moment, cannot win a second time without them.
I’m a White woman, and the truth is I’m moderate—a Democrat, but fairly moderate. I understand that it can seem like much of the Democratic left is overly concerned with who is the most politically correct. I’m annoyed by elements of cancel culture, too. And I’m probably not that woke. At least, not woke enough for some.
Okay, we get it. Some of Trump can get in the mind, but not enough to take control of the soul, the core, the being of being-here. But how is Trump able to get to the core of so many white women, and even more white men? It is, as I said in another post, racism. And it’s not just that you are racist, but, more importantly, racism actually turns you on. It flips a switch. You feel comfortable there.
The question this post wants to answer is why does racism produce for many white Americans such sheer sensations of pleasure? The joy is negative. Meaning, the answer that makes the most sense about this kind of “structure of feeling” (feeling good because the president is openly racist and openly attacking immigrants of color) is what Public Enemy called “fear of a black planet.”
The first thing we have to understand is there is nothing in nature that can explain why a person whose skin is culturally coded as black and one whose skin is culturally coded as white should have an encounter that from the get-go is a bad encounter. The widespread persistence of the idea that a founding encounter between racially different people would be mutually negative is nothing more than the imposition of modern racial ideology on the past. Even the European anthropological record is filled with Edenic encounters that were inspired more by curiosity than bellicosity. And if not curiosity, confusion. We see some of this confusion in the details of the Mutiny on the Bounty.
So, the next question to ask is: What is a racist ideology? This question brings up the ape-human army that Stalin apparently wanted to create. His thinking was: Humans are just too soft. What he imagined was an animal that did not think twice when following orders. The human always needs a reason to make sense of an action. Meaning, an action, such as taking the life of another human, needs to be justified. We were the justice ape. And so, the exploitation of black labor violently taken from Africa needed to be justified in some way. The leading justification turned out of be: Blacks are inferior, and so working for whites in a white country was better than being a savage in an African kingdom. How can you beat that?
It was something. Or, it was more than enough to keep the slave trade going for four centuries. But here I want to take a turn that might surprise some readers. And this turn is inspired by a theory sketched out in 2009 by the American philosopher Susan Buck-Morss. It is this: The world today does not consider with any seriousness the powerful impact of the Haitian revolution on the minds of whites in America and Europe. Morss thinks it even inspired one of the most famous pieces of philosophical writing in the 19th century, the “Lordship and Bondage” chapter in Georg Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit.
What am I getting at? The fact that Haiti, a capitalist slave-labor economy, was overwhelmed by black power really shook (as in the shook ones) slave owners in the American South (and observers in Europe). Clearly, the root of the problem itself was this: the island had too many blacks. From the website Slavery and the Haitian Revolution: “Saint Domingue (later Haiti)… had 500,000 slaves, 32,000 whites, and 28,000 free black.” Those numbers can easily explain why Haiti became the first black nation in the Western Hemisphere. But free Haitians did not have it so easy after overthrowing their white owners. France imposed on the country a massive debt (for lost property, which is what the freed slaves were) that required nearly 150 years to pay back.
Let’s let that sink in for a minute. And then take a step back. The interesting thing to track in this historical development is the large population of black slaves. What we can have no doubt about is that the white American South tracked these events with their own growing black population in mind. It put them in a spot. Their economy was heavily dependent on that massive black population, and the capitalist system only works if stagnation is avoided. It must grow and grow. A stable black population, or declining one, would have crashed this form of American capitalism.
It is here the details of a demographic danger must have become vivid in the imaginations not only of the masters of the profit-driven slave economy but most white Americans in the Union. The contradiction was maddening. The push for more profits demanded more black bodies, but more black bodies came with the risk of increasing the power of black resistance. With the slave trade pretty much over by the 1830s, there were only two solutions to the contradiction, which is one of many in the history of the system we still find ourselves in, capitalism.
One, make slavery less brutal; two, make it more brutal. The former would have softened the slaves, and made their revolutionary resolve harder to cement. The consequences of this decision are not hard to imagine: the proletarianization of blacks in the first half of the 19th century, the transformation of the status of inflowing black African labor into one that resembled that of immigrants, the gradual enhancements of basic black rights.
The latter (more brutality) would have kept the existing slave system growing by escalating the exploitation of the black population like never before: longer work, harder work, more nothing for all of this unpaid work. As expected, the masters choose the latter. The black population in the South between 1800 and 1860 was flat (30% of the total population). But productivity increased so much that, according to Thomas Piketty, a French economist, by “1860, the market value of slaves exceeded 250 percent of the annual income of the southern states and came close to 100 percent of the annual income of all the states.”
Piketty’s new book Capital and Ideology has lots to say about American slavery and the Civil War, which he maintains was caused not by airy fairy moral feelings but the westward and violent expansion of the country. Abraham Lincoln wanted the new states to be organized along the lines of the ones in the North and not the South. The South feared this would lead to their isolation and extinction. I do not agree with this assessment, but with the one made in 2007 by the British-based South Korean economist Ha-Joon Chang. In his book, Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism, Chang points to the issue of free trade as the Civil War’s prime mover.
The North wanted to industrialize, but this was only possible if tariffs were raised. (The story of Alexander Hamilton, the father of “infant industry” protectionism, plays an important role in this reading of the period.) The South did not want to raise tariffs but to import goods from their trading partners in Europe. The North wanted not to be stuck in an economy based on agricultural exports to industrial Britain. The Republican Party was cooked up to present a political challenge to the power of agrarian capitalism. Lincoln went to war with the South not for the slaves but for the industrialists. Chang: “Disagreement over trade policy, in fact, was at least as important as, and possibly more important.” Piketty makes no mention about this well-documented trade disagreement, but he does provide lots of demographic information about Haiti, the US South, Brazil, and other countries that capitalized slave labor.
Piketty, however, does not transform this information into a concept about post-Civil War US, or about 20th century US history. But the concept that can be assembled from the data of slave capitalism in his book is obviously this: Since the Haitian revolution, there has been a real white fear not so much of the loss of racial purity but of power by sheer numbers. The talk about white purification is in essence demographic. White Americans did not have to fear blacks if they were the majority.
The explanatory breadth of this concept is considerable. It makes sense of the spectacular increase of the white American population in the second half of the 18th century. The source of this increase was, of course, immigrants from Europe who happened to have the right skin color. Once in the US, this skin became white. The Statue of Liberty stands for those who brought what the filmmaker Claire Denis calls “white material” to the US. This whitening process did not change until the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, which, if examined, is revealed to be a specimen of the US’s then reconfigured and less Eurocentric Cold War policy goals. It is the USSR that changed the color of the US immigrant, not some airy fairy moral feeling.
I have said a lot as is. But one must consider Trump’s MAGA and his appeal to half of white American voters in this severe light. The Wall, the cages, the ICE raids, the attacks on DACA. Trump is exciting a raw existential fear that extends back to the period between the Haitian Revolution and the Civil War. The period that first experienced white isolation in purely quantitative terms. California is the nightmare state. It has a white minority. Brown is the new black. And not for the first time in American history.
I leave you with the note in Piketty’s very long and very worth/with-it book:
Mexican Americans… were deported in veritable anti-foreigner pogroms during the Depression (especially in California), reminds us that racial and cultural biases (along with the legal, financial, and political resources available to those seeking indemnities) sometimes play a role in determining who gets what… Estimates of the number of Mexican Americans expelled in the period 1929–1936 range from 1 to 1.5 million (of whom some 60 percent were born in the United States). Deportations were often organized with the support of local and federal authorities. Some recent estimates put the number of deported as high as 1.8 million (most of whom never returned). See A. Wagner, “America’s Forgotten History of Illegal Deportations,” The Atlantic, 2017.