2019 - 2020 Modern Volume 13

A Brief History of Whiteness in America: From Reconstruction to Trump’s Inauguration

By Shaye Mistry

America has become a peculiar place in recent times. The once global hegemon was the centre of Western Liberalism and the forebearer of democracy. Yet, ongoing civil strife between legislature, institutions and the citizens themselves demonstrate another story. Much of the tense relationship between America’s multiculturalism and its minority white population is obvious when one takes a look at the power of whiteness. 

Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 was a successful campaign focused on prioritising the most status anxious within the electorate was his tool for success. Unapologetic racism and populist patriotism were some of the ways Trump did this despite losing the popular vote by three million votes. Underlying his bigotry tweets, brash conspiracy theories, there’s a curious explanation for his victory. To do so one must assess American history. Starting in an era of slavery, where whiteness first became a prevalent force in societal interactions. As a concept, whiteness has become an ideology for the status anxious in the United States and must be considered a contributory factor in the current racial wars in the contemporary. 

The distinction between races in America is a ‘relatively new development’ as Michelle Alexander asserts, one which can be stretched to the extermination and plunder of Native Americans. As a consequence, the origins of the idea of whiteness can be traced to the booming agrarian economy in the Deep South, whereby a distinction between a white planter elite and the workers grew. Worker rebellions, such as Bacons Rebellion (1697) were not uncommon, yet the unity between black slave workers and white workers of the same social status in these rebellions is striking compared to basic knowledge of the slave trade. 

In attempts to prevent further unions, white elites imported more slaves from Africa. These efforts prevented further rebellions of the capacity as seen in 1679, as well as limiting the chances of a unifying body of labourers, primarily due to language barriers between Africans and white Americans. Alexander identifies this as the beginning of ‘racial bribes’ which came in effect as a ‘psychological wage’. White workers who up until this point were regarded with the same social status as black slaves were given patronage – access to land and police-like powers over black slaves. Allowing the white worker to take a direct and personal stake in the existence of a race-based system of slavery. Actions of the elite are therefore exploited the social status of the white worker, transforming an American labour system based upon a caste system. One where the white worker was no longer at the bottom of the chain. 

The arrival of the 13th Amendment posed a significant challenge to the antebellum South, for without slavery their lacked formal mechanisms for the maintenance of racial hierarchy. Even the ‘lowliest white person at least possesses white skin’. Colour based hierarchy enhanced the status of being ‘white’ regardless of income, assets or being free. Embedding an ‘us and them’ rhetoric among poorer whites. Further institutional jargon accelerated this division. The language used in the 15th Amendment allowed states to impose poll taxes and literacy tests giving advantages to the white labourer pursuit a further ‘separation of races’. Thus, Whiteness stemmed out of the desire to protect the white labourers status quo, however, Reconstructions manifesto promoted economic and political rights for the former slave allowing for the potential equilibrium. Channelling a society in the South where racially fuelled terrorism via the Klu Klux Klan aimed to maintain disrupt the new status quo. The arrival of white immigrants from Ireland and Europe too had to choose between accepting America’s value toward people of colour or go against the system for which they chose to immigrate too. embedding racial prejudice in the mind of bidding immigrants. Attitudes developed from these immigrants that to succeed in America you’d have to act like an American, and that was being white gave you an unprecedented head-start in the quest for the ‘American Dream’.

What began in America, as W.E.B. Du Bois sees it, began the long tradition of white disenfranchisement. White labourers, predominantly in the South instead of voting for their own interests became the master their own political and economic disenfranchisement. This is to say they forfeited real power such as lower taxes and improved health care in return for the ‘psychological wages’ of being white. 

Thus, to return to the contemporary much of Trump’s policies echo Du Bois’s thinking. Having dried up the pool of available benefits payments has largely affected the economic mobility of the unemployed and poor and further tax breaks for corporations decrease social security coffers impacting again those at the bottom of the chain. Yet Trump voters turn towards his ‘key’ initiatives such as promises to bring back ‘manufacturing’, taking back jobs from China have overwhelmed white American workers. In making this and other features such as his attacks on Mexicans, Trump utilised the status anxious most primitive fear of replacement in society. Comments towards Mexicans saying ‘they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists’, or telling coloured members of Congress ‘to go back to where they came’ are evidence of Trump fuelling the formal mechanism for which whites through the power of whiteness could hold onto a sense of superiority. Rallies such as the Unite the Right march in Charlottesville, Virginia, with chants of ‘you will not replace us’ echoing through the streets, are evidence of a resurgence whiteness as a concept and ideology. 

Trump has in his actions ignited the entitlement of white power, given his supporter’s free rein to take back their place in the caste order. 


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