Two White Candidates Discuss the Roots of Racism

During an interview with the New York Times, Bernie Sanders discussed his view that the roots of racism are a “blame game” employed by demagogues.

There are some ways that Sanders is right. As Tim Wise documented, white supremacy was invented by the elites in this country as a way to create a divide between poor white and black people.

Some of us lived through the creation of the Southern Strategy by Republicans as a way to divide poor white and black people in the South. So Sanders has a point when he says that demagogues have utilized racism and white privilege as a tool to maintain power.

But Joe Biden adds something important to the mix.

The former vice president notes that the struggle between our American ideals and racism has been going on since this country’s founding. There have been times when—particularly for white people—that struggle seems to disappear. But as Biden said, “hate never goes away, it just hides.” He further notes that it comes roaring back when leaders like Donald Trump give it oxygen.

The oxygen Trump has given hate is fueling these developments in Virginia.

Alarming calls online for a race war. The arrest of three suspected neo-Nazis. Memories of the explosive clashes in Charlottesville, Va., three years ago.

A sense of crisis enveloped the capital of Virginia on Thursday, with the police on heightened alert and Richmond bracing for possible violence ahead of a gun rally next week that is expected to draw white supremacists and other anti-government extremists.

Members of numerous armed militias and white power proponents vowed to converge on the city despite the state of emergency declared by Gov. Ralph Northam, who temporarily banned weapons from the grounds of the State Capitol. The potential for an armed confrontation prompted fears of a rerun of the 2017 far-right rally that left one person dead and some two dozen injured in Charlottesville, about an hour’s drive from Monday’s rally.

These kinds of groups have always existed in the United States. But their hatred has been empowered by the man who currently occupies the Oval Office.

Keep in mind that Donald Trump launched himself onto the national political scene with his racist attempt to reignite the birtherism lie about the first African American president. In his book, The Culture of Make Believe, Derrick Jensen explained what led to Trump being able to tap into that kind of hate.

From the perspective of those who are entitled, the problems begin when those they despise do not go along with—and have the power and wherewithal to not go along with—the perceived entitlement…

Several times I have commented that hatred felt long and deeply enough no longer feels like hatred, but more like tradition, economics, religion, what have you. It is when those traditions are challenged, when the entitlement is threatened, when the masks of religion, economics, and so on are pulled away that hate transforms from its more seemingly sophisticated, “normal,” chronic state—where those exploited are looked down upon, or despised—to a more acute and obvious manifestation. Hate becomes more perceptible when it is no longer normalized.

Another way to say all of this is that if the rhetoric of superiority works to maintain the entitlement, hatred and direct physical force remains underground. But when that rhetoric begins to fail, force and hatred waits in the wings, ready to explode.

When Jensen talks about hatred becoming masked by tradition, economics, and religion, he is referring to the ways that racism has become systemic in our culture and institutions. While that form of racism appears hidden to white people, its effects are felt almost daily by people of color.

It was during the Obama administration that the hatred began to explode. Here is how white supremacist Richard Spencer described what Trump tapped into.

“Trump, on a gut level, kind of senses that this is about demographics, ultimately. We’re moving into a new America.” He said, “I don’t think Trump is a white nationalist,” but he did believe that Trump reflected “an unconscious vision that white people have – that their grandchildren might be a hated minority in their own country. I think that scares us. They probably aren’t able to articulate it. I think it’s there. I think that, to a great degree, explains the Trump phenomenon.”

So Sanders is right that, historically, demagogues have used racism to divide us and maintain their power. But until we understand that the hatred exists, even when it appears hidden to most white people, it will be available for those demagogues to exploit.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.