Thu, Nov 09, 2017 - Page 9 News List

Travels in white America — a land of anxiety, division and pockets of pain

Gary Younge traveled from Maine to Mississippi to find out why some white Americans feel that whiteness is all they have left and why the far right is finding fertile ground

By Gary Younge  /  The Guardian

Late last month, Trump called it a “national health emergency,” while offering little in the way of new funding.

When your privilege amounts to this amount of pain, no wonder you cannot see it.

However, just because you cannot see it, does not mean it is not there. If there is one thing that 200 years of slavery and 100 years of segregation did for African Americans, it was to temper their investment in the myth that the US is a meritocracy.

The notion that if you worked hard and kept your nose clean, you would get on was always stymied by the grim realities of racial barriers.

“America was never America to me,” the Harlem renaissance poet Langston Hughes wrote in 1935’s Let America Be America Again. “There’s never been equality for me / Nor freedom in this ‘homeland of the free.’”

For many white Americans, the expectation that each year would be better than the next and each generation healthier and wealthier provided the core for optimism.

However, with those assumptions being eroded, the mood is now more reminiscent of a post-colonial country.

People are looking back for a sense of hope. Ask Trump voters when they would like to go back to if they wanted to make America great again and they will give you a date. Baxter wants to go back to the glow of the 1960s, Ted to the 1980s, others to the 1950s and beyond.

There are, of course, many white Americans looking forward, fighting for their place in a more equal and just, multiracial future.

Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old paralegal, was killed while protesting against the neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville when a car, allegedly driven by a neo-Nazi sympathizer, ploughed into the crowd.

“She wanted equality,” her father, Mark Heyer, said. “And in this issue of the day of her passing, she wanted to put down hate.”

Her mother, Susan Bro, refused to take Trump’s condolence call.

“I’ve heard it said that the murder of my daughter was part of making America great,” Bro said. “The blood on the streets … is that what made America great? Attacking innocent people with a vehicle … is that what made America great?”

When American Renaissance, a white supremacist group straining to put a veneer of intellectualism and respectability on its bigotry, came to Montgomery Bell State Park near Nashville in the summer, they were met by a crowd of mostly white protesters, chanting: “No Klan, no hate, no racists in our state.”

One told me that Trump’s election had shaken some white people out of their complacency.

“We were asleep at the wheel,” she said. “We can no longer find comfort in silence. We have to dig up all the courage we have, to take a stand for what’s morally right.”

On the journey back to Nashville I stopped at a secondhand shop on the roadside, selling Confederate paraphernalia, owned by Nikki who had a complicated relationship to the “Stars and Bars.”

“I’m a proud southerner,” she said.

“But you and I both know the [US] Civil War’s basically about slavery,” she told me. “Thank God we lost, thank God … but it doesn’t mean that we still don’t wanna honor our dead.”

Trump did not create this anxiety nor this division. References to the Civil War and the Klan illustrate for just how long white America has been riven by its sense of moral purpose and material privilege. What is new is that Trump has emboldened the bigots and channeled their thinking in a fashion not seen in modern times.

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