Just before I started high school, my family moved to Indiana. That’s actually the state where I was born, so really we were moving back to Indiana, but we’d been gone long enough, and during a sufficiently formative period of my adolescence, that I would feel a certain self-awareness there — it wasn’t a sense of not belonging per se, but a heightened sensitivity to the ways in which I was different from my peers.
The contrast might have been sharpened by the fact that we’d moved from a rather quaint small town-turned-suburb in the upper midwest to a neglected township of Indianapolis that an outsider might call “Blue Collar,” but that the residents themselves would proudly describe as “redneck.”
In many driveways (and yards) the broken down cars seemed to outnumber the working ones. Trailer parks were plentiful. It was easy to see that I was different from the people in this rediscovered land.
At some point in middle school, I believe, I had developed an interest in the Civil War. I remember being very confused the first time I saw a confederate flag flying out of a pick-up truck in Indiana. “This was the North,” I argued, “Indiana was part of the Union.”
I also remember hearing someone — the visiting friend of a neighbor’s brother or someone else that was unlikely to be seen again — use the ‘n’ word. They actually said it, without lowering their voice to a hush, and not in a historical context.
I was different from people here, and it was difficult not to feel that I was also a little bit better.
By the time I went off to college, I had already formed a pretty good idea of what a racist looked like: a truck driver who lived in a trailer, hadn’t finished high school, and had never been outside the country.
I dare say, this is the picture that many people like me — white, educated, middle-class people — have of racism. Of course, there are variations to the archetype: maybe he’s a farmer, or mechanic or some other unskilled labourer. Maybe it’s not a trailer but a tacky-looking rambler. But the basic picture is the same.
Our stylized racist is a rather grim figure, an off-putting archetype. Yet undeniably, we (or at least I) also find a certain amount of comfort in it. It suggests more education as an easy cure for their racism. And most significantly, it is their racism that we’re talking about. We are so tangibly different from this archetypal figure that we needn’t worry that we are in any way implicated.
Alas, this comfortable conception of racism as the property of backward hillbillies has been steadily crumbling, and I fear Donald Trump’s candidacy may shatter it entirely. For here is a man born into wealth in New York City — New York of all places! — who, in the last seven months, has said more racist things than naïve, 17-year-old me ever heard among the supposed “trailer trash” that surrounded me. Here is a college-educated white collar professional who displays the virulent nationalism normally associated with someone who has never left the county where they were born.
A cynical defender of Donald Trump might say, “He’s a politician; he doesn’t believe any of what he says, but he knows lots of people do. He’s just throwing red meat to the base.”
Then what of another, wealthy Donald: former LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling? This law-school graduate billionaire certainly wasn’t try to appeal to anyone other than V. Stiviano when he told her:
“It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people.”
We could go on, but the object here isn’t to create a litany of racist, rich people. Rather, it’s to establish that what Trump is doing is not exploiting some inherent racism in the working classes. Rather, he is actively continuing an ages-old practice that begets that very racism: Rich, white people who benefit from the socio-political system trying to convince poor, white people who don’t, that the reason they aren’t better off is because of poor, non-white people — who, by the way, also don’t benefit from the dominant system.
A year or two ago, I was at a talk in Washington given by Taylor Branch, a historian who writes about the Civil Rights era. He said something that would perhaps have touched a nerve with the younger, more Civil War-obsessed version of me who was happy that, whatever else they might have done, my ancestors hadn’t been part of the Confederacy. Dr. Branch said, essentially, “While the South was setting up segregation, northern Ivy League universities were theorizing about eugenics. How do you say which is more evil?” Indeed.
Racism is such an ugly evil, but it’s also a rather embarrassing one. In my high school youth group, which I imagine was quite typical, there was no shame in confessing that you struggled with ‘pride’ or ‘lust,’ for example. But no one would dare say, “I struggle with racism.”
Perhaps this is why some sins get universalized — turned into Every Man’s Battle — while others get comfortably foisted (or perhaps projected?) upon the less-educated, more rural, less cultured or, if all else fails, historical other.