Everywhere I look lately, there are signs of white men panicking about their supremacy over American society.
A group of white men shot at young Black Lives Matter protesters on consecutive nights in Minneapolis last weekend, injuring five people. Donald Trump, still a leading Republican presidential candidate, proposed creating a database and ID cards for Muslims, leading even some Republicans to label him as a fascist. White Student Unions are popping up around the country in response to demands that university administrations do more to fight racism on campus. Finally, Robert Dear opened fire at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood clinic last week, killing three people and injuring nine.
As a white man, I want to understand what it is about the ideas of “whiteness” or “America” that’s causing white American males to be the country’s largest terror threat. Why isn’t white violence that is intended to shut down black movements, or male violence intended to intimidate women, considered terrorism by so many?
I want to understand why, at this particular moment, white American men seem to be losing their minds.
Since the civil-rights movement, the Republican establishment — the big bankers and CEOs that actually run the party — have danced with racists in the white grassroots by conflating racism and fear of the government. Instead of providing all Americans with decent healthcare, education, jobs, or housing, the racist white grassroots and rich establishment agreed that everyone should be on their own — so black people and immigrants don’t accidentally get anything good.
The “Southern Strategy” helped create two national, highly polarized political parties that disagree on every issue, leading to the extreme gridlock that’s crippling Washington. From Goldwater to the Tea Party, the far right parlayed white people’s fear of blacks and other people of color into an anti-government backlash that gutted the middle class.
All of us live with the extreme inequality these politics have generated. Denying healthcare to poor people will keep some black people from getting things, but poverty knows no color. Making college unaffordable to all but the rich will keep some black people off campuses, but it will also burden white families. Ironically, racism and white supremacy has made non-rich white people deal with some of the same issues that people of color have faced for centuries. This is an old truth of white supremacy, as Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us. “If it may be said of the slavery era that the white man took the world and gave the Negro Jesus,” King said back in 1965, “then it may be said of the Reconstruction era that the southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow.”
Now, many white people don’t know if they will be able to provide themselves or their families with a decent life. They don’t believe the American Dream applies to them or think the government cares about people like them. They don’t know if future generations will be better off. And they’re not entirely wrong; in an era of stagnating wages and increasing housing, education and healthcare costs, most Americans’ quality of life is diminishing, even when the economy grows, because all the growth goes to the top 1 percent. The political institutions through which our society is supposed to deal with these problems have been captured by the same interests that are causing the problems. Democracy—rule of the people, by the people, for the people—is in peril.
The emergence of fascism has always depended upon democracy’s failure. The growing proto-fascist, white-supremacist movement in the Republican Party is preying upon non-rich white people who are literally dying of despair, turning to drugs and suicide to deal with a reality they can’t bear, and a society they believe doesn’t care for them. Over the past 15 years, the death rate for white men has actually increased — an unprecedented rise in modern times that’s comparable to the emergence of the AIDS epidemic. White people are right that they are under attack — they’re just pointing to the wrong culprits. For the wealthy elite who fund the political operatives and media companies that tell white people who to blame for their plight, the race war is a very useful substitute for the class war.
What’s new in this moment is the Republican establishment’s losing control of the grassroots for the first time in the post–civil rights era. Instead of the corporate Republicans winning the white vote with coded racist language, the grassroots outsiders are competing with one another to be more and more openly racist. Trump and Ben Carson are far-right populists rushing to turn non-rich white people’s fear and despair into ever-greater inequality by blaming others for their situation. The villainization of Mexicans, black people, and Muslims that’s happened over the course of this election season isn’t new, but the nakedness of the hatred is fueled by white panic about their diminishing prospects in the face of growing economic and political inequality.
White rage at economic inequality and fear of a corrupt political establishment is not the only thing driving the backlash. The movement for black lives is making every American confront how we treat black people and decide if black lives matter to them. Movements create change by forcing people to pick a side: Opponents and supporters are both polarized, and each escalates in their tactics and commitment. In this moment of polarization, those who politically, economically, or emotionally depend upon the domination of black people are forced to cling ever harder to their hatred.
The successes of past movements are good indications that the polarization happening across America will be, in sum, a good thing. The mask is slipping and more people are seeing the violence inherent in maintaining white supremacy and empire. The courage and wisdom of this generation of young black leaders has already shifted the scope of what’s possible in a very short amount of time. The #4thPrecinctShutdown in Minneapolis was able to win two of their three demands within a week; the Chicago police officer who shot Laquan McDonald has been charged with murder. Protests often work and, right now, despite how bad it often feels, the movement is definitely winning.
But for every cop charged with murder for killing a black child, there is a Darren Wilson. For every city full of young black leaders transforming this country for the better, there is a potential Dylann Roof. The process of ending white supremacy will make this a better country for everyone, but in the struggle it will almost certainly bring more pain to those who already suffer most.
White supremacy is a source of constant terror to people of color and is damaging to the humanity and prosperity of people who are considered white. So, what would it take for the sad, angry people clinging to their whiteness to have something else to feel good about? How can other white people hasten the end of an America that depends on violence, exclusion, and domination?
I think, as Ta-Nehisi Coates says, that it will take us waking other white people up to the myth of their whiteness. People believe they are white because someone told them they are. Who is white has shifted over time to reflect the political needs of those in power, and will continue to change. Americans have to learn that race is invented, but the experience and rules of racism are all too real. Moving beyond white supremacy will require more of us that “believe ourselves to be white” to confront some tragic, simple human truths: Life is short and fragile, each of us has very little control over our fates, and we all belong to the world; it does not belong to us.
The myth of white America depends upon denying these basic, shared aspects of our humanity. It means denying the terror we inflict upon others to enable our domination — and seeing every act that opposes our domination as terrorism. The myth will continue to have power until white Americans realize we are connected to the other peoples of this country and this world, that “whiteness” is a myth invented for profit, and that America is an imagined political community like any other, and is only good if we make it so.
I have come to believe the fears of white Americans are really just reflections of the things that white supremacy and empire have done to others. White America has not been terrorized by people of color; we have terrorized people of color. Black wealth is not based on stealing from white people; white wealth is based on stealing from black people. Instead of confronting the reality of our history and what our country has become for most people, too many Americans would rather kill those mourning their dead and send orphans and widows to a hellscape we created — all in order to preserve the myths of whiteness, masculinity, and empire.
I have to imagine the white men who commit these egregious acts of terror do so out of a silent, personal fear that the myths of whiteness and masculinity engender in themselves. The dehumanization white supremacists perpetrate on others has to be, in part, a projection of the dehumanization they feel themselves. The sad men that hang out on 4chan plotting the destruction of innocent others don’t believe they can be the strong, virile, white male dominators they are prescribed to be. No one who feels good about themselves talks as much as Donald Trump does about how he is a “winner” and other people are “losers.” No one who is confident of their humanity would deny acceptance to a 5-year-old orphan refugee.
And yet, these white, American men are taught they must be silent in considering their fear, because to even admit they feel it would be to undo the myths of whiteness and masculinity they cling to.
I can’t claim to have answers about how we get more white Americans to treat others as human beings. I do believe that all Americans would be better off if we moved beyond white supremacy and empire, and it’s the responsibility of white people to say so. They are myths that rob us all of our humanity, and keep us from uniting against the plutocrats that are stealing our future. I have faith in this generation of leaders of color, and hope they will lead a multi-racial coalition that will uproot white supremacy, once and for all. I hope that white people will follow their lead, as well as join organizations like SURJ that prepare white people to contribute to the struggle against white supremacy.
I have to believe that the next task of our movements —not just the movement for black lives but all of our movements — is to put forth a vision of what it means to be an American that’s based on a recognition of our shared humanity. In the 21st century, we can’t keep living on systems designed for a time before emancipation, electricity, or public education. We have to put forth a vision of what this country and our lives could be like if it actually was designed to work for all its people.