I have this theory, developed shortly after the election results came in. I had a lot of time to think, because like a lot of people I couldn’t get out of bed. My theory goes like this: Yes, there is a shamefully significant population of Americans who are virulently, aggressively racist. These are the deplorables, the people posting Pepe memes and anti-semitic messages on social networks, and currently committing hate crimes as if Trump’s election announced the beginning of the Purge.
But that kind of racism alone can’t explain Trump’s election. It doesn’t explain the people I count among my own friends and family who voted Trump but consider themselves progressives on race. That kind of racism is enough to get Trump part of the way, but not enough to put him in the Oval Office; what really put him over the top is white fragility.
If you haven’t encountered this term before, white fragility is the tendency among white people to get upset when they are challenged on their own, or America’s, problems with race. YouTube channel Newsbroke produced a video about white fragility that, while funny, is way too real.
And let me pause here to say that yes, white fragility is a form of racism and white supremacy. Prioritizing the feelings and individuality of white people above entire communities of non-white or marginalized people is white supremacy. But for purposes of this specific argument, I want to draw a distinction — because deplorables are making a conscious choice, while fragile white folks generally don’t realize what they’re doing.
To reach an electoral majority, the Democratic Party’s coalition has historically relied heavily on poor and working-class white voters and marginalized groups like people of color, LGBTQ people, and immigrants. Being a majority white party, however, the Democrats have tended to ignore the actual needs of those marginalized populations, and relied on the Republican Party to frighten voters across the aisle. In the 1990s Democrats campaigned on a platform of welfare reform and crime reduction, both built on thinly-veiled racist tropes. As recently as 2008, Democrats relied on LGBTQ voters while publicly opposing marriage equality.
What changed, importantly, in the run-up to 2016 was that marginalized communities, particularly people of color, refused to just come along for the ride. Early in her campaign, Hillary Clinton had a famous confrontation with Black Lives Matter activists. At the time she lectured, but that and other interactions shaped the way Hillary reached out to black voters. During her campaign, Hillary openly said that black lives matter, in those words, and she was the first candidate for U.S. president to use the term “institutional racism” in a presidential debate.
These are important first steps, and the right thing to do. However, I fear that fragile white voters felt alienated, and moved away from Hillary. That’s on them, of course, but if it’s true, I’m not sure what path the Democrats have to repair their coalition.
A point that’s come up many times since the election is that Trump won districts previously won by President Obama, and so “those voters can’t be racist.” But President Obama went to lengths to run as a non-racial candidate. He famously made a speech, regarded as one of the great speeches in U.S. history, in which effectively absolved white people of their racial resentment, and gave cover to whites who prefer their racism to be presented as “economic anxiety.”
But make no mistake: Race was not just the key issue in the 2016 election. It was the only issue. Trump’s positions, almost to a one, flew in the face of traditionally conservative values, and yet he retained the majority of conservative support; yes, he received fewer votes than Romney or McCain, but only by a small margin, while Hillary’s support fell by millions of votes. The only issue on which Trump was consistently in line with traditional conservative values was racism and xenophobia.
Essayists and commentators will talk about other factors that led to Hillary’s precipitous loss in votes, and I don’t want to downplay them completely. Voter suppression and disenfranchisement, particularly, could have turned the election in many states. Economic anxiety is real — it’s just important to recognize that in the United States, economic anxiety among white people almost always takes the form of racism, with anger toward “welfare queens” and job-poaching immigrants, instead of fiscal policies and corporate greed.
But the fact remains that Trump took a huge majority among white men and a significant majority among white women, perhaps more shocking considering what we learned about Trump in the last six months (not to mention what we already knew about his attitudes toward women), and that is the reason he won. No other racial or ethnic group voted for Trump. Racism, of the deplorable variety, does not explain those figures. White fragility does.
This is further reinforced by responses to the election result, as editorials insist that journalists didn’t do enough to understand the white working class. It’s apparent on social media, where white people point to low turnout among non-white voters as the cause. I’ve personally learned a powerful lesson in white fragility, as my criticism of wearing safety pins as “symbols” of racial unity has generated literally thousands of angry messages from white people, mostly variations on a theme:
Why are you criticizing people who are trying to help? Even a small gesture should be praised. If you criticize people, you’ll lose their support. I’m offended. My feelings are hurt. You should apologize and take that post down.
So there you go. White fragility. I have to assume Hillary got much of the same, when she dared stand behind a debate podium and point out the racism embedded in our government.
But what’s to be done about it? Well, for starters fellow white people, if we are truly outraged by the victory of a white supremacist demagogue, we need to change ourselves, our families, and our neighbors. A shocking number of white people still think Black Lives Matter is a terrorist group; even those who don’t go that far still complain about the “divisiveness” of the name and persist in reminding us that ALL lives matter. We’ve got to work to recognize white fragility as a defense of white supremacy, lean into our discomfort with being challenged, and stop insisting that our feelings be placated.
When non-white populations are facing hate crimes, police assassinations, mass incarceration, deportation, and public persecution, our feelings just aren’t that important. Not to mention that many white Americans, while our feelings may be hurt, are actively participating in a system that harms people — and all of us are benefitting from it. Our feelings themselves may be causing harm.
To non-white activists, and the Democratic Party? I’m really not sure what to offer. I’m legitimately concerned that there is no path where a candidate can honestly engage with marginalized groups on thee issues that really matter, and not risk driving away fragile white votes. I don’t know what the solution is. Maybe it’s to raise awareness of white fragility as a concept, in hopes that white Americans will recognize their failing and correct course. I’m really not sure. But I refuse to suggest, or even imply, that non-white voters should take a back seat to the hurt feelings of white voters so that “white economic anxiety,” which is generally code for racial fear and anger, can sit up front.
I’m at a loss. But I think we begin by recognizing the problem. White people, we need to stop being so damn fragile.