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What do white Americans stand to lose?

Author(s): Noah Smith

From Noah Smith's blog:

An article by Zack Beauchamp in Vox tries to draw a parallel between Donald Trump and the rise of nativist movements in Europe (including Brexit). The similarities do exist: a bunch of angry white people, afraid of immigrants in general but especially Muslims, electing right-wing populist leaders. I don't expect the same outcome here as in Europe, even if Trump manages to win the election, for several reasons:

1. America has a history of pro-immigrant sentiment, which continues to this day. Intermarriage rates are high, supporting George Washington's prediction in 1794:

Whereas by an intermixture with our people, they, or their descendants, get assimilated to our customs, measures, and laws: in a word, soon become one people.


2. Non-Hispanic whites are far less demographically dominant here than in Europe, and even less so among younger generations, meaning that the Trump movement will have to radicalize a far larger percentage of American whites to gain dominance. Highly unlikely.

3. Younger Americans are solidly against Trump. Some of that is demographics and some is an age effect, but a large part of it is probably a cohort effect - younger Americans have grown up with the new nonwhite immigrants and are hence far less likely to think that nonwhites don't represent "real Americans."

So I predict that even a Trump victory, should that occur, will be a last and only hurrah for white nativist racist populism.

However, this doesn't mean that we shouldn't worry about white nativist racist populism. A substantial minority of Americans who are implacably opposed to the nation-state can create all kinds of terrible problems for our country. It can sometimes elect terrible people like Trump to high office. It can elect legislative blocs like the Tea Party that can use veto points to block the functioning of the state, as we found out in 2011. It can dominate local and state governments. If things get extremely bad, it could even resort to terrorism - I see McVeigh as a potential harbinger.

So I think we ought to pay attention to this movement, and think about why these people are angry and afraid. Beauchamp's article suggests that groups' anger is aroused when it seems like another group's status is being raised higher in society:

In order to fully understand why ethnic violence happens, [political scientist Roger Petersen has] argued, we need to appreciate the role of resentment: the feeling of injustice on the part of a privileged portion of society when it sees power slipping into the hands of a group that hadn't previously held it. Drawing on social psychology, he theorized that one of the underappreciated causes of ethnic violence was a change in the legal and political status of majority and minority ethnic groups. 
According to Petersen, that change in status comes from a sense of injustice. Members of dominant groups simply believe they deserve to be the dominant force in their societies, and resent those challenging their positions at the top of the pyramid. 
"Any group that’s been dominant — well, it’s not that easy for them not to be dominant anymore," Petersen tells me. 
This helped explain the puzzle of Kaunas and Vilnius. In Kaunas, the Soviet invasion in 1940 had politically empowered local Jews, who had occupied leadership positions in the Communist Party prior to the invasion and ended up with plum Soviet jobs as a result. This sparked intense feelings of resentment on the part of Kaunas residents, resulting in the vicious pogrom. In Vilnius, by contrast, non-Jewish ethnic Poles held most leadership positions. The Soviet invasion didn’t empower Jews on a large scale, and thus failed to create any resentment toward them. 
In his book, Petersen argues that his theory helps explain the causes of other cases of ethnic violence in Eastern Europe, including the carnage in the Balkans in the 1990s. Other scholars have since found that it could be used to understand communal violence elsewhere in the world. 
A 2010 paper published in the journal World Politics tested Petersen’s theory, looking at 157 cases of ethnic violence in nations ranging from Chad to Lebanon. It found strong statistical correlations between a group’s decline in status and the likelihood that it turns to violence against another group.

Seems reasonable enough. And many people in the media - usually, people on the Left - have declared that it's the imminent or ongoing loss of "white privilege" that is angering Trump voters.

What is "status" in modern America, though? What is "privilege"?

Unlike in Eastern Europe a century ago, most of our jobs and positions don't come from government fiat, but from the workings of the market. And here, it is true that elite whites are destined to occupy a smaller and smaller percentage of the elite, thanks to high-skilled immigration. By taking the intellectual cream of the crop from Asia, the Middle East, and Africa (the best Chinese Americans, for example, now beat the best Chinese people in math competitions, despite being selected from a pool that's outnumbered more than 350 to 1!),  we've ensured that the corporate, scientific, political, and thought leaders of tomorrow will be less and less white. Ivy Leaguediscrimination can slow this process down, but it's inevitable.

BUT, the Trump movement doesn't look at all like a movement of elite whites. Instead, it's primarily a movement of the relatively uneducated. And while low-skilled nonwhite immigrants have certainly provided some job competition for these whites, Hispanic immigrants for example certainly aren't doing better than uneducated whites in terms of employment or wages. This doesn't look like a situation in which the American system is awarding jobs to Hispanics that whites aren't getting.

How about college admissions? While the Supreme Court has upheld some affirmative action programs, the practice of privileging historically disadvantaged racial minorities has declined in recent years after being banned in many states. The result has been a decline in black enrollment. So this form of white status is lessunder threat than in previous years.

Criminal justice? The Black Lives Matter movement might make headway against discriminatory policing and incarceration practices, but as of 2016, these look solidly in place. And it seems unlikely that a reduction in the incarceration of black people would result in an increase in white incarceration. It's not like the cops have quotas of people to throw in prison (I hope)!

How about the tax system? This might be a big one. For decades, Republicans have told white Americans that the tax system represents racial redistribution from whites to blacks and Hispanics. Rush Limbaugh once said that "Obama's entire economic program is reparations," and he said this of Obamacare:

The days of them [racial minorities] not having any power are over, and they are angry. And they want to use their power as a means of retribution. That’s what Obama’s about, gang. He’s angry, he’s gon’ cut this country down to size, he’s gon’ make it pay for all its multicultural mistakes that it has made, its mistreatment of minorities. I know exactly what’s going on.

And he also said this:

Obama has a plan. Obama’s plan is based on his inherent belief that this country was immorally and illegitimately founded by a very small minority of white Europeans who screwed everybody else since the founding to get all the money and all the goodies, and it’s about time that the scales were made even. And that’s what’s going on here. And that’s why the president is lawless, and that’s why there is no prosecution of the Black Panthers for voter intimidation, because it’s not possible for a minority to intimidate the white majority. It’s not possible. It’s always been the other way around. This is just payback. This is ‘how does it feel’ time.

So there's a good possibility that the angry white Trumpians fear the same thing that the GOP has been telling its base to fear since before I was born: that the tax system will be used to crush whites as a form of racial redistribution. As whites shrink as a percent of the electorate, the fear is that they'll simply vote as a bloc to elect leaders who punish whites with racial redistribution policies.

If this is what Trumpians are afraid of, then it really isn't anything different from previous elections. The angry white people are simply more scared than before, because of Obama's 2012 victory, and hence willing to vote for a totally crazy candidate. This interpretation fits with the fact that Trump supporters tend to be better off than their neighbors.

There's one more possible "status" threat, which many on the Right and a few on the Left bring up: a feeling of being in the in-group. In the past, I gather that open expressions of racism by whites were more acceptable in the workplace or in other public places. Ralph Nader, expressing some lukewarm support for Trump, said this:

Well, and you see this when you walk past construction sites and you talk with white male workers, they feel they have been verbally repressed. It’s hard for someone your age to understand what I’m about to say...You can’t say this about that, and you can’t say that about this. And the employer tells you to hush. And perhaps your spouse tells you to hush, and your kids tell you to hush. So they have a whole language that they inherited — ethnic words like Polack. A lot of these people grew up on ethnic jokes, which are totally taboo now. Do you know, Lydia, there are no ethnic-joke books in bookstores anymore?... 
There were Negro-joke books, Jewish-joke books, Polish-joke books, Italian-joke books. They used ethnic jokes to reduce tension in the 1930s, ’40s, ’50s. And they’d laugh at each other’s jokes and hurl another one. But it still flows through ethnic America, you know. There are hundreds of things that people would like to say.

Indeed, many Trump supporters cite "political correctness" as a concern. Even some left-leaning white men are worried about it. This explanation of Trumpism seems to fit with the scattered signs that Trump's rise is emboldening white racist speech and actions across the country.

What this tells me is that some white Americans are afraid of losing something intangible - a kind of cultural cache that allowed them to feel as if they were society's in-group, the cool kids, and that others - blacks, Italian and Polish immigrants, whoever - were the out-group, the marginal Americans, the uncool kids. If the "political correctness" hypothesis is correct, this intangible thing - this nebulous feeling of being in the in-crowd - is even more important than things like jobs, college admissions, or the social safety net.

It seems weird that millions of Americans would march to the polls and vote to put thousands of strategic nuclear weapons in the undersized hands of an obvious narcissistic madman simply out of the fear that they won't be able to think of themselves as the cool kids anymore. But human beings are weird. You almost can't put anything past our species, really.

Anyway, I don't know which of these explanations is right - or if it's something else I haven't even thought of. But I think if we want to avoid a dysfunctional, divided nation, this is something we should think about.


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