Most white Americans of a certain age hew to a civil religion that holds that this oldest of Western democracies is still a stable thing, still a functioning system of representative self-government. If you poke around a little bit, you’ll even find militant secularists—people who would scoff at the idea of divine providence—clinging to a deep-seated belief that this particular national enterprise is “blessed” in a special way. That’s how powerful our civic creed remains, 233 years into living under the Constitution. I call this the Virtuous Republic Syndrome, or VRS.
While the current election cycle’s gyrations and the machinations of a would-be tyrant give these believers a certain amount of cause for concern, they will nevertheless maintain that this is a mere aberration and that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will pull us back into normal functioning mode and “restore the soul of America,” as Mr. Biden’s campaign slogan has it.
This undying troth of white liberals: I learned more about how it works when I recently joined with others in attempting to get progressive religious people to sign a statement of concern about the potential for what amounts to a coup should Trump fail to win legitimate reelection. Despite having the endorsement of several leading national faith leaders, our effort never gained momentum. Clergy friends told me privately that they thought the statement wasn’t needed and that pointing to a possible coup could even become a self-fulfilling prophecy. They appear to be convinced that Trump will go quietly and that it’s best not to get too wound up about alternative scenarios. Of course I hope they’re right. But I don’t discount how the VRS clouds judgment.
Foreign observers—those who are friendly to the United States but who are free of any VRS-related confusion—are far less certain that everything will come out right in the end. But then, foreign observers have long looked askance at the democratic bona fides of this boastful republic of ours. They understand that voter suppression here is hardly a new phenomenon. They find it hard to comprehend how holding consequential elections on a Tuesday in November, in a country where most workers get no time off to vote, squares with our stated commitment to popular rule. And of course they see the deep taint of racism in the effective disenfranchisement, since about forever, of a very large share of the Black people living here, now numbering 42 million.
As Malcolm X pointed out decades ago, it’s impossible to regard the United States as a nation of laws when those laws are very often suspended in the case of Black people. Malcolm believed, correctly, that a nation choosing to be only conditionally lawful cannot really be regarded as lawful at all—and should certainly stop its boasting about equal justice under law. White people, and especially white Christians, have been living in bad faith for the entire duration of European settlement in this hemisphere. So much for the soul of America.
The Times recently published a feature piece by Michael Powell that quoted every single nationally prominent Black conservative thinker to the effect that we should basically stop talking about white supremacy. The article is very odd in its labored straining for validation of the idea that white supremacy is too nebulous, too ambiguous, a concept to do anyone any good.
But if the ongoing striving for dominance by white people—which is what the term white supremacy connotes—is not a real thing, then why are states like Wisconsin and Florida and Georgia and Texas so determined to make it difficult, if not impossible, for Black people to cast a vote? Why have ten states, in fact, restricted voting in recent years? Why are Republicans in Missouri doing away with a voter-approved independent and nonpartisan way of apportioning representation? Why do 53% of white men still side with Trump, according to the latest Pew Research poll?
And if white supremacy isn’t a real thing, why is the decennial census, upon which both Congressional representation and huge amounts of federal funding hinge, being openly sabotaged by Trump flunkies? Why has immigration basically been shut down? Why is the postal service being gutted when mail-in ballots will likely determine the election? Why is the white-dominated GOP stuffing the federal court system with judges and justices who will maintain white power for the foreseeable future?
Pundits who keep deploring how polarized our politics have become routinely miss the real point, which is how a racialized Republican Party maintains minority rule—and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future, regardless of who wins the presidency—without a significant restructuring of the entire broken system.
White power is green
Then there’s the other face of persistent white power: its economic face. Raising this subject tends to raise hackles among economically secure white liberals, but it has to be raised.
We can start with how white wealth controls our politics and limits political choice, even on “our side.”
Team Biden declines to reveal the names of its bundlers—the rich people, overwhelmingly white, who get other rich people to contribute huge sums to the campaign. Shane Goldmacher recently reported in “The Upshot” that Biden received some $200 million in bundled lumps of $100k+ over the past six months. For the price of the ticket the anonymous contributors get privileged access to senior campaign types who are likely to become senior White House appointees should Biden win. The proper name for this sort of thing is pay for play. It’s what assures wealth’s stranglehold over this so-called democracy for as far as the eye can see. You can disregard Biden’s public rhetoric about reining in the billionaire class. The billionaires aren’t worried.
Let’s pause to think for a moment about how wealth presides, as it were, in every arena of life. CALPERS, the ginormous public employee retirement fund based in Sacramento, now finds itself short of money needed to pay for future retirement benefits, many of those benefits being owed to unionized workers. The fund managers’ response: invest a larger share in the very private equity firms that destroy and degrade jobs everywhere and that invariably bust unions for the sake of investor profits.
Or perhaps pause to reflect about the private equity friends of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who—according to an exhaustive profile of Cuomo by The New Yorker’s Nick Paumgarten—didn’t hesitate to flex their muscle with the governor in order to deep-six an attempt to limit the cancerous growth of charter schools in New York City. Or consider how the dominant position held by money managers—private equity kingpins and hedge fund operators—on the boards of elite colleges continues to shape those institutions and thus perpetuate a risible idea of what “merit” means in a winner-take-all world.
I need not say more about the problem of great wealth in a democracy. Justice Louis Brandeis had it right about the choice between real democracy and the rule of wealth. And even as more people of color join the ranks of the wealthy, the alignment of wealth and whiteness will remain in place because the entire economic system reflects the White Way of Thinking.
This assertion likewise cuts against the grain of received liberal wisdom for two reasons. The first is that most liberals would much prefer to think of extractive capitalism as a universal system, one that would have arisen elsewhere if it hadn’t arisen in the West, on account of its self-evidently rational basis. They’d rather not consider the clear historical linkage between race-based settler colonialism and the emergence of the capitalist system.
The other reason liberals reject the idea of an unbreakable linkage between racism and capitalism is more subtle and comes from a hopeful place. They argue that it’s patronizing and insulting to believe that a White Way of Thinking can withstand the rise of diversity and inclusion within capitalist institutions.
Unfortunately, the notion that demographic change will automatically fix things represents yet another triumph of hope over experience. A major reason why the White Way of Thinking remains so insidiously powerful lies in how it can affect people of color who ascend to positions of power and influence in business, in the media, in religion, and in the academy.
Whiteness has shown itself to be quite capable of colonizing the minds and spirits of nonwhite folks. White power’s future depends on this capacity almost as much as it depends on its perpetuation in the minds of people who describe themselves as white and who understand that they will soon recede to minority status within the population at large.
In an invaluable new book titled After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging, Yale theologian Willie James Jennings brings needed attention to the ways in which the White Way of Thinking perpetuates itself in academic settings where what’s called “rigor” is really an unexamined allegiance to a certain ideal of white masculinist self-sufficiency. Jennings gives eloquent voice to his own anger and to the melancholy that he and other nonwhite scholars often feel on account of this seemingly ineradicable mass of whiteness.
Yet precisely because of his deepest theological commitment, Jennings believes that what is now a mountain of exclusion and unending contestation can yet become a different kind of mountain, “a place where we can linger in a surprising desire for one another, where stories and hopes bound up in dreams might be shared and we have time—that precious gift—to learn more deeply of a God who dreams a mountain for all of us to make a home together.”
I am with Dr. Jennings in believing that we will ultimately be saved by grace—by divine grace and by the everyday grace we show to one another, which carries within it something of divinity. But it’s going to be a long haul. As the lengthy new complaint by David Bromwich in Harper’s attests, the project of bringing real pluralism to the academy always meets with massive headwinds.
And that’s just for starters. It should be obvious that removing the Orange Menace won’t remove the Agent Orange swirling in the body politic anytime soon. The institutionalized violence bequeathed to us by white supremacy and its racialized capitalism won’t be washed away by any amount of performative wokeness. What Isabel Wilkerson accurately describes as an American caste system is very good at making itself invisible. And yet without an awakening to this toxic inheritance on the part of millions of whites, we will never be able to organize our way to a better plan for living together on a fragile planet.
So enough with the binaries: it’s not culture or politics; it’s not race or class; and it’s definitely not a choice between private life and public engagement for people who are in any way serious.
If Joe Biden is able to take office in January—and that is still a big “if”—the work of realizing the democratic promise of this country—and this time with a clear commitment to racial equity—will still lie before us. With Biden safely in office there’s no doubt that many white liberals will breathe a sigh of relief, declare mission accomplished, and have zero interest in digging out the rotten core of a broken and corrupt system that continues to be all about preserving white dominance.
But what about the rest of us?
I try to avoid overused scriptural tropes, but in this case there’s one that completely fits our situation. It’s God giving the people a kind of last word through the mouth of Moses: “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life, so that you and your descendants may live.”