The following piece has been updated with an adendum titled: Is a Fixation on Race Betraying the Class Struggle? Scroll down to go directly to the update. – eds
In her otherwise terrific cri de coeur last week lamenting the total silence of the corporate sector over the enactment of sweeping new abortion restrictions in dozens of states, the indispensable Linda Greenhouse missed an opportunity.
Greenhouse didn’t mention how this latest massive attack on reproductive rights has the same source as the voter suppression juggernaut that many big corporations have managed to rebuke, however mildly. The increasingly hysterical attacks on critical race theory likewise flow from the same source.
That source is what I and others have taken to calling whitemanism. Whitemanism is a compressed way of referring to the never-ending drive to preserve white male Christian supremacy. Whitemanism isn’t some twee invention of woke academics; it’s a very real thing, and it’s very far from surrendering its deathly grip within the common culture.
Whereas the Left talks about intersectionality as a kind of ideal framework for progressive thought and critique, the Right operationalizes its own version of intersectionality when the same closely networked champions of white male power are able to demonstrate, again and again, their capacity to beat back challenges on all fronts, whether they be cultural, political, or economic. They don’t think of themselves as dead-enders. Not in the least. They have plans and programs designed to ensure white power indefinitely. And we don’t take them nearly seriously enough.
Whitemanism and its lethal power are, of course, deeply rooted in our still-unacknowledged American story. Several able historians of racial capitalism have begun using the term (e.g., Walter Johnson in his Broken Heart of America, a brilliant account of how St. Louis functioned as a vanguard outpost in the rise of this same racial capitalism). One can at least hope that the shorthand comes into general usage.
To me it is creepily fascinating to observe how whitemanism’s own most effective promoters—the down-and-dirty, get-it-done operations like Heritage Action—don’t even bother to disown the racist core of the heritage they purport to defend. These well-funded and well-staffed groups are unabashed fans of white supremacy, and they consider it their sacred duty to perpetuate the idea of the United States as a white man’s paradise. As Jelani Cobb has noted, it’s even creepier that the Republican Party as a whole has now joined what’s become an explicitly anti-democratic bandwagon. So-called “moderate” Democrats who don’t or won’t recognize the extreme danger and who refuse to defend voting rights by suspending the Senate’s racism-drenched filibuster rule—people like Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin—will share the blame if and when democracy dies in this country.
And although many commentators leave it out, it’s important not to lose sight of the Christian part of the whitemanist ideology. Just as the Klan in both its first and second iterations was very much a Christian project, so too does a nominal Christianity—what I would call an utterly corrupted and colonized Christianity—play a crucial role in validating today’s white power machinations. This form of Christianity becomes especially and conveniently valuable in a culture that has always depended on violent domination when other means of domination fail. Its theology, such as it is, centers on violence and suffering as redemptive. The keynote here is regeneration through blood, or Jesus and John Wayne, as Kristin Kobes Du Mez puts it in her provocative book exploring masculinist Christianity and its signal contributions to Rightist ideation.
I call the cumulative effect of today’s hydra-headed whitemanist surge the coup that never ends because January 6 was hardly the end of the story. These are not people who will ever accept a diverse and functioning democracy in a country where non-Hispanic whites will slip below 50% of the total population within just a few decades.
And here I will raise an alarm that’s not so much about the Right’s ongoing potency but about the Left’s complementary lack of same.
I mentioned that Rightists don’t think of themselves as dead-enders, so why should we think of them that way? How is it that once the immediate danger of a Trump putsch receded, nearly everyone on the opposition went to sleep?
Even though the president whom Trump derided as “Sleepy Joe” has turned out to be far from ineffective, is it not utter madness for liberals and leftists to think that the danger signs are not still flashing bright red? Eighty-one million votes beats seventy-five million votes in a national election, but at the statehouse level—and assuming that the welter of new voter suppression laws have their effect— the forces of reaction can still carry the day. If the Republicans can flip the House next year—a prospect that their relentless gerrymandering makes quite likely—even the brief moment of Biden effectiveness will disappear.
I get that many progressives and liberals aren’t freaking out because they think long-term trends are on their side, but this is dangerously naive. No doubt German Social Democrats of the Weimar era thought the same; the Communists certainly did.
And why the relative lack of alertness and of appropriate action on our side? I can only think of the lines from the younger William Wordsworth (before he became a doddering reactionary): “getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.”
My theory of the case is that we bien pensant folks of a progressive persuasion believe that we have private lives to live and that the thorny challenges we face in the public sphere will just have to resolve themselves. Many of us who are white have a degree of wealth to preserve and to pass on, and those who are old can hear Time’s winged chariot hovering nearby. We’ve just been through an anxious moment with Covid and with Trump, and now we would prefer to see all the bad things recede in the rear-view mirror.
If only we could afford this luxury! And how pathetic for so many of the white folks who aspire to allyship with BIPOC folks to be effectively losing interest and dropping out just when anti-democratic whitemanism is regrouping and doubling down.
In a passionate essay appearing in the current Harper’s, a writer whom I don’t know—Greg Jackson—argues that the only thing that can save us from the looming climate catastrophe is a quickened sense of belonging to one another and to the whole family of earth.
What Jackson longs for is a collective awakening, a kind of nonviolent war consciousness akin to the national awakening that defeated the Axis powers 75+ years ago.
I long for this awakening, too, because our preoccupation with private matters and our separation on little screens means that a winner-take-all ethic will keep winning, that whitemanism will succeed in preserving the wrong kind of American exceptionalism, and that this same resurgent whitemanism—which has always had strong elements of Freud’s death drive (Todestrieb) baked into it—will keep us from averting the worst possible environmental apocalypse.
Another way to put this: The times, they aren’t a-changin’. And time itself is very short.
UPDATE: Is a Fixation on Race Betraying the Class Struggle?
Take this as an addendum to my above post. And yes, this belongs on RD. For people of the Left, how this question is answered is very much a matter of passionate religion, of deepest belief. I’m not being cute in saying this. And what is recognized, officially, as “religion” likewise plays a major role in how people ultimately do answer the question.
My post drew a sharp rebuke from a reader who saw the article republished in LA Progressive.
The nub of this reader’s comment:
Only a multiracial mass movement is powerful enough to counter organized wealth and make those big changes in our economic and political system. Progressives shoot ourselves in the foot by characterizing the conservative onslaught as “designed to ensure white power indefinitely.” The process described is indeed very real. But the label “Whitemanism” and this mischaracterization are in fact “twee inventions of woke academics,” and damaging ones at that.
The comment clearly comes from a good place and merits a considered response. I will respond via some compressed points:
1. It’s impossible to disagree with the argument that a multiracial mass movement is the only thing that will save us. Presumably that movement will be an “eyes open” movement with respect to how race and class interact in multiple ways.
2. In 2021 “multiracial” can’t mean that people of color and Black people in particular are still expected to shut up about the centuries-long and highly particular injuries of race. Nor should “Multiracial” mean white people get to remain oblivious to the actual history. I cringe a little when white Lefties evoke the glorious days of the 1930s, complete with images of industrial workers of all hues marching arm-in-arm and singing “Solidarity Forever.” That’s not how Black people experienced those years.
3. Whitemanism isn’t the same thing as concentrated wealth, but the two work in tandem. And we can’t fully understand how wealth got concentrated in this country without also understanding how Whitemanism undergirded the process and continues to undergird it. To take just a couple of examples that might seem at first to have little or nothing to do with race, Whitemanism completely shapes the appalling undervaluation of “women’s work” and the entire care economy; and the Whitemanist conception of the heroic breadwinner—of the “rugged individualist”—preconditions far too many working class white males to disdain unions and to punish themselves (and others) rather than exercise their full democratic agency to change the system.
4. Getting the race and class [and gender] analysis right helps to create a credible narrative and a compelling framework for movement building. And the absolute best way to proceed is simply to tell the real story of how we got here. Tell it straight, tell it directly, and forget the jargon. “Whitemanism” doesn’t qualify as jargon: it’s a matter-of-fact description of the prevailing ideology of the primary powerbrokers of three centuries: capitalists, legislators, governors, Supreme Court justices, etc. They all very openly equated capitalism and democracy with while male domination. You can’t tell the American story by ignoring the animating racialism at its very heart. If today some white men run for the exits when race enters the conversation, that won’t spell the end of coalition building. The far greater danger is taking the BIPOC folks for granted or—worse—squelching their voices in a continuing quest to recapture the white male unicorn.
5. If Whitemanism is an irrelevant abstraction, then why is it fueling nationwide GOP efforts to restrict voting? And how else to explain why the states going to the greatest lengths to restrict the franchise are also the states that fall over themselves to accommodate the corporate agenda by keeping unions weak, taxes low, and environmental regulation to a minimum? Ensuring white power ensures corporate power. There’s no mischaracterization.
6. Back to the path forward for progressives. Nobody I know who is serious about racial justice ignores for one minute the role of class. Sadly, the paladins of waging class struggle often won’t reciprocate and acknowledge the role of race. And until they do, the idea of a winning class struggle will remain what it’s always been in the American context: a pipe dream, an illusion, a noble but hollow aspiration.