With the 2008 election of President Barack Obama, many people rejoiced that America’s racial barrier had finally fallen. In his book “American Whitelash: A Changing Nation and the Cost of Progress,” author Wesley Lowery asks, “So, what the hell happened?” According to him, “the election of a Black president did not usher us from the shadows of our racist past; rather it led us down a perilous path and into a decade and a half (and counting) of explicit racial thrashing.”
After Obama’s election, the fact is more white Americans believed they were targets of anti-white bigotry and were being racially discriminated against. This number increased from 10% in the 1980s to 55% by the end of Obama’s presidency. Many white people believed that they, and the benefits they historically enjoyed, were endangered and began to angrily fight back. “The trigger for white rage, inevitably, is Black advancement,” and, for many white Americans, Obama’s election was impermissible: It sparked a tremendous growth in America’s white supremacist movement.
Lowery explains how that movement is working to overthrow our maturing multiracial democracy. Lowery calls this “whitelash.” His book “is an attempt to put human faces on the relentless cycle of violence that has defined American history — to put flesh and bone on our discussion of white supremacist terror.” Lowery does that by providing personal details and the back stories of many victims of white supremacist violence. Lowery also works “to examine and explain the proud, avowed white supremacists we see in our streets — defined as those who believe in the genetic and societal superiority of the white race.”
In telling this story, Lowery provides a history of American anti-immigration efforts and violence toward immigrants. Lowery explains how these anti-immigration efforts are white supremacy at work and were “carried out in defense of the established racial order, in which those deemed white were the only true citizens, entitled to America’s bounty and liberty, and without any obligation to share.” Lowery provides many examples from centuries past, as well as from recent times. All have a common theme: innocent people brutally attacked for not being white.
This violence is often “encouraged by powerful, white-run institutions: elected officials, neighborhood and business councils, and the press.” Lowery writes that xenophobia — the fear, skepticism or hatred of foreigners — has become an American tradition. Since Obama’s election, conservative media has fanned the flames against immigrants, convincing viewers that immigrants threaten their way of life and inspiring them to lash out violently.
Today’s white supremacist movement has convinced “its followers that their failures and flaws are not the result of their choices, or an unlucky spin of the roulette of circumstance, but rather due to a global racial conspiracy far beyond their control.” In addition to right-wing media, white supremacist recruitment tools include the white power music scene, social media and internet message boards. The movement valorizes violence. While most members are not physically violent, violence arises from milder states of mind. Sure, most barking doesn’t lead to biting, but Lowery reminds us that “there is never a bite without previous barking.”
Perpetrators of hate crimes generally fall into three groups: thrill-seekers, reactive attackers and, the most dangerous, avowed ideologues. Today’s white supremacist movement promotes the use of leaderless resistance, which dictates that members should act out on their own, making it difficult for the government to implement preventive actions.
But it’s not just violence that matters. “White rage doesn’t have to wear sheets, burn crosses, or take to the streets,” Lowery explains. “It can look like white flight and private schools and city ordinances and neighborhood watches.”
Lowery explains how Donald Trump unapologetically amplified white fear. Trump leveraged this fear into the presidency, capitalizing on the whitelash movement and adding fuel to the fire. Experts on extremism and hate speech repeatedly have stressed that “degrading and demonizing language toward specific ethnic and racial groups by powerful political leaders can bring about predictable outcomes” — that is, racial violence. Data shows that participants in the Jan. 6, 2021, insurgency tended to hail from locations where nonwhite populations are fastest growing.
Trump succeeded in instilling false fears of white replacement into his MAGA followers. Trump’s election legitimized America’s white supremacist movement. The movement to remove Confederate statues in the South led to the 2017 white supremacist Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, which also received support from Trump.
To Lowery, President Obama’s 2008 election declared that “his ascent was proof that the dreams of the founders remained alive in our time.” However, he continues, “A decade and a half later, that dream has become a nightmare” and that “it’s hard to look at the horizon and not see more horrors to come. The coarseness and demagoguing of the Trump era has not softened – and has, in fact, in many ways, intensified.”
Republicans have worked to establish the most extensive set of voting restrictions the nation had seen since the Jim Crow era. The current culture wars have engulfed America. Yet, in 2021, Biden signed new hate crime legislation into law. This battle continues, with no peaceful end in sight. As minorities, immigrants and refugees “continue to shape our culture, society and democracy … the country’s white majority grows increasingly agitated and aggrieved, convinced that it’s all gone too far.” As Lowery explains, “those white fears may be the defining force of our time.”
Read more of the Nov. 1-7, 2023 issue.